A long-languished commercial corridor in Brunswick could soon begin seeing new life.
Experts in urban planning partnered with city officials over the weekend to zero-in on parts of Norwich Street. The group presented its preliminary findings Monday at Old City Hall on Newcastle Street.
“We had an overwhelming response, and I’m so glad that so many people care about this corridor,” said Bren Daiss, Brunswick’s planning director, during the morning presentation.
The meeting was the culmination of several listening sessions held by partners of the Congress for the New Urbanism, an international nonprofit that advocates for walkable communities. Organizers held three workshops and invited community members to voice their opinions about what they would like to see on Norwich Street from Gloucester Street to the city limit.
After public input, specialists in urban planning, architecture, conservation and economics distilled a myriad of ideas into the rough draft of recommendations for revitalizing Norwich Street.
The initiative is part of the Congress for the New Urbanism’s yearly Legacy Project, which partners with different communities each year to assess challenged neighborhoods and find solutions. Brunswick was chosen from a pool of applicants, and the full report will be highlighted at the congress’ annual conference in May in Savannah. The services are being provided by the congress at no charge to taxpayers.
Many of the project’s early findings were focused on soft-touch fixes, such as restriping the roadway and adding wayfinding signs. Others were more long-term, such as adding affordable housing and reconfiguring the street to include a bike lane.
“Norwich Street needs to be its own thing,” said Eric Kronberg of the Atlanta-based architectural firm Kronberg Wall, a partner of the project. “There are a lot of undeveloped, under-utilized and vacant properties, and there are more commercial properties than needed.”
Initial estimates by Legacy Project partners show there is 165,000 square feet of commercial space fronting Norwich Street between Fifth and Gloucester streets. Of that, 55 percent is occupied and 75,000 square feet are currently vacant.
Two thirds of that vacant commercial space — 50,000 square feet — could be converted into affordable housing, the study showed.
“If there is any new construction on Norwich Street, it needs to be residential,” Kronberg said Monday.
To make the project more manageable, researchers chose four “nodes” along Norwich Street where improvements may have the most impact. In some nodes, housing may be more appropriate, while in others, businesses are more likely to thrive. But for any of them to succeed, one common thread emerged, according to project findings.
Making the street more friendly for bicyclists and pedestrians will be key to its success, Kronberg noted. Creating a “bike boulevard” along Norwich Street and connecting areas like the College of Coastal Georgia, downtown Brunswick and Selden Park could invigorate the street and attract more people, the study suggests.
“Norwich Street has the opportunity to be the prime mover of bike traffic,” said Denise Grabowski of the Savannah-based urban planning firm Symbioscity.
The study also suggests using existing buildings to meet future demands, rather than new construction.
Katherine Moore, senior director of sustainable growth with the Georgia Conservancy, a project partner, liked that idea.
“We are always striving to find the balance between environment and economics,” she said. “... In-fill and redevelopment (of existing buildings) is a prime opportunity to be sustainable.”
In all, the early findings of the Legacy Project are meant to be more of tools than a set-in-stone plan, city officials have said previously. The study makes a variety of suggestions. Some are as simple as changing city codes to encourage new businesses. Others are more complicated, like creating affordable housing.
Regardless, once the report is finalized, it will give city officials a tiered list of suggestions to breathe new life into a once-bustling corridor.
“Sometimes, you start with a budget of paint,” Kronberg said, referring to easy-to-solve problems like restriping the road. “... Start with temporary interventions.”
Daiss, the city’s planning director, said she hopes to begin putting the plan to work within two to three months. The final Legacy Project report is expected to be presented to the city sometime around the congress’ annual meeting in Savannah in mid-May.