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West Main Streetscape in limbo as council grapples with budget

Weighing different infrastructure projects amidst budget season and the continued impacts of COVID-19,  the Charlottesville City Council is continuing to deliberate its options. 

Councilors delayed deciding on the future of the West Main Streetscape in a Tuesday night meeting, opting instead for city staff to reevaluate budget priorities. During a conversation that Councilor Michael Payne described as “spinning our wheels,” councilors also debated other capital improvement projects, like the planned construction of a $10 million parking garage downtown.

The Capital Improvement Program discussion was a continuation of a Feb. 3 budget work session and Feb. 9 Planning Commission meeting. City staff’s proposed $160.5 million Capital Improvement Program covers five years and allocates $35.4 million for various capital projects in fiscal year 2022, which begins July 1. 

City staff proposed in the Feb. 3 work session that additional funding for the West Main Streetscape be removed entirely from the budget, but city planners recommended during their Feb. 9 meeting funding for essential aspects of the project. 

Councilor Lloyd Snook suggested during the hourlong conversation on budget priorities that City Manager Chip Boyles, who assumed office last week, proffer solutions for adjusting the capital improvement plan budget to accommodate some funding for West Main Street.

In a Feb. 10 Facebook post, Snook suggested deferring construction costs for the parking structure for at least one year, citing decreased demand for parking amid work from home norms of the pandemic. The planned 300-spot parking garage — which would cost $10 million over two years — stems from an agreement with Albemarle County to keep its courts downtown. The agreement only requires 90 dedicated parking spaces. 

Snook said on Tuesday that funds saved from deferring construction of the parking garage could be put toward the West Main Streetscape, which has thus far received Smart Scale funding from the Virginia Department of Transportation for two of its four phases.

“The future of the city is going to be along the axis between downtown and the university, and we ought to be spending our time, our money, our energy, our resources on that area, and I would like to try to put the West Main Streetscape back in the Capital Improvement budget and take out the Market Street parking garage,” Snook said. 

Councilor Heather Hill likewise advocated for city staff to “holistically” evaluate budget plans and expressed hesitancy with nixing city funding to the West Main Streetscape.

“I’m really struggling with just closing the door on this,” Hill said.

Boyles suggested that city staff assess and rescope the West Main Streetscape project and return before council with concepts and recommendations by April 1. 

City staff proposed cutting funding for the West Main Streetscape to make room for other priorities  — like the $50 million reconfiguration of Buford Middle School and Walker Upper Elementary School, which is currently in an initial design phase.  

The reconfiguration of Walker and Buford involves renovating the buildings, moving fifth grade down to elementary schools and moving sixth grade up to Buford. Walker, which currently houses fifth and sixth grade, will become a centralized preschool.

Both the Walker and Buford buildings are in need of repair and renovation. At council’s budget meeting earlier this month, Mayor Nikuyah Walker noted the longtime-need for repairs the schools have faced. 

“You have two buildings where wealthier parents have pulled their kids out during those school years,” Walker said at the time. “We can talk about why the investment hasn’t been made in Buford and Walker, where investments have been made in CHS.”

Meanwhile, staff said that the capital improvement plan could not support the combined magnitude of both the school reconfiguration and West Main Streetscape project. 

Councilor Sena Magill said that, while she would like to see necessary improvements made to West Main Street, the project is not higher in priority than others on the capital improvement plan. 

“I know we need to get a lot of work done on West Main Street,” Magill said. “It’s been deferred and deferred and deferred, but I don’t know if we need to be investing this much into it, especially over other things that I find a higher priority.”

With no concrete decisions yet made, Charlottesville’s proposed budget is still in the works. 

Krissy Hammill, the finance and debt manager for the city, encouraged councilors to decide budgetary priorities in the near future, noting that city staff will “firm up” their proposed budget by next week.

In the meantime, a request for proposal was listed for the parking garage project last week — and should the council continue with that project, contracts could be selected by this summer for construction.