The Charlottesville Board of Architectural Review held a preliminary discussion about the Belmont Bridge Tuesday. The conceptual designs presented by consultant Kimley-Horn were the culmination of over 30,000 individual data points collected from community meetings, surveys and the Belmont Bridge project website.
Board members shared concerns about the project, focusing on small components such as bench appearance and larger qualms about the overall design of the bridge.
“The bridge is deteriorating and we need to do something as fast as we can,” said Sal Musarra, project manager with Kimley-Horn.
Musarra presented the conceptual designs, revolving around a corridor plan, and emphasized the key takeaways from the community input: functionality and integration. Improvements to transportation for cars, bikes and people across and around the bridge were also highlighted.
“We’ve had lots of public engagement which we think has been extremely helpful,” said Musarra. “It really has informed the design.”
Musarra began presenting the design by discussing plans for vegetation on the site.
“We have talked with the city arborist on the palette and we’re not down to specific selections yet,” Musarra said. “But the Planetree, the Maple and the Oak are some options that really start to introduce some color down at that more intimate, pedestrian level.
The area surrounding the bridge contains a plant palette of four classifications: the gateway, with seasonal interest; 9th Street, with urban vegetation; the plazas, with shade and specimen trees; and the support streetscape, with supplemental vegetation.
Musarra then spoke extensively about the corridor’s hardscape, which includes paving for the plazas, the streetscape and the intersection, along with site walls and other bridge features.
Pavement designs are for the most part muted colors, but Musarra explains that there is potential for getting more creative, especially in the plaza areas.
“We have a lot of input about being a little contemporary, a little modern,” Musarra said. “The word funky was used during the public engagements workshops.”
Plans for the vertical walls on the bridge will also contribute to creating a more pleasant environment for pedestrians, according to Musarra. Some parts of the walls will be made into green walls, using trellises and vine plants, while others will be left open for art.
“We want to create opportunities for commissioned art, in addition to informal graffiti that happens,” said Musarra.
BAR Vice-Chair Tim Mohr was concerned about another part of the hardscape designs, the benches surrounding the bridge and in the plazas.
“This is something we’re wrestling with right now on the Downtown Mall,” said Mohr. “It’s a hot point for us.”
Bench design is still being considered according to Musarra, who said he is open to input from the BAR and the community.
The issues with the open corridor design include the pedestrian circulation south of the railroad, access to Graves Street and the vertical circulation north of Water Street. Musarra looked to the board members for their thoughts on the ongoing issues.
South of the railroad is considered to be a convenient location for Belmont residents to cross 9th Street, but the area has a record of being unsafe for pedestrians. There have been nine crashes in the intersection between 2012 and 2016, two of which involved pedestrians near the already existing crosswalk at the 9th/Avon/Graves/Levy intersection.
The solution endorsed by the steering committee is to create a pedestrian passageway beneath 9th Street, maintaining the crosswalk to the north. The staff and consultant recommendation is to create the passageway but remove the existing crosswalk.
“We came up with the idea of the pedestrian passageway thinking that if we remove the crosswalk, the passageway gives the opportunity of moving east and west without conflicting with traffic,” said Musarra.
“The thing that I want you to think about is that if we put the passageway out there today, I think it’s a little bit different context than say five years from now when things have become more developed,” he added.
Board member Carl Schwarz felt the crosswalk at the intersection should be left in existence.
“The crosswalk that’s there works,” said Schwarz. “If you don’t leave that up there, I think people are still going to cross as opposed to something that seems kind of inconvenient.”
Congestion stemming from Graves Street is another issue.
“The issue is one of circulation and turn movements,” said Musarra. “The left turn movements are always the ones that are creating traffic issues, congestion issues and safety issues.”
The steering committee and staff and consultant recommendation proposes prohibiting left turns from Graves Street to 9th Street heading southbound, allowing right-in and right-out movements from Graves Street.
The final issue is the vertical circulation north of Water Street, including the lack of connectivity and accessible routes from east to west and the lack of access from Water Street to the bridge.
The solution, supported by the steering committee, staff and consultant, to the limited accessibility is to build stairs to Water Street from 9th Street. A ramp option is being considered, but would cost an estimated $2.2 million, which would need to be taken from funds for other parts of the project.
BAR Chair Melanie Miller felt the designs presented Tuesday were less creative than those from past meetings, but recognized the restrictions on the consultant's plans.
“The requirements you were given… to always keep one side of the bridge open during construction forced you towards creating a bridge that looks a lot like the one that’s there instead of maybe using a different approach,” said Miller. “But any ways to make it less like a highway element right in the middle of downtown are great.”
The project design is nearing its final stages and will be presented to Charlottesville City Council in October.