West Main story: Councilor calls streetscape plan ‘emperor’s new clothes’

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year ago, then-mayor Satyendra Huja announced his dislike of a plan for the West Main streetscape that had been in the works since 2013—the third such study on the corridor that connects the University of Virginia and the Downtown Mall since the 1990s, according to his recollection. Thus the West Main Street Action Plan, estimated to cost around $30 million, was on hold for much of 2015.

On January 14, Alexandria-based consultant Rhodeside & Harwell, hired in 2013 for $335,000, was back with three plan alternatives. In the aftermath, City Councilor Bob Fenwick has gone to his blog to denounce consultant costs that have ballooned to $475,000, and some West Main Steering Committee members say for much of the two years they’ve met, their concerns were brushed aside in favor of those who want bike lanes.

“I got the feeling it was the emperor’s new clothes,” says Fenwick, who sat in on the recent steering committee meeting. He posted on cvillecitizen.com so “people could critique” the plan, and he’s made videos with his own comments about current and proposed development on West Main.

The action plan says, “The design for West Main Street will encourage cars to move more slowly,” and that raised a red flag for Fenwick, who observes that the fire department, emergency responders and the University of Virginia were not represented on the steering committee until last year.

“Seconds count in an emergency,” he says. With the plan’s emphasis on slowing traffic, “that’s when I really became concerned about emergency vehicles.”

So did UVA. The university undertook its own traffic study, and on June 8 last year, Chief Operating Officer Patrick Hogan wrote Huja and City Manager Maurice Jones to express concerns about “potential negative impacts to vehicular traffic flow, including emergency medical transportation, which is vital to the operation of our Medical Center.”

The UVA review noted the removal of turn lanes and bus pullouts, the latter of which would create a “bottleneck along West Main Street,” and the lack of traffic analysis to support the plan’s assertion that the corridor’s performance would not change significantly from what it is today.

In August, UVA joined the steering committee in working on revisions and is “optimistic” about the outcome, says UVA spokesperson Anthony de Bruyn.

Rhodeside & Harwell’s latest three options include a plan with parking spaces on alternate sides of the street, one that eliminates bike lanes for shared lanes on a four-block stretch east of the Drewary Brown Bridge and a third that eliminates street parking for wider sidewalks and bike lanes.

No one on the steering committee favored the no-parking option, says Starr Hill resident Pat Edwards, who was on the West Main task force in 2004. She says no parking would cause problems for the historic First Baptist Church, where she is a member.

Her initial concern with slowing traffic on West Main is that it would send vehicles on the narrow neighborhood side streets.

She also was concerned about emergency vehicles being able to navigate a reconfigured West Main. “The consultants said they had checked” with first-responders, she recalls from early meetings. “Basically they brushed me off.”

She’s not sure that pedestrians and bikes should be the priority on West Main. “I’m not against people riding bikes,” she says. “I just don’t think we should jeopardize safety. I don’t want to slow down fire trucks.”

Maya owner Peter Castiglione wants some of the taxpayer money put into the Downtown Mall to be shared with West Main. He lists the bakery, brewery, butcher and pawnshop on the east end of the corridor as “transactional businesses” that need parking. And he says, “The sidewalks are the worst in Charlottesville. You can’t navigate them in a wheelchair.”

Castiglione was on the steering committee from the beginning and says, “We realized after three or four meetings no one was listening to a word we had to say.”

He says he favors bike lanes, but “you can’t implement them until parking needs have been dealt with.”

All of the latest streetscape options move the Lewis and Clark statue at the intersection of Ridge-McIntire and get rid of the right turn lane there. “How much is that going to cost?” asks Castiglione.

“Pointless,” says Fenwick.

Bitsy Waters, a former mayor and now on the city’s tree commission, says the plan “has a great many ideas and suggestions to improve West Main. One of the challenges is trying to fit everything in. It’s a narrow right of way.”

City Council is considering rezoning West Main Street after the Flats and the Marriott on the corner of Ridge-McIntire have made people question the desirability of 101 feet tall, high-density structures on a historic thoroughfare with mostly one- or two-story buildings. Waters thinks the city should rezone first before putting money into the streetscape, which includes a costly undergrounding of utilities.

Fenwick says West Main is becoming a “hotel alley,” and he objects to hulking buildings with brick facades and cheaper stucco exteriors a half mile from the Rotunda, a UNESCO World Heritage site. “We’re losing the character of our city,” he says.

And he echoes some of the steering committee members. “It’s time we start listening to the citizens of Charlottesville,” he says. “We’d be much better off if the city trusted its staff and trusted its citizens. We’ve wasted so much money.”

The Planning Commission will consider West Main rezoning February 9. And the steering committee is working on a memo that outlines for City Council two of the alternative designs for consideration, according to Carrie Rainey in Neighborhood Development Services.