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2017-05-17 / Featured / Front Page

Jeff Davis plan a first for Chesterfield

BY JIM McCONNELL STAFF WRITER


A rendering of a planned downtown area, or community center, at the intersection of Jefferson Davis Highway and Willis Road. 
RENDERING COURTESY OF THE CHESTERFIELD COUNTY PLANNING DEPARTMENT A rendering of a planned downtown area, or community center, at the intersection of Jefferson Davis Highway and Willis Road. RENDERING COURTESY OF THE CHESTERFIELD COUNTY PLANNING DEPARTMENT After two years, countless staff hours and numerous conversations between elected officials, citizens and local civic organization leaders, the county government has crafted a plan to breathe life back into Chesterfield’s most economically depressed community.

The Northern Jefferson Davis Special Area Plan will serve as a guide for land development, revitalization, programs, ordinances and policies along an 8.5-mile stretch of historic U.S. Route 1.

The current draft of the 145-page document, which was unveiled during a community meeting last week at the Bensley Community Building, is significantly larger and more ambitious than the Jefferson Davis Highway corridor plan adopted by the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors in 1993. “What we’re doing has never been done before in Chesterfield,” said Jim Bowling, a county planner and project manager for the Jeff Davis plan. “We’re realizing that we have to look inward as well as outward and take care of what we have, while also encouraging new development. That’s a change of course for the county. These changes will require creative thinking.”


RENDERING COURTESY OF THE CHESTERFIELDCOUNTY PLANNING DEPARTMENT RENDERING COURTESY OF THE CHESTERFIELDCOUNTY PLANNING DEPARTMENT The county has created several special area plans to address future growth in greater detail than can be accomplished in the countywide comprehensive plan.

Staff in the county’s Planning Department began working to update these plans shortly after the Board of Supervisors approved the comprehensive plan in 2012.

The Jefferson Davis special area plan covers a much larger geographic area and a far more diverse community than plans introduced over the past two years for Ettrick, Bon Air and Midlothian.

According to U.S. Census data, the number of county residents living in poverty has increased by 107 percent since 2000. Much of that poverty is concentrated in mobile home parks, aging duplexes and apartments, motels and other low-income housing along the Jeff Davis corridor.

The corridor is home to a rapidly growing Hispanic population, which has largely fueled a 223 percent increase in that demographic group countywide over the same period.

But it also features suburban neighborhoods such as Ampthill, Bensley and Bellwood that were developed in the early 20th century and have their own unique sense of history and community pride.

Faith-based groups and civic organizations, such as the Jefferson Davis Association, have worked to facilitate improved relations between those longstanding residents and members of the Hispanic community.

“All citizens of Chesterfield have a vested interest in every part of the county remaining or becoming economically viable,” said Gib Sloan, chairman of the Planning Commission. “We’re one county and we share a rich heritage.”

Prior to construction of Interstate 95 in the mid-1950s, U.S. Route 1 was the major north/south highway on the east coast between Florida and Maine. The corridor bustled with businesses to support the traveling public, particularly motels and restaurants.

The completion of I-95 siphoned business away from Jefferson Davis Highway. Suburban growth exploded in western Chesterfield in the 1970s and ’80s, further accelerating the corridor’s decline as the county government devoted most of its infrastructure resources to address the new development.

Now that growth has slowed to more manageable rates, the Board of Supervisors is focused on revitalizing its aging and neglected communities. The Northern Jefferson Davis Special Area Plan is a critical piece of that effort.

“Places like Richmond have been doing this for decades, but we’re new at it,” Bowling said.

The board’s chairwoman, Dorothy Jaeckle, whose district includes the Jeff Davis corridor, said the county will invest in infrastructure improvements there and also provide tax incentives in the hope of spurring new residential and commercial development.

“We would always look for public/private investments since the private sector is more adept at making successful business decisions,” she added.

The Northern Jefferson Davis Special Area Plan calls for the creation of a “new downtown” at the intersection of U.S. Route 1 and Willis Road to become “the center of community activity and vibrancy.”

It also recommends stabilizing and improving existing neighborhoods, building pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure along Jeff Davis Highway and improving its function as a transportation corridor.

The latter two items are of particular importance to the many Jeff Davis residents who can’t afford to buy a vehicle.

Cloud Ramirez, co-founder of Empowered Warriors, a nonprofit that advocates for public transportation along the corridor, noted in an Observer story earlier this year that “if people cannot get back and forth to work, they are going to turn to any means they can to survive.

“Everybody deserves to have their basic needs met. And I would say being able to go grocery shopping and clothe yourself is a basic need,” she said.

The Greater Richmond Transit Company is conducting a study to determine what type of service it can provide along the Jeff Davis corridor. Chesterfield holds an ownership stake in GRTC, but only one of the company’s express lines currently operates in the county.

Local leaders maintain that there isn’t sufficient population density along the corridor to make a point-to-point public bus service financially viable.

Still, transportation will likely remain one of the county’s foremost challenges as it implements the Northern Jefferson Davis Special Area Plan.

“I think the county is serious about this, but they’re going to have to start putting some money into the corridor,” said Phil Cunningham, president of the Jefferson Davis Association and a former county planning commissioner. “It can’t just be private dollars. It has to be a partnership. Think about the tax base that will create.”

Bellwood resident Nicholas Curry, who serves as president of the Mid-Cities Civic Association, said that residents living in the Jeff Davis corridor want to see some “tangible results” from the county government.

“We’re hopeful they stick with the plan and it doesn’t get put on the shelf,” he added. “That’s going to be the true test.” ¦

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