By Brandon Martin
Community stakeholders with UPtown Partnership and the Harvest Foundation recently participated in a webinar that covered “effective design” principles relevant to the revitalization of the City of Martinsville’s Uptown district.
Kathy Frazier, an architect with Frazier Associates, noted there are aspects that could be beneficial as Uptown continues to grow.
“To come up with an effective design strategy, a community needs to be present to who they are as a place,” Frazier said. “Then identify what they need to change or improve to strengthen who they are to residents, businesses and visitors.”
Due to changes in lifestyle brought upon by the coronavirus pandemic, Frazier said that people are beginning to move back into small towns.
“That’s a huge opportunity for small communities everywhere. They are now hip and cool,” Frazier said. “Eateries and breweries have saved downtowns quite a bit. Downtowns are now, once again, becoming the heart and soul.”
When planning revitalization, Frazier said communities should consider whether or not they “have a welcoming entry to your region or downtown.”
Making street corridor improvements are key to making the entry more welcoming, she said.
“Corridor improvements have become more and more important because there are so many of us in the car and so many of us get to where we are going through corridors,” Frazier said, adding that city planners should concentrate on “what’s it like experiencing your town through an automobile.”
Removing large signs and adding landscaping are examples of how other areas improved their corridors.
With the rise of the automobile, Frazier said cities began to create one-way streets to help traffic move through town faster.
“It really wasn’t a good thing for our commercial areas, so some communities have gone back to creating two-way streets and adding pedestrian amenities,” Frazier said. “Crosswalks can be done so easily with stamp material or brittle brick and stone.”
By making the area more pedestrian friendly, Frazier said the overall experience of a city or town is amplified.
“Do you have directional signs for visitors? Do you have destinations that outside visitors are going to want to find,” Frazier said. “Having visitor information at key locations and figuring out where those locations are, where people are going to be arriving and parking” is beneficial. “If you have a good walk once they (visitors) arrive, you can continue that with more directional signs and help them to get to different places.”
Adding color to specific areas in a downtown also would be appealing to pedestrians and visitors exploring a new place. She said murals are one way to accomplish that.
“Murals can be a lot of fun,” Frazier said. “I really encourage those murals to think about how you tell the story of a place. I think also about creating scale.”
For example, she said there is a mural of pigs on a farm located in Smithfield, Va., which is a large producer of pork products.
“Outside of this business, in the alleyway, they added a mural to the business next door,” Frazier said. “When you are in the building and looking through the window, it looks like you’re looking out onto the farm and seeing what is going on in Smithfield. It gives scale, tells the story and really animates the inside of this business which is a Smithfield Foods business and they sell peanuts and ham.”
She also encouraged downtowns to be cognizant of ongoing maintenance projects that add to the beauty of an area.
“Maintenance, maintenance, maintenance,” Frazier said. “Peeling paint, torn awnings, dirty windows and all those little things that can be done to really enhance who you are as a place for the pedestrian and the visitor. Always be mindful of those kinds of improvements. Those things can be done at a fairly low cost and they have a huge impact on how a place is experienced.”
Kate Keller, president of the Harvest Foundation, noted that Martinsville has the potential to draw on its African American history when talking about the area’s identity.
The initial beginnings of the community were rooted in agriculture and slavery, Keller said, and added that history impacted “how the communities were designed and developed over time.”
As Martinsville continues its present-day growth, Keller said she would like to ensure “this is an inclusive process that acknowledges history and how that shows up today so we can move forward with that.”
“African American communities are huge in how our downtowns develop, and for you to make that an active part of what your goals are for your project, I think that’s terrific,” Frazier said. “I’m giving you preliminary design tools, but I think who you bring to the table is essential.”
Having completed a pre-assessment of Martinsville, “your uptown is in pretty darn good shape compared to a lot of communities,” Frazier said, but there are some minor improvements that could be made.
“One of the challenges for somebody coming in from the outside to Martinsville is actually getting to Uptown,” Frazier said. “I never really appreciated how Uptown sat on this hill and has such an incredible view of that region, but getting there is challenging.”
Moving forward, Frazier said that she will be conducting virtual tours in February 2021 of the respective downtowns of webinar participants. “We will have a conversation about some of the things you might want to start doing in your community.”
During the virtual tour, the group will view about 10 photos of downtown areas and rank them either positively, negatively or neutral.
Frazier also provided forms that will allow community members to conduct their own walking tours.
“I really encourage communities to do those,” she said. “I’ve done those and when you get used to seeing something, you don’t notice some of the problems. So, if you get out there and really start looking, then it’s amazing what you can see.”