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.

  • http://www.monticelloroad.com Peter Krebs

    I’m not sure what to say other than that I was misquoted and mis-represented. I’ll have more later but I’ll just say these things now to set the record straight:

    First the quote: I said “The DJINNI is out of the bottle and won’t go back in.” That’s very different and while it’s sad for a lede to be a misquote, you made it worse by building the story around positioning me as an advocate for something that I don’t fully agree with. I wish you had followed up with me–it would not have been hard to do and been the ethical thing to do.

    The Djinni I was referring to was that of creativity, vision and forward thinking but that is NOT an endorsement of the underpass design, even if it contains those traits. In fact, had you listened you further, you would have heard me say EXPLICITLY that my feelings are “mixed” and that the underpass design has “many grave flaws.” I did not list them out (for reasons you’ll see) but I did suggest some better, more strategic ways to spend the resources.

    I am very close friends with all of the principals and would like to continue to be so. I am SOOOO proud of them for demanding more from the officials involved in planning and executing City infrastructure and putting real skin in the game. Perhaps they in put too much, but thanks to them, it’s clear that we deserve better than has been offered and that new models of community planning are better. We’re walking side-by-side in that effort and I look forward to continuing for a long time.

    I also feel very strongly that there is a false conversation (and I do hold my friends accountable for positioning it this way) that we can have a bridge OR we can have creativity and vision. I salute their rigor but have misgivings about their desired outcome, which has serious flaws and is expensive by all measures. This is due at its essence to the fundamental illogic of tunneling under something that is already below both starting and ending points.

    My feeling is this: we need better than MMM is offering but I’m not sure the underpass is the way to go. It wouldn’t be terrible but I would have loved to have seen what the Gaitway team could have done with the enhanced bridge. They were tasked with that and and worked on it for about 5 minutes then dropped it (or were dropped) to focus exclusively on the underpass.

    I’ve heard stories from both sides about why that fatal turn occurred but I don’t really care–it sounds like petty junior-high stuff. This is a complicated problem and we need all of our good minds working together on it. It’s not about sides, its about getting the best outcome and being really smart with our limited resources. That best result is most likely to come from a consensus-based approach.

    To those who say consensus and excellence are incompatible, I say get as close as you can. That too is something we deserve.

    • Edward N Virginia

      WE see here a BIG problem with most enterprises of this sort in Charlottesville: BIASED, PERSONAL EVALUATIONS DISGUISED AS UNBIASED PROFESSIONAL JUDGEMENT. For decades, the White elites have convinced themselves – in their dinner party, Wintergreen weekends, pot smoking, church work, sex swapping, and other personal networks – that they are an enlightened elite, who have the best ideas, the ‘ideas to last into the next century’, the visionary plans, etc. Well, the very same week that these elite voices are championing with City Council a VASTLY expensive hole-way in the ground (as if a ‘hole’ meant ‘wholistic’) – with vastly expensive upkeep and remedies when problems emerge – the same City Council heard about intransigent, decades long, GENERATIONS-long and generations-wide racial discrimination and its impacts, AND – this is the point to note: the ‘hole-way’ elites haven’t said a SINGLE PAGE about the costs – including opportunity costs – and the impacts of their ‘hole-way’ on the poor, the disabled, the elderly, the flat-income, and declining-income residents of the City?! Much the costs and impacts of all these UN-elites in Belmont and MJ neighborhoods! What’s up with that?

  • PG Tipps

    Wow maybe we could do a Kickstarter campaign going to finance the extra $13 million? Or see how a meals/beverages tax goes over. Charlottesville doesn’t invest, its citizens do through taxes.

    • DUG1138

      We’re talking a few dollars per citizen. It’s worth a few extra dollars a year to live in a beautiful city.

      • PG Tipps

        It already is a beautiful city. One that has a number of pressing needs besides a nice gateway to Belmont.

      • Edward N Virginia

        LET’S SEE…. the city has fewer than 45,000 residents, and perhaps only a half, or less than one-half pay taxes. But, let’s be optimistic. Let’s say that 30,000 residents pay taxes. A ‘few extra dollars’ a year might be … what $5? $10. Let’s say $10. So, ten bucks times 30,000 equals $300, 000. So if 30,000 residents paid $10/year – all else being equal – it would take 93 – NINETY-THREE years for these 30,000 residents to pay off the $28,000,000 low-estimate cost of the ‘hole’way’. JEEPERS, that sounds like quite a big commitment, when you looks at the numbers, ain’t it?! Of course, the special interest elites who will benefit a big public works project – land owning elites, development elites, planning elites, etc – will have gotten their goodies long before the 93 years is up … in fact, the poor children, and poor grandchildren, and poor GREAT-grandchildren of the city will be paying that off for them. WAY TO GO Elites!

  • Anonymouse

    Of course it is no coincidence that all of the proponents of the underpass and pedestrian bridge live in Belmont.

    As someone who lives in the city but NOT in Belmont I think the underpass idea is akin to setting a vault of money on fire. Yes the bridge should be pretty but why exactly do we need this ridiculous bridge concept to improve the lives (and property values – i’m sure part of the root of the push) of Belmontians? There are many more deserving and pressing needs in Charlottesville.

  • stew

    stop the madness already. most of charlottesville can only hope that
    the well intentioned but misguided effort to build this underpass will
    be put to rest soon by some courageous councilors (oh, wait, they are
    elected officials…) so that we can stop wasting time and money on
    this would be vanity project. there are so many reasons that this is an
    irresponsible and unworkable idea that it should be embarrassing to our
    leadership that they have allowed it to live this long and cost us this
    much. I echo the sentiments of those who admire the dedication of its
    proponents to improve our city’s livability and aesthetic, but at some
    point those whose job it is to hold the big picture have to tell them no
    on this one so they can focus their energy elsewhere. This is energy we want for
    our city, but please let’s direct it, not allow it to lead us by the nose.

  • Chris Gensic

    Is the only real point of the underpass to somehow “punish” people in cars? The underpass requires 3 bridges as I understand it, so if those folks are so opposed to bridges, why do they want us to spend sooooo much extra money just to put cars in an underpass while people on foot or bike get to enjoy all the fresh air and veiws of the downtown mall and mountains? I certainly agree that we can build a better bridge than what is there now and make it safe and convenient EQUALLY for all users, but I don’t want to assume that certain Americans are less worthy than others simply because they happen to be in a car, and I really don’t want to pay an extra 10 million dollars just to make that point. I drive and walk over the bridge at least 3 times a day and find it to be a perfectly acceptable connection from downtown to Belmont (maybe with better sidwealks and bike facilities). If the underpass is so good for business/economic development, why are the businesses along 29 so scared of the exact same proposal at Rio and Hydraulic since in, their view, having a road below grade takes away their visibility and therefore their business? Prove to me this isn’t just a personal vendetta against people in cars and I might take the underpass more seriously, but I still won’t pay all that extra money for it. Show me what happens when a train derails over the underpass and how you plan to keep traffic flowing in this major corridor/state highway 20?

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