Plymouth is erecting roadblocks to progress

Published 9:41 am Friday, November 2, 2007

By Staff
Downtown Plymouth will probably never be the retail hub that it used to be, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be better.
If that’s true, then maybe we shouldn’t be trying to force property owners to adopt a formula that may not work.
At issue Monday was allowing residential units in the downtown area. Some say that downtown should be a place for retail shops and nice restaurants, not residential units. That’s a fine dream, but dreams don’t make reality. If downtown Plymouth could support only retail and restaurants they’d be there already. It doesn’t appear it can, so instead of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, perhaps town leaders should be looking at what will work.
There have been countless downtown revitalization studies that tout having retail businesses on the first floors and residential units on the upper levels. The idea holds water. The more people you have living in a core area the more people you have shopping in the core area. It would also make use of space that will never fly again as retail.
Downtown Plymouth isn’t a big place. Planning and Zoning Director Ben Howell said there are six buildings on Water Street that have more than one story and between three and five buildings that would qualify to have residences on their first floors.
Councilwoman Vicki Sawyer worried that allowing too many first-floor residences would deter visitors from coming downtown.
The issue is developers will build “new things” if there is a market for them, not just because the city wants it. If there were a thriving market for retail on Water Street, developers would be there. If, on the other hand, there were a market to develop residential projects downtown, developers would be there too if the city didn’t throw up roadblocks to stop them.
The fact is retail development in Plymouth has expanded in other areas. Bringing residential units downtown again won’t be the silver bullet that cures everything. In the City of Washington’s case, the Buoy Tender Station will be a nice shot in the arm from a tax revenue standpoint, but a 14-unit condominium project won’t infuse downtown with enough retail revenue to support one business, much less all of them. Adding a few residential units in downtown Plymouth also won’t make or break the future of the area.
Mayor Brian Roth wants to see downtown thrive, but seemed to understand that it will never be just what it was.
Councilwoman Mary Ann Byers believes if there were restaurants downtown, travelers going through Plymouth would flock to them, even if locals won’t. We see the view as misguided.
Byers said Plymouth is a “perfect stop for eating. We’re two hours from Raleigh and an hour and a half from Manteo. We need things like restaurants on the backs of these (Water Street) buildings to draw tourists downtown. Are our local people going to support that? No. It’s those people out on (U.S.) 64.”
We’d argue that if the demand were there, private developers would have already built to meet the demand. But the demand isn’t there, and wishing for it to happen isn’t productive. It also wouldn’t help downtown if the town government stifled development along U.S. 64 under the guise that the building would somehow be redirected downtown. It won’t happen.