Wayside Chicken didn’t close during the JPA bridge’s lengthy construction, but the just-opened feeling of the chicken joint is palpable now that the bridge is open and customers are once again piling in. The delectable smell of frying chicken wafts across the parking lot just off the bridge.
Wayside is one of five small businesses with an entrance off the bridge that lost significant traffic and revenue during the Virginia Department of Transportation’s 18-month construction project to restore the dilapidated Jefferson Park Avenue bridge over the Norfolk Southern railroad. The bridge reopened last week, and while the owners and patrons are thrilled, residents on the other side of the tracks enjoyed the year-and-a-half with quieter streets, and are hoping to hold on to some of the benefits of quieter streets.
Wayside assistant manager Alex Groff said the restaurant has already seen changes in day-to-day operation. After a year-and-a-half of minimal staff, salary freezes, no vacation time, and slashed profits, he said they couldn’t be happier to see their customers coming across the bridge again.
Groff said the year-and-a-half was rough for him and his coworkers, but everyone came together, from the other businesses sharing the parking lot to regular, sympathetic customers.
Stephanie Hope and Jessica Conley work at the Region Ten office off Cherry Avenue, and happily stood in line at Wayside for chicken platters shortly after the JPA bridge reopened.
“We don’t have much over on Fifth Street,” Hope said. “We used to come here for lunch once or twice a week,” but their visits became few and far between once construction started.
A recent Charlottesville transplant, Conley said she’d had no idea how close Wayside actually is to her office.
“It’s only about four minutes using the bridge,” she said. “But if we’re going away it takes at least 10 minutes. We only have 30-minute lunch breaks.” Now that the restaurant is more accessible, Hope and Conley said they plan to make regular trips back.
“Charlottesville has a strong community, and everybody pitched in the amount that they could,” Groff said.
Durty Nelly’s owner Toby Breeden agreed, adding that the city did what it could to help the businesses. He said he appreciated everyone’s efforts, but the experience was overall a negative one, and he’s ready to move forward.
“I can’t really think of anything positive about having your gross sales cut in half,” Breeden said.
Residents of the nearby Fry’s Spring area sympathized with the businesses’ hardship, but had time to get used to a more peaceful, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood.
“People just came out of their houses more,” City Councilor and Fry’s Spring resident Dede Smith said. Walking or bicycling became the most efficient way to get to the intersection of JPA and Fontaine Avenue, and she said families got used to being outside and interacting with one another.
Bike Walk Play JPA, an August event that blocked off one mile of road for neighborhood activities and games, brought hundreds of families into the street to meet one another and play outside. Organizer Susan Elliot said the closing of the bridge helped inspire the event, and she hoped it would encourage people to frequent the businesses on the other side throughout construction.
Inessa Telefus, who returned to the Fry’s Spring neighborhood in 2005 after 10 years in Albemarle County, said Bike Walk Play JPA was a huge hit, and a good first step for the neighborhood to maintain the positive effects of the bridge closing. She and her family have always been active, and drove minimallyeven before construction began.
“We walk a lot, and walking on JPA was definitely a lot better because there wasn’t so much traffic,” she said.
Telefus’ daughter is in kindergarten at nearby Jackson Via Elementary. She said she’d love to see more neighborhood parents walking their children to school as a group, but the returning traffic makes her wary.
“Maybe if more people walked, drivers would be more mindful of it,” she said. “But then again, it’s a catch 22, because if people don’t feel safe, they won’t walk.”
Now that the bridge is open and traffic has returned to the neighborhood, Elliot said she hopes to see the city implement adaptations to the roads for more controlled speed and increased safety as a way to keep some of the positive changes more permanent. At least one city official agrees; Smith said she wants to see the speed limit in the neighborhood reduced to 25 mph.
“There’s a lot of positive and cooperative energy within our neighborhood,” Elliot said. “People want to work with each other to find the best solution for everyone.”