The recent Board of Architectural Review (BAR) approval of a nine-story building at 301 W. Main St. has returned a spotlight to the busy intersection of that street where it meets Ridge/McIntire streets in the former Vinegar Hill neighborhood.
It is an intersection in an area with an ignominious past. In 1958, a Charlottesville Master Plan first targeted Vinegar Hill for urban renewal. By then, the 18-acre triangular area that separated Preston Avenue and West Main Street was a predominantly African-American community, and a survey conducted that year found that only 50 Caucasians were among its more than 500 residents. In 1964, a Richmond Times-Dispatch writer described the area “as a hodge-podge collection of run-down dwellings and aging commercial buildings,” and that same year, demolitions began on Vinegar Hill’s commercial area as residents were moved to a new public housing site called Westhaven.
When (or if) the Meadowcreek Parkway is built, this intersection will come under increased pressure to handle through traffic. Previous studies have recommended a roundabout, though a city official dismisses those as “pretty pictures.”
In 1966, parts of Ridge and McIntire streets were closed to make room for the new four-lane connection that joined the two and cut right through old Vinegar Hill. West Main was also widened and when all the improvements were finished a road sluiced through what looked like an obliterated moonscape. But as the area grew, so did use of the Ridge/McIntire connection, creating a heavily trafficked intersection where it crossed with West Main, Water and South streets.
The recent BAR approval of a nine-story building there and a planned $1.75 million makeover of West Main Street, as well as the eventual construction of the Meadowcreek Parkway, suggest that a reconsideration of that already crowded intersection may be prudent in the near future.
“If the parkway is ever built, it will drastically increase traffic at that intersection,” says former city councilor Kevin Lynch. He was on Council in 2004 when consultants Wallace Roberts & Todd issued comprehensive urban recommendations for Charlottesville, including one to close South Street and turn the Ridge/McIntire portal into a four-point intersection. Earlier proposals in 2000 and 1988 both called for a roundabout at the intersection, and some of the studies called for moving the Lewis, Clark and Sacagawea statue.
Jim Tolbert, director of Neighborhood Development Services, says there are no current plans to reconceive the intersection. He cites a lack of funds and scoffs at the idea of a roundabout at the Ridge/McIntire intersection as nothing more than “pretty pictures” drawn by architects and “not based on any sort of traffic study.”
Meanwhile, interested observers like Gate Pratt of Limehouse Architects fret that all the coming development around and near the intersection may preclude thoughtful design for a hub that could become the center of an urban highway. “What is the urban vision for this part of the city?” he asks.
Raised in Charlottesville, Pratt remembers driving through the razed Vinegar Hill neighborhood as a kid. “Planning and development for this area seem to be happening ad-hoc, and should be done better. Is there currently a vision for this intersection, and a planning document guiding development?”
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