The city has been working with the firm MMM Design to replace the aging structure, but the company’s first version fell flat with some members of the Belmont neighborhood when it was revealed more than two years ago.
“Their [original] idea of an enhanced bridge was not the community’s idea of an enhanced bridge,” said Jim Tolbert. “MMM Design has sent me a couple of drafts that I’ve said ‘no’ to because they hadn’t responded to some of the [community’s] comments.”
Tolbert’s update came during a meeting Monday of the PLACE Design task force, a volunteer group that is serving as the steering committee for the project.
Tolbert said he will meet with the design team later this week to discuss two possible bridge design options that will go before the public this spring.
“One of [the design alternatives] is an out-of-the-box approach,” Tolbert said. “[The Virginia Department of Transportation] typically doesn’t allow the design, but they gave the go-ahead to explore the option.”
“Another alternative shortens the bridge from about 340 feet to 180 feet,” he added. “The design also brings the buildings out to the street as a possible future condition.”
The city also is still evaluating an underpass option. The concepts may be displayed to the public during an April 13 block party at the Bridge PAI. That event will be part of the Tom Tom Founders Festival.
“[We would] put up displays as a non-traditional way of getting public input and comment on the bridge designs,” Tolbert said. “We promised that we would go back to the community before going to City Council.”
Tolbert also told members of the PLACE group that he is open to restructuring of the Neighborhood Development Services department in order to emphasize the role public engagement plays.
“From 1999 to 2001, [our structure] worked great because there wasn’t any development going on,” he said.
With an increased level of growth, Tolbert said staff is challenged to be both a neighborhood advocate and conduct code compliance review with developers.
“One neighborhood was calling me and wanting to fire their planner because they were making project recommendations on good, sound planning principles that were different than what the neighborhood wanted,” he said.
The City Council is expected to consider a budget proposal to hire an urban designer. In the meantime, the city is taking advantage of a vacancy and hiring a new planner who also has urban design experience.
“For 12 years I’ve been trying to get Neighborhood Development Services out of our title,” said Tolbert, who suggested the title be changed to Design Development Services.
The process of restructuring the department is still in the early stages.
“We’re having our fifth internal meeting tomorrow to talk through this,” Tolbert said. “There is some energy created that will help us as we have the conversation.”
The PLACE group also was briefed on the next steps in the $340,000 study of West Main Street following a weekend where the firm Rhodeside & Harwell unveiled three concepts for how the corridor might look in the future.
“We’re trying for mid- to late May to bring [the final recommendation] back to the community,” said Tolbert. “In March we’ll bring them back to talk with the steering committee.”
A mini street fair in late May along West Main could give the firm an opportunity to publicly unveil the updated design proposals. This fair would be organized by the Midtown Association and supported by the city.
“It would be cool to do a 1-kilometer bicycle street sprint,” suggested committee member Scott Paisley.
After a weekend of events with the West Main consultants, the committee celebrated the event’s success as it looked forward to continued community engagement.
“They were very well done and positive for the community,” said Genevieve Keller, a city Planning Commission member. “People are finally understanding that a public meeting is not a public hearing.”
The committee also discussed the early stages of an “urban design metric” to measure whether Comprehensive Plan goals are being met.
“This would be a great tool to have,” said PLACE member Fred Wolf. “The challenge would be figuring out a weighting factor that is introduced on a scale depending on its real impact.”
The metric currently includes every vision statement in the Comprehensive Plan and aims to measure success.
“For example, Charlottesville is a center of lifelong learning,” PLACE Chairwoman Rachel Lloyd said. “We would measure density, affordability, number of education centers, schools and houses and other residential-related amenities like parks.”
The metric is in the very early stages, but the committee supported its continued development.
“This is very useful, but we have to be careful not to be too quantitative because so much is qualitative,” Keller said.
The PLACE committee will meet again in March to further discuss the Belmont Bridge and beautification concerns on the Downtown Mall.