The woman collecting signatures to close the Fourth Street Downtown Mall crossing has withdrawn her petition and deleted her Twitter account. “There was so much outcry, so much hatred,” says petitioner Aileen Bartels.
Safety was her primary concern, and she wanted people to be able to visit the mall without worrying about cars. Although her petition never made it to City Council, the issue was a hot topic among those making public comments at the August 19 meeting, many of them mall business owners, all of them opposed to closing Fourth Street.
Hedge owner Karen Walker says her business doubled when she moved from the mall to the cross street, and she hired two more employees.
Derriere de Soie owner Megan Giltner moved her business to Fourth Street for the access, and says her customers can often park across the street from her store. “My concern [is] if they close it, people will keep driving around the mall.”
The Downtown Mall opened as a pedestrian-only space in 1976. There was resistance to the first mall crossing, which came in 1995. Developer Lee Danielson built the then-Regal Cinema only on the condition the city would open Second Street to cross traffic. Danielson, who also built the ice rink, is credited with revitalizing the mall, which was often dark and deserted after 5pm.
In 2005, mall merchants asked City Council to consider a second permanent crossing on the east end of the mall because construction of the Pavilion and transit center had closed Sixth and Seventh streets to traffic.
“We lobbied for three years to get Fourth Street open,” says Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville chair Joan Fenton, citing the need for deliveries, trash pick up, and disabled parking and drop off.
The DBA started their own petition to keep Fourth Street open, which had 352 signatures online as of August 23 (Fenton says there are hundreds more on paper petitions). She says every successful pedestrian mall has cross streets, which makes them more visible and vibrant. “We’ve learned they’re essential.”
Fourth Street will always be a tragic memorial of August 12, 2017, in Charlottesville. That’s what City Councilor Wes Bellamy noted at the August 19 meeting. “For many people, the big issue is Heather Heyer was killed on that street,” he said. “It’s a commemorative space honoring someone who lost her life and [the] dozens [who] were injured.”
But business owners say that doesn’t mean the street needs to be closed to traffic. Blair Williamson told council, “Closing this street would be the nuclear option, like Trump’s wall.” And Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, has said she didn’t think the street should be closed.
As far as general safety is concerned, in the past five years, there have been a total of 10 crashes on both Fourth and Second streets, says Charlottesville police spokesman Tyler Hawn. Six of those were non-reportable, which means no one was injured and the damage was less than $1,500. None occurred on the mall itself, and none involved pedestrians, except for that glaring August 12 exception, when the street was supposed to be closed.
Local Kevin Cox calls the cross streets the safest pedestrian crossings in Charlottesville. His concern is the perplexed tourists who drive onto the mall itself. “It happens all the time,” he told City Council. Cox would like to see bollards at the crossings to deter wrong turns. “I think this is a terrible oversight,” he said.
Bartels had gathered 365 signatures on her petition, which disappeared when she tried to make it inactive. She says she got the message from many: “I want to drive my car where I want.”
Says Bartels, “I don’t want to engage with this community.”