WHEELING - It's not your grandfather's Wheeling anymore. And that's not necessarily a bad thing, according to a draft of the city's new comprehensive plan.
Recognizing that Wheeling is probably not going to have a population of more than 60,000 ever again, as it did in the days when steel was king and the notion of a city where manufacturing makes up barely 5 percent of total employment - as is the case today - would have been unthinkable, is a key theme of the plan. Instead, it urges, the city should focus on quality, not quantity, and promote Wheeling as a modern, sustainable community that a new generation of young adults will want to make their home.
Residents will have an opportunity to make suggestions concerning the plan during two meetings scheduled for noon and 6 p.m. Monday at West Virginia Northern Community College's B&O Building. There will be at least two more opportunities for public input before City Council votes to adopt the plan, likely in December.
The following aims to provide an overview of the draft plan. You can view the document in its entirety at theintelligencer.net.
In 1930, Wheeling had 61,659 residents. Today it has 28,009, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, so it comes as no surprise that the conversation often turns to population loss when discussing challenges the city is facing.
But the comprehensive plan notes that decline has slowed significantly in recent years.
Wheeling lost more than 8,000 residents between 1980 and 1990, or about 2.1 percent of its population each year, on average. Annual population loss slowed to 1 percent per year between 1990 and 2010, and the Census Bureau's population estimates show an annual decline of just 0.5 percent since the 2010 census.
"The reality is that while it may be difficult to project an accurate 2030 population number, most statistics and analyses show the population stabilizing around the 28,000 mark with an understanding that there could still be some annual ups and downs in the population," the plan states.
The area's demographics also show people are having fewer children, as the average household size in Ohio County dropped from 2.86 people in 1970 to 2.21 in 2010. Data also show that the community is losing population in the 25-44 age range during which people typically start and grow families - a trend the comprehensive plan recommends the city needs to reverse.
Wheeling also is at the center of the area's natural gas drilling activity. The plan notes it's difficult to tell what the long-term impacts on the city will be, but it's clear transient workers able to pay top dollar for rental property are putting a crunch on many residents.
Small apartments are commonly commanding $600 to $800 per month in rent, and the plan notes an extreme example from Center Wheeling: a one bedroom, one bath apartment advertised for $1,000 a month, utilities not included.
"This is an issue the city will have to continue to monitor and address as part of the housing goals of this plan," the document notes.
Other observations in the plan's community profile chapter include the city's much older than average housing stock, the city's shift from a manufacturing-based economy to one driven by education and health care and residents' frustration over lack of housing options.
According to the draft comprehensive plan, Wheeling needs to focus on specific target areas for redevelopment - starting with more than an acre of property the city owns in the 1100 block of Main and Market streets.
The plan also suggests the city establish a "land reuse agency" that can develop and implement a coherent strategy for redeveloping vacant properties, particularly those the city owns.
"At this point, there has been no clear plan of attack on how to process these properties as a method of encouraging redevelopment," the plan notes. "Up until this point, the city has largely dealt with these properties on a case-by-case basis."
Other target areas for redevelopment include the south end of Wheeling Island, the area surrounding the mouth of Big Wheeling Creek, Grandview Street, East Wheeling south of the new J.B. Chambers Recreation Park, and Center Wheeling south of Centre Market to the Interstate 470 interchange.
The plan also notes it is vital for Wheeling to attract more young people to the city. In order to do this, the city needs to promote affordable housing in walkable neighborhoods served by an upgraded transit system.
The document calls on the Ohio Valley Regional Transportation Authority to conduct an in-depth study of its bus system, noting ridership may be suffering from outdated routes that no longer meet the public's needs.
"In order to increase ridership, provide a transit option that people want to use, and improve neighborhoods in general, the region needs to rethink its bus transit through a transit study that completely reevaluates routes, costs and services," the document states. "Given the changing demographics of the community and the priorities of this plan, now is the time to undertake a master plan for bus transit in the region to help grow businesses and provide needed services to the citizens."
Additional suggestions for development tools the city could try to implement include form-based zoning and a special building code for historic properties.
Form-based zoning focuses on the character and appearance of development rather than specific permitted and non-permitted uses. The plan suggests such an initiative could be applied to the downtown area.
The aim of a historical building code would be to make it less costly to rehabilitate historic properties which in most cases are held to the same standards as new construction. For example, such a code could make a waiver of whole building sprinkler systems if the owner installs additional smoke detectors.
One of the biggest criticisms of Wheeling's last comprehensive plan - developed in 1997 - was that it basically sat on a shelf, gathering dust. Throughout the process of shaping the current draft plan, those involved expressed a desire to make sure that didn't happen this time.
The result is a heavy focus in the plan on adopting a strategy for implementing the plan. Each of 29 broad goals in the plan is ranked high, medium or low priority, and all identify agencies that could be made responsible for ensuring that goal is met.
The comprehensive plan suggests appointing a special Implementation Committee to oversee the process that would report to City Council on an annual basis. That body would be organized in a similar manner as the comprehensive plan steering committee, including members of council, the Planning Commission and interested residents.
"The city will have to review this plan every 10 years in order to comply with state law but the reality is that policies, priorities and available resources can change much quicker," the document states.
The plan also encourages the city to incorporate meetings with residents' stakeholder groups into the monitoring and implementation process.