The city of Charlottesville kicked off a four-day workshop Tuesday to lay the groundwork for a myriad of decisions that will change how people experience the community’s streets.
Everything from the placement of sidewalks and the width of streets to the presence of street trees and bike lanes is up for discussion.
Great streets, however, can mean different things to bicyclists, pedestrians, public safety responders, businesses and the driver in search of a parking spot, the workshop’s leaders said.
“In transportation planning, for a long time the car has been at the center … and everything revolves around the car,” said Ian Lockwood, a consultant with the Toole Design Group. “The cities that do that the most tend to be the worst cities because they are not working at a human scale.”
The national engineering and planning firm has been hired to oversee one of several planning efforts being undertaken by the city to create more “complete streets.” Lockwood spoke to a group of about 40 people in City Council Chambers and gave the audience a broad overview of street design principles.
Jim Tolbert, the city’s director of neighborhood development services, said Toole will be paid about $30,000 to $35,000 to develop street design guidelines that accommodate all users. In addition to sessions with specific stakeholder groups, the consultants plan to meet with the public again on Thursday and Friday to take additional input.
“We need the public’s help so that Toole can understand what their values are and what this community is looking for,” Tolbert said. “This is just the starting point of asking the community what they want to see.”
One audience member asked the consultants how they could accommodate all types of uses on some narrow city streets.
“We have constrained space on our streets,” said former Mayor Bitsy Waters. “It’s just plain tight to accommodate everybody and everything, even in a vibrant and shared street.”
Lockwood responded that sometimes having space constraints can work in a city’s favor.
“When you think about it, the best cities in the world are the constrained cities, the worst ones are the unconstrained ones, where they had the luxury of being able to spread out,” Lockwood said. “It actually creates efficiencies in your city if you can’t keep widening you way out of problems. It helps shift markets in healthy ways so people find what they need in closer proximity.”
Tolbert said the city was embarking on several coordinated projects that include updates to the Bike-Pedestrian Plan, a Green Infrastructure Plan, and a Multi-Modal Plan. A separate consulting team is already working on streetscape recommendations for West Main Street.
Lockwood also foreshadowed work the city is doing to review its ordinances. He said a city’s vision is really the sum of all the codes and rules and offered a lesson he said he learned in Savannah, Georgia.
“We were helping them with their street design guidelines, the values of the community there were, ‘We love our historic core, that’s what we want,’” Lockwood said. “In Savannah at the time, it was illegal to do anything that people liked. You were required by the law and the guidelines to build the stuff that people hated.
“The message there is to align your values with your vision and your rules and you can make your city evolve into something really, really quite nice.”
City resident and architect Mark Rylander said it was important for the consultants to understand the city’s connections to surrounding Albemarle County.
“I can see his point that the principles of walkable neighborhoods can work at any scale,” Rylander said. “It’s still worrisome to talk about the city limits without showing the connections to the county.
“My hope is that the core of downtown Charlottesville will grow in such a way that the transition to residential neighborhoods will not be abrupt, and that the downtown will connect in a beautiful way to the University of Virginia.”
The consultants plan to meet with the public in a drop-in format during two sessions at CitySpace on Thursday, first between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., and then between 6:30 and 8 p.m. A final presentation summarizing all of the input provided is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Friday at CitySpace.