Local activists hope for big ideas in U.S. 29 design project

Representatives of local environmental and business groups gave a warm welcome to University of Virginia’s School of Architecture students Monday as they began a weeklong design study of the U.S. 29 corridor from Ivy Road to the South Fork Rivanna River.

“These ideas matter,” said Neil Williamson, president of the Free Enterprise Forum. “They won’t come to pass exactly as you play them out, but you’re pushing the envelope.”

Williamson was part of a panel discussion in Culbreth Theatre that marked the official beginning of the architecture school’s third annual look at a local development issue.

“One of the main ideas of the ‘Vortex’ is to open the school to the city and the community,” said Manuel Bailo, an associate architecture professor at UVa. “We would like to see and explore how U.S. 29 can be more of an urban public space.”

Thirty teams of students have until Saturday to develop an overarching vision of the road’s future, as well as a detailed vision for how their assigned 1,500-foot section of the corridor should evolve over the next several decades.

“You will have to be thinking about what new uses this street has to have,” Bailo said. “What is the relationship between the buildings and the public space? How does U.S. 29 become the urban center of Charlottesville?”

The panel, moderated by Charlottesville Tomorrow’s executive director Brian Wheeler, was intended to give students local perspective to help them answer those questions.

“I would like to stress the importance of looking at this road as the thread that ties together [Charlottesville and Albemarle County],” said City Councilor Kathy Galvin. “We each do different things, but together we enhance each other’s livability and opportunity.”

Galvin said the regional economy is attracting interest from start-up companies who want to locate in this community.

“Their employees increasingly want to be in places where they can live within in a walkable distance of work,” Galvin said. “You need different environments to grow different people and places.”

For much of the last 20 years, business and environmental interests have disagreed about the most appropriate way to develop U.S. 29 and the future of its Western Bypass is uncertain.

“We believe the best solution for 29 is one that creates a network of interconnected streets,” said Jeff Werner of the Piedmont Environment Council. “It is one of the last opportunities we have to roll back suburbia.”

“Make the road so that it is more bike-friendly and walkable,” said Morgan Butler, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Make it a key artery that is more of a functioning place.”

However, the president of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce reminded students that the focus of the vortex is part of a much larger transportation highway.

“U.S. 29 from south to north begins in Pensacola and goes to Baltimore,” Hulbert said. “It runs for 219 miles in Virginia.”

Hulbert added that 55,000 vehicles a day travel through the intersection of U.S 29 and the U.S. 250 Bypass.

The panel discussion revived a long-running debate about how U.S. 29 should accommodate the high volume of traffic.

“We all recognize there has to be better pedestrian crossings,” Butler said. “One of the solutions are overpasses at the most congested intersections.”

Butler said these grade-separated interchanges would allow pedestrians and cyclists to cross safely, and would eliminate traffic lights that congest the highway.

However, the chamber has opposed such improvements for years and instead supports the Western Bypass.

“The challenge is that [overpasses] would make the existing alignment more of an expressway and less of a commercial boulevard,” Hulbert said. He asked students to consider whether U.S. 29 can serve both as a U.S. highway and a commercial boulevard.

Galvin said some form of bridge to allow pedestrians and cyclists safe access across U.S. 29 is likely a good economic investment.

“We may be getting to the point where [it makes economic sense] because it would facilitate connectivity between different growth engines,” Galvin said.

All of the panelists encouraged students to think big as they prepare their designs.

“You have an opportunity to think and look at things differently,” Werner said. “You don’t have to abide by the politics.”

Hulbert encouraged groups to consider human behavior as they craft their presentations. He pointed to the trend in Albemarle County towards placing parking behind buildings, which he said has had mixed results.

“It’s a great idea conceptually until you think of how humans react,” Hulbert said. “They don’t want to be parking outside the view of other human beings.”

Williamson said teams should not put any constraints on their imagination.

“We’re going to shoot down all of your stuff anyway,” Williamson joked. “I firmly believe there will be a science-fiction look to many of the designs, and that’s okay.”

After the presentation, the entire school walked the length of the study area.

Albemarle police had extra officers on duty to help protect the 350 students and faculty members traverse the study area safely.

“When you are crossing Rio Road at U.S. 29, there are no crosswalks,” said Asa Eslocker, a third year graduate student of landscape architecture. “There is no physical way a human being could legally cross. Let’s imagine ourselves living in a society where not everyone owns an automobile.”