The Meadow Creek valley as a pedestrian corridor

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The city is connecting old land acquisitions, including Greenbrier Park, with new ones to create a more than mile-long buffer of public park land—outlined in red—in the restored Meadow Creek stream valley. The city is connecting old land acquisitions, including Greenbrier Park, with new ones to create a more than mile-long buffer of public park land—outlined in red—in the restored Meadow Creek stream valley.

When Charlottesville Parks and Trails Planner Chris Gensic gave a presentation in September on the future of the Meadow Creek stream valley, he flipped through a series of aerial shots that showed almost a century of evolution in the northern spur of the city that surrounds the waterway.

In all the photos—from the late 1930s, when 29 North was still a rural route and the 250 Bypass nonexistent; to the ’50s and ’60s, when the fields and forests half-encircled by the arc of the stream gave way to the neatly ordered streets of Greenbrier; to today’s big box stores and tree-filled neighborhoods—the unassuming ribbon of Meadow Creek is visible, winding its way toward the broader stretch of the Rivanna River.

A natural dividing line during the city’s growth over the last century, the stream corridor hasn’t exactly been overlooked. The city had an eye on preserving land along the creek as far back as 1930, when it bought a 10-acre parcel from a developer that’s now Meadowcreek Gardens. In the 1960s, the 28-acre Greenbrier Park was created a mile downstream to the east. Since the early ’90s, walkers and bikers have followed a narrow dirt track along the streambank, part of the 20-mile loop of the Rivanna Trail.

But now the stream and the land around it are entering a new phase. The Meadow Creek Restoration project—a $4 million, multi-year effort to clean up and realign the stream, jointly funded by the Nature Conservancy and the Army Corps of Engineers—will wrap up soon. Thanks to steady acquisitions over the last decade, the city has cloaked the newly healthy creek in protected land: Charlottesville now owns or has seen the securing of conservation easements on nearly 40 acres between Hydraulic Road and Greenbrier Park.

Staff are now bringing city residents into the conversation as they determine how best to use—and not use—the new park land. Gensic has already hosted two public meetings to talk design, and a third is scheduled for October 30.

“It’s been pretty harmonious,” Gensic said, especially compared with the knock-down, drag-out fight over the future of McIntire Park, just half a mile away. Local residents know what they want, he said. They asked for an open field, a playground, and some community gardens to the east, near the quiet dead-end of Michie Drive, and there’s been a request for a disc golf course in a wooded patch nearby.

And they want the corridor to be just that: a place to move through. That fits well with the city’s decade-old trails plan, which Gensic has been nibbling away at piece by piece for years. His department’s recommendations for the new park will include a paved multi-
use path suitable for bikers and stroller-pushers that will parallel the existing Rivanna Trail —at a distance, as much as possible, to preserve a buffer between people looking for speed and those out for a quiet stroll.

The improvements will likely cost about $250,000, said Gensic, which City Council will have to approve. That probably won’t happen until late next spring, and there’s more land downstream that he hopes to see the city acquire. But just seeing the Rivanna Trail right-of-way secured through ownership and perpetual easements is a relief, Gensic said, because in the past, segments of trail have been offered for public use through casual agreements only.

“If a property owner said, ‘I don’t want that any more,’ they could have just obliterated that portion of the trail,” Gensic said. “Now it’s public land, and that permanently protects that whole arc of the city’s trail property. We’ll never close it.”

And the improved stretch along Meadow Creek will be an important link in a linked system of bike- and pedestrian-friendly paths that, thanks to the Parks Department, is gradually connecting Charlottesville’s public spaces and main roads in a city-wide alternative transportation network.

“That’s the neat thing,” said Gensic. “We’re basically locking up this whole section of the loop.”

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