Can Charlottesville become a city by the river?

Since the beginning of time, a river was a community’s source of wealth and prosperity and today, cities like San Antonio, Texas and Savannah, Georgia have capitalized on the river running through their downtowns by making their waterfronts vibrant with shops and restaurants.

The city’s Parks and Recreation department is working to expand the trail system that runs from Riverview Park, under Route 250, and ends in a field off of River Road. (Photo by Jack Looney)

Charlottesville, too, has a river, but its riverfront is crowded with junkyards and empty fields. While lofty ideas of one day making the Rivanna River a central focus exist, seeing them through to reality has proven a lengthy and challenging process.
“There is something wonderful about a waterfront in Charlottesville, but if one were to take a poll, most residents would have no idea that Charlottesville had a riverfront,” said Bill Emory, former member of the Planning Commission.

Mayor Satyendra Huja said he would like to see the riverfront developed and become an economic engine for the city.
“I definitely think that the river can play a more valid role in our community,” he said. “On New Year’s Day I walked on the trails and I saw people of all ages, of all races walking and enjoying the path. It’s an important asset to our community that could become even more so.”

Huja said the river could become a priority for the new City Council, but before the city invests any money in it, new plans for the area need to be drawn in connection with the citywide comprehensive plan, which could take a couple of years.

Ideas about how to develop the Rivanna riverfront were included in an early comprehensive plan, said Emory. An outline for a Rivanna River Corridor Plan was presented to the Planning Commission in 2008 and included a timeline for the study of the area, possible next steps, and funding. The plan ultimately stalled.

“It would never occur to people who are standing on the Downtown Mall that they can walk down Market Street all the way to the river, have lunch in [Riverview] Park and from that point, you are less then a mile from the front porch of Monticello,” he said.

Historically, the Rivanna River was used as a central transportation route during the American Revolution. Today, the city’s Parks and Recreation department is working to expand the trail system that runs from Riverview Park at the edge of the Woolen Mills neighborhood, under Route 250, and ends in a field off of River Road.

Chris Gensic, the city’s park and trail planner, said the city plans to extend the trail north and is working to secure right-of-ways with about nine property owners. The process, he warns, may take a long time.
“We did a land swap this year and we now own a piece of land north of the current end of the trail,” said Gensic. “The land swap took four year to negotiate,” he said. “Once they are done, they are permanent, but it can take years and years.”

Francesca Conte, ultramarathon runner and member of the Rivanna Trails Foundation, would like to see the riverfront of the city developed with shops and cafés. “What brings life to an area is places people can use to connect to other places,” she said. “It would be great if the Riverview Park path had a better connection to other sides of town.”

According to Gensic, two major pedestrian bridges would be necessary for the portion of the trail to function as a transportation route for bike and foot traffic: one that connects Pen Park to Darden Towe and one that links Riverview Park to the new Martha Jefferson Hospital.

“To build a proper bridge, even just for bikes and pedestrians could be a $2 to $3 million project,” he said. He adds that the difficult decision will be choosing one of the two.
“I would imagine the Riverview bridge just became more important due to jobs that are now on the other side of the county,” said Gensic, referring to the hospital.

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