Over or under: A decision looms on the future of the Belmont Bridge project

A rendering of the underpass some hope will  take the place of the Belmont Bridge. Image: Nicolaus Wehncke A rendering of the underpass some hope will take the place of the Belmont Bridge. Image: Nicolaus Wehncke

One thing seems sure. In the not too distant future, a years-long construction project will get underway to replace the 52-year-old, crumbling Belmont Bridge with a new structure for cars, bikes, and pedestrians to cross the 500-foot stretch that connects downtown to Belmont. After five years of planning and more than a million taxpayer dollars spent on consulting, engineering, and design fees, however, the future of the project is still unclear as two divergent visions have emerged.

The first, put forth by Norfolk-based engineering and architecture firm MMM Design Group and already approved for transportation funding, is a traditional bridge replacement that features wider sidewalks and bike lanes. The second, more recently created by three local design professionals, does away with the highway bridge model entirely and would send cars under Water Street, the CSX railroad tracks, and Avon Street Extended while placing a soaring pedestrian bridge above it all and creating parklike spaces alongside.

With a final public hearing on the future of the project looming on June 16, the backers of the underpass design have ramped up their criticisms of the current bridge plan, accusing the city of bias and lashing out at critics of the design who claim the concept is unvetted, too expensive, and would take too long to build.

“This is all about the economic well being of the city,” said architect Jim Rounsevell, a Belmont resident who partnered with husband/wife landscape architects and fellow Belmonters Peter O’Shea and Sara Wilson to create the underpass design two years ago after seeing the winning entry of a citizen-sponsored 2012 Belmont Bridge design competition, which envisioned an at-grade crossing surrounded by green space.  

The public response to the winning entry was enthusiastic, said Rounsevell, and while his own entry in that competition called for separate vehicle and pedestrian bridges and took second place, he was inspired by the design that trumped his own.

“People have asked for a gateway,” he said. “They want something cool.”

Asking the city to stop a process already years underway and consider a new, untested, and admittedly more expensive alternative, however, has proved daunting.

Different visions

For more than 100 years, a bridge has crossed the rail yard and tracks adjacent to Water Street carrying cars and pedestrians from Avon Street north into downtown and back. The original bridge—built in 1905—was about 15-feet lower in elevation than the current bridge, which was opened in 1962 and had an expected 50-year life span. Its decay became more evident in recent years, with concrete sidewalks cracking and crumbling to such a degree that pedestrians walking across could actually look through to the ground below.

In 2012, the city fenced off the eastern sidewalk to keep pedestrians off, and in an investigative article in the Hook newspaper, critics including now-City Councilor Bob Fenwick and developer Oliver Kuttner blamed the bridge’s poor condition on a lack of maintenance, including the fact that it hadn’t been painted in 26 years. Fenwick, a former member of the Army Corps of Engineers, believed even at that time that the bridge could still be repaired, citing the much-older ages of numerous bridges around the state, but the engineering firm the City hired to determine the future of the bridge had recommended replacement several years earlier.

That same firm, MMM Design Group, was also hired to oversee design of the bridge, an estimated $14.9 million project that received funding approval from the Commonwealth Transportation Board. But after MMM presented Council with an initial bridge design that was rejected by the Board Of Architectural Review in September 2011, a group of Belmont residents with creative streaks decided something bigger and better should happen at such a critical location in the city.

In early 2012, “Project Gait-Way,” a citizen-sponsored Belmont Bridge design competition, attracted entries from the UVA School of Architecture and from local design professionals including Rounsevell, all hoping to elevate a sense of community and pedestrianism above the automobile.

City Councilors had also been disappointed in the initial MMM design.

“It was essentially a replacement bridge with no character to it, much longer than it needed to be, completely unimaginative,” said former City Councilor Dave Norris, who was mayor at the time. Norris said he was inspired by the winners of the bridge design competition, but didn’t believe changing course at such a late date was realistic. “The only option I saw was to send the bridge back to the drawing board, to have them come back with something smaller, that would better fit into the context, and be more imaginative.”

As MMM worked on a new bridge design, the passion among some for the underpass design grew—and that’s been helped along recently by a 20-minute short film spread widely through social media. Rounsevell and proponents of his design have only grown more determined to pressure city council to change course. MMM recently unveiled two “enhanced” bridge designs, one an arch with wide sidewalks, bike lanes and plantings, which has only further convinced the underpassers that Charlottesville is going in the wrong direction at the Belmont Bridge.

MMM's arch bridge design. Image: MMM rendering
MMM’s arch bridge design. Image: MMM rendering

“It looks like it walked out of Pittsburgh from the 1930s,” blasted Rounsevell, who further criticized MMM’s plan for new buildings to be constructed up against the bridge, something he believes will create a canyon-like effect and further block views. Citing a Florida-based economist who is featured in the film about the underpass, Rounsevell claims his plan, which won support from the city’s Placemaking, Livability and Community Engagement (PLACE) Design Task Force and the Charlottesville Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, would have a greater economic impact on surrounding properties by bringing them to street level and creating an inviting space that would encourage development and socializing.

Brian Wimer, the organizer of the Project Gait-Way competition and a Belmont resident, is even harsher in his criticism of the MMM bridge design and of the city’s approach to the underpass plan, accusing the city and MMM of conflicts of interest for allowing the same firm to assess and condemn the bridge and then receive the contract to design its replacement. 

“Until a day ago, [the city] didn’t even post the underpass as a design alternative online,” writes Wimer in an e-mail. “The city staff simply won’t support anything other than what MMM has proposed. Why? Especially when the public keeps rejecting MMM’s unprofessional, overpriced work.”

Fenwick also asked about a conflict of interest for MMM in 2012, as he suggested repairing the bridge, and while City Manager Maurice Jones has said the entire RFP process with MMM was conducted ethically and legally, Fenwick says his question has not been answered to his satisfaction.

“The inability to get a straight answer is troubling,” he said. MMM representative Joe Schinstock did not respond to C-VILLE’s request for comment.

City Councilor Kristin Szakos, chair of the local Metropolitican Planning Organization, said the accusation that the city hasn’t given the underpass design fair consideration is inaccurate, and she cites the upcoming public hearing as proof that councilors have been willing to be open minded. 

The underpass proponents haven’t provided enough information to allow a decision to be made in their favor, she said, noting a lack of an engineering study to determine whether it’s even feasible. Rounsevell said core samples taken in 2008 show construction is possible, but Szakos said those samples were taken as part of a bridge study and would need to be conducted differently for an underpass. 

The biggest issue, said Szakos, is the funding. Rounsevell claims the $27 million estimated price tag is inflated and is concerned that the figure was provided by estimating firm Barton Malow, which has worked with MMM and the city on numerous other projects including the rebricking of the Downtown Mall. But Szakos notes that while MMM’s enhanced bridge design may cost several million more than the original design, the Commonwealth Transportation Board will allow an already approved project to be amended. An underpass, she said, would require the entire funding request process to begin again, putting construction back by at least a year if the project was even approved. And in any case, she said, pedestrian overpasses don’t qualify for state transportation funding, which means even if the majority of the underpass project was approved and funded, the city would have to come up with the money for that component and cut costs elsewhere from the city budget to avoid losing its top credit rating.

“I think if the public only hears ‘We could have this thing that’s going to connect the city and solve all these problems and be beautiful…or we can have a bridge, most people are going to say, ‘I want the prettier one,’” said Szakos. “That’s not what the comparison is. Some of the assumptions that are being used to argue that the underpass is the more desirable option aren’t verified, like the fact that it would cost less to maintain, offer more connectivity, like the fact that we’d be able to afford to build it.”

Rounsevell and others, however, see the city as being shortsighted and missing an opportunity that could positively transform the downtown area for generations to come. Yes, the underpass requires an upfront investment, Rounsevell said, but he believes that money will be recouped over the years through reduced maintenance costs and the superior economic stimulation he believes it will bring. He points to other cities around the country investing in creative infrastructure including Greenville, South Carolina, where a pedestrian bridge has revitalized that city’s downtown.

“This is what cities are doing to remain competitive,” he said. “This isn’t about me; this is what the community has asked for.”

Over or Under by the numbers

MMM replacement bridge: $14.9 million, estimated 20 months construction with road open throughout

MMM enhanced bridge: $16.4 million, estimated 18 months with full road closure

MMM arch bridge: $18 million, estimated 16 months construction with full road closure. This is a fracture critical bridge, which means any failure is catastrophic.

Underpass: $27.3 million, estimated 28 month construction period with six month total road closure.

Source: MMM

Architect Jim Rounsevell sounds off on some of the criticisms he’s heard about his underpass design

The cost estimate for the underpass is $27 million, close to double the estimate of the replacement MMM bridge design.

That includes a 26 percent contingency because of possible undiscovered subsurface conditions, but the feedback that I’ve gotten from other people in the industry is that the numbers are generous and represent a worst-case scenario. The MMM arch bridge design is at $18 million. Also, the $27 million doesn’t take into account possible savings through use of design/build or the increased economic stimulation the underpass provides.

There’s no difference in potential economic impact between the bridge and the underpass.

Show me the data. You’re making a decision for the next 100 years, and to move forward with that
without the best information is dangerous. This is a focus on short-term cost while the benefit of long term economic growth is not being weighed. Right now, city council does not have the full economic picture. A full study needs to be done through Department of Economic Development and not Neighborhood Development Services.

We would have to start the funding process all over with the Commonwealth Transportation Board.

We have the time to figure this out, and if it takes longer to get it done for a better result, yeah, let’s start over. Now that the economy has improved, there’s a lot more money in the pipeline for projects exactly like this. Other cities have done this and they find a way to get the funding because it’s that important. You need sustainable infrastructure to attract and maintain the right kinds of businesses.

The railroad won’t allow an underpass.

The railroad has not said that. They have done underpasses. They just did this eight or 10 years ago on 10th Street/Roosevelt Brown Boulevard. That was CSX and Norfolk Southern. They do it all the time.

Lexis/Nexis will lose its tunnel to the Pavilion.

They explicitly stated in a letter to the city it was important that they maintain walkability for their employees, and by taking away a 30 foot high embankment and a dark tunnel and making it like any other street in the city, you improve access, you don’t make it worse. It’s actually better for them.

This is liberal big government, pie-in-the-sky spending.

It’s the opposite. It’s the responsible investment in our community that will cost less in the long term and have greater economic benefit to the entire community into the future. This is not a four or five year decision. This is a 60- to 100-year decision.

Architect Jim Rounsevell created the underpass design with landscape architects Peter O'Shea and Sara Wilson. All three are Belmont residents. Photo: Christian Hommel
Architect Jim Rounsevell created the underpass design with landscape architects Peter O’Shea and Sara Wilson. All three are Belmont residents. Photo: Christian Hommel


Correction: The original version of this story misstated the age of the Belmont Bridge. It is 52 years old.

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