The firm in charge of drawing up a vision for enhancement of the Schoolfield area — the soon-to-be home of Danville’s casino — expects to complete the district plan early next year.
After holding an event Oct. 29 for residents to view and comment on elements that will be incorporated into the plan, the firm in charge of the project will finalize it in February.
“We are working to deliver the plan to the office of economic development and tourism in February 2023, and it will likely be unveiled after that,” said Jared McKnight, senior associate and designer with WRT, an urban planning and design and architectural firm in Philadelphia.
The ideas shown to the public during the Oct. 29 Schoolfield Fest event came from previous community engagement events held by WRT in Danville in October 2021 and May, said Amie Patel, planner at WRT.
Other pop-up events were held in between the three larger gatherings.
More than 400 community members attended the event last month, McKnight said.
“Schoolfield Fest was the culmination of the community engagement process that has helped to define the elements that will influence the plan,” McKnight said.
The district plan was conceived to “leverage the catalytic development at the Dan River Mills site, and is intended to improve the health and well-being of the community, increase resiliency, spur new investment and economic development, preserve heritage and history, and stitch together the threads of Schoolfield and Danville for the local community, as well as its future residents and visitors,” McKnight said.
Concepts in the plan include converting spaces in the area to public amenities and enhancing roadways to accommodate pedestrian and bicycle traffic, as well as vehicles.
“The plan will present a series of strategies and steps toward implementing these visions as a resource and tool for the city and its stakeholders moving forward,” McKnight said.
Residents gave feedback on those preliminary ideas to help guide WRT in making its final recommendations.
“The purpose of the master plan is to provide a high-level strategy related to the highest and best use for spaces throughout the district and to also showcase best practices when implementing the final recommendations,” said Danville Economic Development and Tourism Director Corrie Bobe.
The Schoolfield district plan document will include three main elements: a corridor plan, a master plan and a neighborhood plan.
The corridor plan focuses on the Main Street corridor and adjacent properties from the North Carolina line where U.S. 29 and West Main Street meet to the River District downtown.
“This element will propose strategies to strengthen the linkage between the Schoolfield district and its adjacencies, establishing new gateways to welcome visitors and residents into the city,” McKnight said.
As part of a year-long community engagement process, residents chose the sites emphasized in the master plan. They include the interchange near the North Carolina line, the Main Street green area across from the Caesars Virginia casino site, the Baltimore Avenue cluster at Main Street and Baltimore Avenue, the shopping center at Ballou Park and the filtration plant and Schoolfield woods on Memorial Drive, McKnight said.
The neighborhood plan focuses on the historic mill village for improvements for the health and well-being of residents, repairing and revitalizing residential and commercial assets and providing better access to amenities.
The four main themes of the district plan include:
Community, character and identity: to preserve and celebrate the history and legacy of Schoolfield and create welcoming gateways into the community;
Housing and economic development: to combat displacement and identify equitable and inclusive revitalization and development opportunities that meet the needs of existing and future residents;
Ecology and open space: to enhance the existing open and natural spaces and find opportunities to create new family friendly spaces for recreation, habitat and respite; and
Mobility, connectivity and infrastructure: to emphasize Main Street as the city’s spine and create seamless multi-modal connections between the North Carolina line and the River District.
“Each of these themes will have a number of strategies and how it relates to the overall vision for the plan,” Patel said.
WRT developed those strategies in response to feedback from the community during community engagement events in October 2021 and and May, Patel said.
Some key strategies include:
Strengthen and create new village nodes and community destinations;
Provide housing options that meet the needs of current and future residents;
Increase vegetation and planting along West Main Street; and
Create a new set of corridor development standards for the West Main Street corridor, including a series of green infrastructure improvements.
“All of these strategies were developed in response to the key issues and opportunities in Schoolfield that we heard from the community and stakeholders throughout the process, and most specifically during the October 2021 and May 2022 engagement events,” Patel said. “The elements shown on October 29 were ideas that also came out of both of these engagement events.”
The concepts from the May Schoolfield Week event were refined and adjusted over the summer and presented to the community Oct. 29, Patel said.
“These concepts included a lot of the major themes we heard: providing a range of housing options, senior housing, public spaces, community gateways, public spaces for both passive and active uses, retail and commercial spaces and much more,” Patel said.
During the Oct. 29 event, officials also revealed new branding for the Schoolfield district, Bobe said. It will be incorporated into banners, art work and more in the near future, she said.
Work began before casino
WRT first began work on developing a plan for the former Dan River Inc. site — where Caesars Virginia is building its casino — more than two years ago.
But that was before Danville voters approved the casino in the city in November 2020.
Before a casino was proposed at Schoolfield, WRT was conducting a Schoolfield master plan to possibly turn the former industrial site into a mixed-use campus.
But the proposed casino and voter approval of the idea in November 2020 changed that, prompting the firm and city officials to shift the focus outside of the 85-acre Schoolfield site’s footprint.
So the three elements came to be included in a broader endeavor known as the Schoolfield district plan.
Some of the dozens of ideas for amenities — resulting from a mixture of input from residents and WRT analysis — include a shuttle between the North Carolina line and the River District, a Main Street town square, street art and/or outdoor art gallery, a cultural park, a multimodal boulevard with car, transit, pedestrian and bicycle access, and a boutique hotel and museum highlighting Schoolfield
Other amenities floated as ideas by community members included a Schoolfield nature park and education center, community gardens, greenways connecting to parks and neighborhoods, neighborhood gathering areas include retail shops, outdoor cafes, communal housing, shopping center redevelopment and other features.
At the event in May 2022, residents were invited to leave additional ideas on red sticky notes. They included child care facilities, a homeless shelter, places for kids to play, a senior center and grocery stores.
Schoolfield is deemed a state and federally recognized historic district.
The designation highlights the important role the district played in the community and opens up opportunities for developers to access historic tax credits to pursue redevelopment projects.
The Schoolfield village was founded as an independent company town in 1903 by Dan River Inc., which produced cloth for home and apparel from 1882 to 2006.
The structures built in Schoolfield included homes, stores and industrial properties.
The Caesars Virginia casino being built at the former Dan River Inc. site in Schoolfield along West Main Street is expected to be complete in late 2024. A temporary casino for residents and visitors to enjoy until the permanent one is constructed is set to open the middle of 2023.