Underpass gets public support as Council delays Belmont bridge vote

In 2008, the city decided that the 50-year-old Belmont Bridge needed to be replaced. Design options include a new, updated bridge, or an underpass. Photo: Jack Looney In 2008, the city decided that the 50-year-old Belmont Bridge needed to be replaced. Design options include a new, updated bridge, or an underpass. Photo: Jack Looney

“That genie is out of the bottle, and it’s not coming back in,” said Belmont resident Peter Krebs, one of more than a dozen people to address city council on Monday night during a public hearing on the future of the Belmont Bridge. At issue is a decision over whether to use already approved state funding to build one of three bridge replacement options put forth by Norfolk-based MMM Design Group, or to restart the funding process and construct an underpass option designed by three local design professionals: architect Jim Rounsevell and landscape architects Pete O’Shea and Sara Wilson, all Belmont residents.

Most of those who spoke during the hearing expressed a preference for the underpass design, but while Krebs called it “imaginative,” he voiced concerns over several issues including funding, particularly after Director of Neighborhood Development Services Jim Tolbert warned the council he’d just learned that VDOT misallocated $2 million of the $13 million approved for the project that the city will now have to make up in local funds.*

“That means a potential shortfall of $3.2 million to $15 million,” said Tolbert. Cost estimates provided by construction estimation firm Barton Malow range from $15 million for the basic replacement bridge to $28 million for the underpass design, which calls for three smaller east-west bridges to carry traffic over Water Street and Avon Street Extended and the CSX train tracks. A separate pedestrian bridge—one of the most popular features of the underpass design—would likely cost an additional $3-4 million, according to both Rounsevell and Barton Malow’s Chris Weatherford, who presented the estimates to council.

MMM President Wylie Cooke presented slides of the three bridge options, all of which include wider sidewalks and bike lanes. The first option, the closest to the current bridge design, has been widely criticized as unimaginative, and the firm’s two later designs, an enhanced bridge and an arch bridge, will both be more expensive than the original design, although Tolbert assured council that neither would put state funding at risk because they wouldn’t require a new environmental study like the underpass design would.

Rounsevell spoke briefly to councilors, urging them to support the underpass before playing a video presentation that presented a virtual reality vision of the underpass, pedestrian bridge, and surrounding properties. His presentation addressed questions about environmental and funding concerns, noting that $7 million of the estimated expense is so-called contingency costs, money that is added to the estimate to cover unexpected issues during construction.

One man booed following Rounsevell’s presentation, and later addressed the council to urge them to reject the underpass.

“The underpass makes access worse to my neighborhood,” said the Martha Jefferson neighborhood resident, who pointed out that the grade of the road proposed by the underpass is steeper than the bridge and would make biking and walking more difficult.

Most other city residents present, however, praised the underpass, including the owners of three Belmont restaurants.

“This is a continuation of Lawrence Halperin’s vision,” said Tomas Rahal of MAS restaurant, referring to the famed designer of the Downtown Mall. Hunter Smith of Champion Brewing Co., which is tucked away at the southwest corner of the bridge, urged councilors to consider the benefits of an attractive corridor connecting downtown to Belmont. “We’ve had the good fortune of heavily investing in the neighborhood, even though it may not have been the most financially advantageous thing to do, and I’d like to see the city do the same,” he said. And Adam Frazier, owner of The Local, admitted he’d initially been skeptical about the underpass, but had been won over by the convincing presentation.

One resident asked why there was no discussion about repairing the current bridge, and two others asked councilors to form an independent panel to examine the options.

“What we need is transparency, which has been missing from the process so far,” said Jefferson Street resident David Repass.

Council put off a decision on the bridge until the July 7 meeting.

Correction: Peter Krebs used the word genie in his opening quote, not ‘genius.’ Also, later language has been adjusted to reflect that while he admires the creativity of the underpass design, he has serious questions about its feasibility.