Plan to remove Belmont Bridge wins design contest

Participants in the 2012 Belmont Bridge design competition examine plans. File photo. Participants in the 2012 Belmont Bridge design competition examine plans. File photo.

“Public spaces should be imaginative and fun,” said Brian Wimer, the Belmont resident who inspired Project Gait-way, the Belmont Bridge design competition.

When asked about his opinion on the imaginative and contemporary designs, Major Satyendra Huja, with over 30 years in the city’s planning department under his belt, said he is pleased with the results of the competition. “We want contemporary! We don’t want the same designs as 200 years ago,” he said.Of the 36 designs on display at City Space, a surprising number of them feature unconventional and whimsical ideas. Entry number 20 proposes a public park above vehicular traffic, “a destination of wonder and wander.” Number 15 suggests an overlook at the top of the bridge where pedestrians can enjoy the unique view of the city. And number 29, inspired by Virginia’s coast, features a boardwalk with vendors and sandlots for kids, with authentic Virginia Beach sand.

Some of the designs, however, are simpler and more pragmatic. Number 2, “Belmont Unabridged,” eliminates the bridge altogether and moves the pavilion closer to the Ix building, connecting Belmont to downtown with a public park and space for the farmers’ market.

Ivana Kadija, a Belmont resident, is “very inspired by the idea of eliminating the bridge that separates us,” she said. Her concern with the current design is that it serves as a concrete barrier rather than a bridge between the two areas, and feels that a design that would “have people interacting would really improve that area.”

On Saturday, a jury of major stakeholders, including UVA professors, VMDO architects and BAR chairs, weighed in on the subject and voted on both their favorite urban design and bridge design. The voting categories included modality, value, aesthetics, sustainability, feasibility and innovation.

Turns out Kadija is not the only one inspired by the idea of a design without a bridge. As revealed on Sunday, February 19, both the jury and the public voted “Belmont Unabridged” as the best urban and best bridge design, winning all four top awards.

Currently, the bridge is accommodating up to five coal trains from West Virginia each day. But, according to Wimer, because of peak coal, production is expected to drop by 50 percent in the next 5-20 years.

“If there are going to be fewer trains,” he said, “why are we spending $14 million on a bridge to accommodate coal trains?”

Now that the jury and the public have spoken, the city will decide whether or not to proceed with the present design process.

“What happens next?” asked Wimer. “Well, that’s in the hands of the community.”

In bureaucratic processes such as this, contemporary ideals are not always achieved. But he hopes that, with Mayor Huja and Kathy Galvin and their backgrounds in architecture and urban planning, City Council can create a legacy. The process may take anywhere from five to ten years, and City Councils come and go, so achieving such a vision will require consistent community support over the years.

That support, now that voting has commenced, can begin on Tuesday, February 21, at the City Council meeting. Wimer expects a large turnout of concerned individuals, petitioning and encouraging the city to slow down the current process and consider a new design.

“I was one person making a suggestion,” Wimer said. “What happens when a thousand people make a suggestion?”

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