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Scale, smell, sight aid redesign of West Main
Oliver Schulze West Main Walk, 22 February 2014
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Oliver Schulze during the West Main walk
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by Effie Nicholaou | Saturday, February 22, 2014 at 8:10 p.m.

Before the city was presented with design options for West Main Street, one of the consultants showed Charlottesville how smells, sounds and sights are significant to the success of the street.

Architect Oliver Schulze of Schulze + Grassov in Copenhagen, Denmark, and a member of the West Main Street consulting team, presented international examples of his street work Friday, and led a tour along West Main on Saturday.

“A population of 50,000 people is a town that should be able to support a set of healthy streets and outdoor spaces,” Schulze told a gathering of about 50 people Friday at the Central Library.

“[The level of noise] is quite relevant for the future of restaurants and cafes on West Main,” Schulze said. “Right now, we can hear each other quite effortlessly, but as soon as the light is green, it is hard to have an effortless social conversation.”

In addition to the level of noise, the scale and visibility on the site is significant, Schulze said.

“When we see people from the other side of the road, we will recognize if they are a man or a woman, if they’re threatening, or if they are friendly,” he said. “The street is compact enough to be quite social.”

Schulze used these human-scale examples of West Main to discuss the details that go into street design.

“The way that we decide to pave sidewalks, the way that lighting works and trees work all contribute to a place where human scale is respected,” he said. “This doesn’t mean buildings have to be single story and things have to be tiny.”

The intersection of West Main and Ridge-McIntire was an example of a poorly designed space needing greater attention.

“Everything here is withdrawing and internalizing,” Schulze said of the buildings surrounding the crossing. “If this was a great intersection, the [Downtown] Mall and West Main would feel connected.”

The Saturday morning group was joined by members of the Planning Commission and City Council, as well as interested residents.

“The snow that is there now means that this space is not really required,” Schulze said of the unused space in front of the Sacagawea-Lewis & Clark statue. “Put this place on a diet and identify all the space that could be put to better use.”

Schulze pointed out many opportunities for simplification of use and decluttering of space along West Main to open up the street.

“In Brighton, England, one of the greatest achievements was a decluttering of the street,” Schulze said. “We designed lamp poles that also could have holders for [trash] bins and signage.”

The Brighton street redesign also served as an example of economic stimulation.

“The investment of the private sector far outstripped the £2 million of initial investment by the city,” Schulze said. “In one year, buildings were investing, vacancies went down and the ground floors were refurbished.”

Although Brighton was not enthused about the initial investment and some residents even yelled at Schulze and his colleagues with frustration, they ended up seeing the great value of the designs.

With an example from Copenhagen, Schulze described how a consistently level sidewalk provides greater safety to pedestrians because the car is disrupted by the grade change.

“The car would make the level change [on to the pedestrian walkway] and then back down as it pulls onto the street,” he said. “[The car] will get apprehensive and pay attention.”

“This isn’t even about widening the sidewalk,” Schulze said. “It is about the priority and the signal.”

The participants generally agreed with his suggestion, because of negative personal experiences when walking along West Main.

“As a runner, I’ve almost been hit countless times running on the sidewalk by people trying to enter the street,” said Lisa Green, a Planning Commission member.

“It would slow the cars down,” said Jim Self, a frequent pedestrian on West Main.

Many of Schulze’s examples were simple design solutions that increased communication and clarity for all users of the street.

“You are about to embark on one of the most important streets in your city for the next generation,” he said.

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