2014-06-18 / News

Bon Air, Ettrick residents seeking more ‘walkability’

Michael Buettner

As county planners prepare to draft special area plans for communities such as Bon Air and Ettrick, more and more residents are asking for more walkability, or sidewalks. As county planners prepare to draft special area plans for communities such as Bon Air and Ettrick, more and more residents are asking for more walkability, or sidewalks. As the county focuses on visions for the future of some unique areas of the county, it’s becoming clear that a lot of people expect to be getting around in those areas a lot more on foot.

As a follow-up to the passage last year of a new countywide comprehensive plan, the Planning Department is drafting new special area plans for two communities at opposite ends of the county – Ettrick and Bon Air. Seven other areas can expect to go through the same process in the next few years.

Planning staff members have been seeking input from residents of Ettrick and Bon Air to help guide the drafting of the new plans, and pedestrian-friendliness, or walkability, is high on residents’ list of priorities.

For example, a survey taken at a recent workshop on the Bon Air plan found that while residents were generally happy with their area’s quality of life, safety, appearance, housing options and shopping, they were decidedly unhappy with its walkability: Nearly half of the respondents were “dissatisfied” with Bon Air’s walkability, and another 28 percent were “strongly” dissatisfied.

Improving that community’s pedestrian options may be a challenge, as there’s little space for installing sidewalks or trails without damaging the well-groomed grounds of Bon Air’s noted Victorian homes.

Gordon Andrews, a member of the Bon Air Historical Society, noted that there’s a balance that needs to be maintained between “preserving what’s here while allowing change, but not running roughshod” over the community’s character.

There’s also the cost to consider. The county already has seven sidewalk construction projects on its list of transportation projects to be funded over the next few years. The total estimated price tag for those projects amounts to almost $8.5 million.

In Ettrick, the new special area plan will incorporate massive changes in that community’s landscape, driven mainly by the rapid expansion of Virginia State University.

Jim Bowling, the planning staff member overseeing the Ettrick plan’s development, said the new plan “will be completely different” from the existing plan, because of the big changes VSU has already made in the village and plans to make in the future.

Ettrick already had sidewalks along its main street, Chesterfield Avenue, long before VSU embarked on its expansion, but for the past couple of decades, there’s been very little business to attract pedestrians.

That’s getting ready to change in a big way. A company owned by the university’s real estate foundation, VSU Trojan Development, is proposing to build a four-story building almost a full block long on the east side of Chesterfield Avenue. The project would be totally unlike anything that the quiet former mill village has previously seen on its main commercial street, which currently is lined by old houses and a scattering of storefronts, many of which are vacant.

The proposed building would feature 24,170 square feet of retail space on the ground floor and 62 one- and two-bedroom apartments on the three upper floors. The project would also transform the streetscape along Chesterfield Avenue, with the developer promising sidewalks that will be a minimum of 12 feet wide and “visually interesting” with “amenities like benches and bike racks, and decorative … street lighting.”

The company has also agreed to put in two-way bicycle lanes and trees along its full 640-foot frontage on Chesterfield Avenue, to provide off-street parking at the rear of the building.

University officials already have more projects under construction or in the planning stage, including an 8,000-seat convocation center off River Road, and they’ve consistently reiterated that they want good pedestrian access and connections throughout the campus.

In fact, Bowling said, the university is working on a major revision of its own master plan, called Vision 2020, because so much has already changed since that plan was written nearly a decade ago.

Meanwhile, the Planning Department is also working on another follow-up to the comprehensive plan involving making the county more walker-friendly.

Staff members from planning and other county departments are also holding community workshops to gather public input for a Bikeways and Trails Plan. That plan is expected to address new bicycle and pedestrian lanes along county roads as well as a system of linear parks and trails spanning the entire county.

Upcoming workshops will be held on Thursday, June 19, at the Chester YMCA, 3011 W. Hundred Road, 4-8 p.m.; June 23 at the Swift Creek YMCA, 15800 Hampton Park Drive, 6-9 p.m.; June 26 at the Midlothian YMCA, 737 Coalfield Road, 4-8 p.m.; and June 30 at the Manchester YMCA, 7540 Hull Street Road, 4-8 p.m.

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