Shining City On A Hill: Staunton

How downtown Staunton fought suburbanization and won.

In 1971, the state of Virginia wanted to bulldoze Staunton’s historic downtown and build a four-lane highway through the middle of the city. Had the state succeeded, motorists would be zooming through the downtown wharf district today, on their way to somewhere else. But that isn’t what happened. Instead, concerned citizens banded together to halt the demolition plans and revitalize the dying downtown, and today the center of Staunton is a compact cluster of art, commerce and culture in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley. Victorian-era architecture houses 300 independent businesses, 30 restaurants and 80 specialty stores, and rich, red-brick streets slope gently up toward the Appalachian Mountains. And instead of driving through town, you can walk everywhere—between galleries, antique stores, coffee shops, hotels, restaurants, theaters and bars, without even breaking a sweat.

It is as if someone took a metropolis, San Francisco maybe, and shrunk it down into about 10 small, hilly blocks. Because of this, Staunton (the “u” is silent, by the way), a city of less than 25,000 people, is now receiving some serious national attention. It was named one of the 20 Best Small Towns in America by Smithsonian Magazine in 2012, and that same year, Travel + Leisure recognized Beverley Street as one of America’s Greatest Main Streets. With such high-profile publications singing Staunton’s praises, I was keen to visit. And the question I wanted to answer was, how? How does a city go from having its downtown almost flattened and asphalted over to being hailed as a national model for other small cities to emulate?

Staunton’s resurgence arguably begins with the threatened highway through the city because it galvanized Stauntonites into some much-needed action. With the opening of Staunton Mall (then called Staunton Plaza) in 1968, the national suburbanization trend had arrived, and downtown was emptying out. “When I got here in the ’70s, the main street had about 25 vacancies,” says Bill Frazier, an affable architect and urban planner who knows the story behind every building here. “Everything was beige and white with plywood over the windows, and it was pretty sad looking,” he says. “Everyone would say, ‘What are you going to Staunton for?’”

The Historic Staunton Foundation formed in 1971 to save downtown from demolition by having it declared a historic district. “The state transportation people had to take an environmental impact study, and destroying the whole district was obviously a bad impact .… ” Frazier—who was hired as the HSF’s first executive director in 1977—says with a grin. HSF then set about persuading merchants and business owners to invest in renovating their storefronts, using historic tax credits to return the architecture to its Victorian-era splendor. “We said, ‘Wait a minute, you’ve got a city full of old buildings, why wouldn’t you decide to have a preservation strategy for economic development instead of a demolition strategy?’” explains Frazier. The public, the city council and the press took a little persuading. “They thought we were radical environmental wackos!” he recalls. “I got interviewed by the newspaper [The News-Leader] as the first director of HSF, and the reporter said, ‘Why did you come to Staunton? We don’t have any historic buildings.’ He said, ‘It’s not Williamsburg.’” But not all history wears a three-cornered hat, and so HSF launched an education campaign, including weekly columns and quizzes about architectural details in The News-Leader, newsletters and special events. “For example, we promised restaurants that we’d bring 500 people to their door if they did benefits,” says Frazier.

The city manager was not convinced and was still determined to tear down buildings to make way for new developments, but Frazier and HSF stood strong, promising the city what Frazier calls “a long war,” if they tried to demolish more buildings: “Getting things designated protected you from highway people and anyone coming in to do federal projects, so that helped.” But a city at war with itself cannot survive, and it wasn’t until the city government decided to get on board that Staunton really started seeing results. “Oh, those days are long gone,” says Frazier. “The last 20 years the city has been a partner … [and] has done a number of public improvements in terms of parking areas, walks, trees, landscaping, historic light fixtures, brick sidewalks, stone curbs and all that.”

Today, the renovated downtown is filled with thriving businesses like Black Swan Books, an airy store where you can buy paperbacks and hardbacks, old and new, as well as vinyl records, classic and contemporary. There’s the Staunton Antiques Center where you could very literally—and very happily—get lost for hours in its treasure trove of antiques. Art galleries like the Beverley Street Studio School and Sunspots Studios, where you can watch glass-blowers explain their craft while they create objects, welcome visitors, and there’s more food than you could ever eat from the farm-to-table favorite Zynodoa restaurant, where the tasting menu is filled with carefully balanced plates of locally sourced ingredients. Downtown also offers two small movie theaters (the Visulite and the Dixie), a premier performing arts venue in the American Shakespeare Center, some quirky attractions like the Camera Heritage Museum, where David Schwartz has a collection of antique cameras and much more. And all is within walking distance of everything else.

Two key players at City Hall, itself a renovated Victorian building that sits at the top of Beverley Street, are city planner Sharon Angle and Bill Hamilton, director of the Economic Development Authority. Both have worked for the city for almost three decades. Angle’s enthusiasm for the city is immediately obvious. Her eyes light up when she talks about what’s been accomplished in Staunton; she may be the closest reality has to offer to Leslie Knope, the good-hearted, overachieving city employee played by Amy Poehler on NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation.

I asked Angle specifically about the walkability of the city, because the second I arrived in Staunton with my wife, we parked the car and left it where it was. “We have what some would call a challenging terrain, because it is not flat,” says Angle. “So Staunton is definitely a walkable city, but it didn’t just happen …. These things took place over a long time.” It began with improvements around Gypsy Hill Park, located close to downtown. “In 1985, we adopted a Sidewalk Plan,” says Angle. “Back then, we didn’t talk about walkability; we talked about pedestrian access [to the park]. So we instituted our sidewalk plan that identified where we needed to put more pedestrian access and new sidewalks. We indicated where they needed to be improved, and we gave a cost. That plan has been updated all along.” The plan was shared with everyone in city government so that, for example, when sewer or water lines were being replaced in locations that either had no sidewalk or had been identified as needing the sidewalk fixed, Angle could ask, “You are going to be tearing up that right of way anyway, so when you put it back, can you put a sidewalk in as part of this project?” Smart city government with a long-term plan and all departments working in tandem may sound like a fantasy, but the evidence is there in Staunton being walked on every day. However, the real test of how far the city and its citizens were willing to go came in 1998.

“We were trying to find people to invest in our downtown,” says Angle. “And when they came here, they said ‘You have great bones, but when we look at your main street [Beverley Street], we don’t see an investment that you have made in your community.’” So, in Angle’s words, the city “bit the bullet” and committed to spending $1.5 million of city money to both improve infrastructure and deliver some much-needed beautification to four blocks of Beverley Street. The plan was to replace aging sewer and water lines, bury all power lines and install an underground fiber optic loop, as well as improve the streetscape with new streetlights and traffic lights, installing attractive brick sidewalks and crosswalks and granite curbs. Aware of the unpopularity of Boston’s “Big Dig,” which began in 1991, city officials did everything they could think of to pre-empt negative reactions, even making light of the Beverley Street project’s inconvenience by giving it the affectionate label, “Our Big Dig.” A local laundry donated red carpets, so that businesses could make clear their doors were open, even if the sidewalk was in pieces, and prevent people from walking debris into the stores. The city also had Our Big Dig staff on hand to react if any of the Beverley Street businesses had a problem that required immediate attention.

“We thought it would drive people away from downtown,” says Angle, “but people in Staunton love its history and were fascinated to know what was beneath the streets. So they actually came down to watch what was going on and we kept finding things underground—like pottery.” Angle says the city offered to compensate merchants for some of the downturn in profits caused by the work but, Angle laughs, “They actually made money!”

The investment paid off, with private money following the city money; $42 million in private investment on 92 historic tax credit projects, for example, contributed to an overall assessed value in city property of $78 million as of January 2013, more than triple the $25 million assessed value in 1990. And the public investment continues. This past April, the city spent just over $200,000 to replace the Sears Hill Bridge, a privately-owned pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks that connected downtown to the Sears Hill neighborhood and Wilson Park. Built between 1904 and 1909, the bridge was in such disrepair that it was condemned in 2010, cutting Sears Hill off from downtown. But funds were raised to lift the entire bridge up by crane, truck it out to a nearby facility, restore it, then return it to its rightful place.

Like Frazier and Angle, Bill Hamilton has played a key role in steering the city toward its current success. The 62-year-old director of the Economic Development Authority arrived in 1988, following a spell in D.C. as a staffer for Senator Wendell Ford from Kentucky. “I gave the city manager a two-year commitment,” says Hamilton, and thought that would be that. “But every time I get a job offer from somewhere else, I make a list of what I like about Staunton and what I like about the other place, and then I decide to stay.” When the EDA began forming a strategic plan to revitalize the central business district in 1989, it emphasized anchor projects: destinations and activities that would attract people.

The jewel in the downtown crown is the American Shakespeare Center, which opened in 2001. Its 300-seat Blackfriars Playhouse is the world’s only re-creation of William Shakespeare’s original indoor theater and features professional actors performing plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries 52 weeks a year. “What interested us was its uniqueness,” says Hamilton. “One of the things we worked hard on was not to copy or emulate communities … The [ASC] was a unique opportunity, and our city was willing to invest in it. And it has paid some very handsome dividends. It’s brought people from all over the world to Staunton who would otherwise not have come.”

My wife and I attended a Thursday evening performance of Twelfth Night and can attest that the ASC does Shakespeare unlike any other company we’ve seen before or since. The ASC isn’t a place to go and revere The Bard; it’s a place to enjoy a show. Actors perform on a spartan stage featuring minimal props and set dressing and, crucially, the lights stay on for the entire show. We met with ASC co-founder Dr. Ralph Cohen in the empty theater before the performance, and he explained the philosophy of his theater: “There is a relationship between keeping the lights on and the pace of a show,” he explains, which means no long, ponderous line readings. The actors talk and move quickly to keep your attention, and this works so well that the language feels contemporary, even though not a single line of text has been altered. The actors even perform contemporary songs on stage before the show and at the interval, their heads appearing from behind curtains to form a chorus that feels more like watching The Muppet Show than being in English class, while audience members go up on stage to buy beer and wine. It’s Shakespeare as a good night out, with no academic pretension: “We take quite seriously the ‘two hours traffic’ of the stage idea,” says Cohen. “We want people to be able to get home and pay the babysitter by 10 o’clock.”

As Staunton’s big draw, the ASC also highlights everything the city, local businesses and the community are doing right, as well as how the city fits together. We ate dinner at Zynodoa, and our server, the knowledgeable and gracious Bill Broach, was very conscious of curtain time and making sure we made it. Returning the favor, when Cohen talks about the “dream” of adding a Globe Theatre to go with the Blackfriars, he talks about doing it at the other end of town: “It will force people to walk past the shops, because I love these people, they’ve been so supportive.”

The city also played its part by getting a federal grant to add a wider sidewalk to accommodate crowds of people entering and leaving the theater, and as Bill Hamilton notes, the ASC was “directly responsible” for the $21.1 million renovation of the Stonewall Jackson Hotel and Conference Center, using both city and private money to restore the luxury hotel to its former glory. This being Staunton, the hotel is just around the corner from the ASC, with the New Street parking garage, designed by Frazier himself as an ingenious “hidden” downtown parking structure, its red brick blending seamlessly with the surrounding architecture, sitting between the two.

The ASC’s success has also attracted other arts organizations to downtown Staunton, and Bill Hamilton is not surprised. “If we bring creative people like that into downtown, and if they succeed, then others will want to be here as well,” he says, using retired concert violinist Daniel Heifetz as an example, after Heifetz decided to move his Heifetz International Music Institute, a summer program which attracts the world’s most talented young string musicians, from Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, to Staunton. “He could see the effort and the investment we had put into supporting ASC, and that helped him make a decision to relocate here.”

The city and citizens of Staunton have taken some big risks in the last 30 years, but they’ve stayed the course, stuck to the plan and are now finally reaping the rewards. But no one in Queen City—a nickname Staunton earned in the 1700s when Augusta County, of which Staunton is the county seat, stretched all the way to the Mississippi—is taking the awards and recognition as an indication that the job is done, that downtown Staunton is the finished article. There is always work to do, and there always will be.

“We will never be finished. And that’s one of the most positive things we can say about Staunton,” says Hamilton.

“There is no such thing as treading water in community development. You’re either making progress, or you’re falling behind.”

This article originally appeared in our Dec. 2013 issue.

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