Should Route 20 travel under or over the railroad tracks as it passes through downtown Charlottesville?
That’s the central question before the City Council as it faces a decision on the Belmont Bridge, a deteriorating structure whose replacement has been pondered since 2008.
In September, the council directed staff to develop an “enhanced” bridge that would be more iconic than a replacement that had been initially proposed by the firm MMM Design.
However, the man behind an underpass option has created visualizations to promote what he thinks is the best alternative for the city.
“The problem with the bridge is that it’s a barrier and it stops the whole Downtown Mall experience,” said Jim Rounsevell, an architect who worked with the firm Siteworks to develop alternatives to the MMM Design.
The enhanced bridge and underpass concepts will both be on display at the Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative on Monticello Road beginning at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.
The Commonwealth Transportation Board has allocated $14.5 million to the replacement project. Cost estimates for the enhanced bridge will be revealed at Wednesday’s meeting.
Siteworks was hired following the February 2012 “Project Gait-way” design contest, whose winner envisioned a crossing at-grade with the railroad, something that CSX likely would not permit.
Rounsevell and Siteworks architect Pete O’Shea presented their underpass at a public meeting in February 2013.
At the time, a preliminary cost estimate for the underpass was double that of the MMM bridge. Rounsevell has argued that the city inflated that estimate in order to make the bridge a more attractive option.
MMM unveiled two versions of its “enhanced” bridge to the city’s PLACE Design task force in March. Both reduce the span of the bridge and envision selling right-of-way along Old Avon Street to developers in order to create an urban street.
Rounsevell is not a fan of that option.
“You don’t want that thing,” Rounsevell said. “It’s horrific. It’s worse than just putting back [the same] bridge.”
Rounsevell also said he cannot support the enhanced bridge concept because it would involve selling public right-of-way.
“That categorically should be a show stopper in and of itself right there,” Rounsevell said.
In the underpass proposal, Old Avon Street would be turned into a public plaza. He said that would incentivize development of properties such as the former Better Living site, which has been an empty lot for several years.
“We are providing this public space on which to hang and stimulate development of those private spaces,” Rounsevell said.
Rounsevell’s option hinges upon creation of a separate footbridge to carry pedestrians over the railroad tracks. His entry placed second in the Project Gait-way contest.
“It’s about replacing this vehicular 20th century heavy element with this lightweight footbridge,” Rounsevell said. “City Council keeps talking about wanting to be this multimodal, pedestrian-friendly and tree-lined city. The footbridge represents those goals.”
Rounsevell estimates the footbridge could cost as much as $4 million.
To put the underpass concept on an equal footing with the enhanced bridge, Rounsevell conducted an online campaign to raise money to develop better visuals for the option. He said he wants the City Council to see his vision for the future of Charlottesville.
“We’re not talking about what’s prudent for the city for the next five to 10 years,” he said. “We’re talking about the next 50 to a hundred years.”
A second public meeting on the two options will be held at CitySpace at 6 p.m. May 8. The council had been scheduled to hold a public hearing on the matter May 19 but that has been postponed because Mayor Satyendra Huja will be out of town.