As West Main Street grows, so do safety concerns

As new buildings bring more people to Charlottesville’s West Main Street, one man wants city officials to do more to make the road a safe place for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers during construction and beyond.

“The city doesn’t really seem to understand how to make the city genuinely more pedestrian-friendly and that’s by influencing the attitudes of drivers, pedestrians and cyclists,” said Kevin Cox, a city resident who has been walking to work at the University of Virginia for 30 years.

“We don’t need bells and whistles,” he added. “We need the police to educate people and pedestrians can help by being both more assertive and more respectful.”

Cox’s comments come at a time when construction is underway on a six-story apartment complex called the Standard and a nine-story hotel that are within two blocks of each other.

That has meant closures of bike lanes and sidewalks, something that concerns one member of the city’s Bike and Pedestrian Advisory Committee.

“To me it seems that the construction is given priority over all other things,” said Chris Gist, an avid cyclist who campaigns for safer conditions.

“I understand that sidewalks and lanes need to be closed but the current construction has no incentive to open up the facilities again,” Gist added.

Currently contractors pay $10 a day to block the sidewalk, according to Alexander Ikefuna, the city’s director of neighborhood development services. The city’s traffic engineer reviews closure plans and alternative solutions, such as a pair of shipping containers that have been lined up in front of the Marriott Autograph as a tunnel.

“The container at the Autograph was proposed by the contractor as a way to maintain pedestrian traffic,” Ikefuna said. “This was the first time this method has been used in the city.”

However Cox said he thinks the shipping container solution is a disaster.

“It’s on top of the bike lane and it forces cyclists to suddenly go out into traffic,” Cox said, adding he has also had to put pressure on the city to ensure the tunnel complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

There is now a voice recording at both ends of the tunnel that instructs the blind that the passageway may not be safe for them, but it may not be heard among the noise of construction of the nine story tower above the tiny speaker.

“That tunnel is not safe by any ADA standards,” Gist said.

To the east, the construction of the Standard on the northern side of the street has closed both the bike lane and the sidewalk between 9th Street and a private parking lot across from the Flats at West Village.

The bus stop that had been in front of the now-demolished Republic Plaza was moved about 200 feet to the east. With no safe way for eastbound pedestrians to get to the bus stop, the contractor created a mid-block crosswalk between the front door of a coffee and donut shop in the Flats to the western edge of the parking lot.

“The contractor went out on their own and just decided to repaint stuff,” Gist said. “The city didn’t even know about it. That first morning I made an inquiry and the people in the city didn’t even know that it had happened.”

Ikefuna said the unsanctioned crosswalk did not meet ADA requirements and the white lines were blacked out. He was unaware late last week that someone has gone ahead and painted it back.

Cox said crosswalks — sanctioned or not — give drivers a cue that they share the urban environment. But he added pedestrians need to be assertive or cars will just whiz by.

“They’ll stop if you’re moving but if you’re standing and even though it’s obvious you’re trying to cross the street, they won’t yield,” Cox said, shortly before demonstrating how the unofficial sidewalk does work to stop traffic.

Cox said he never sees police officers walking the beat or police officers on motorcycles on West Main, though he does seem them on the Corner.

“They need to publicize this, work with the media and say they are going to create a safe zone on West Main,” Cox said. “We want people to know that they have to yield to pedestrians, and we want pedestrians to know they have to obey the walk signals.”

Gist said he is more concerned that the city prepare for construction projects coming in the near future.

“I think it’s just going to get worse and worse because every major construction project in the past ten years are all closing our facilities and making unsafe situations for pedestrians and cyclists,” Gist said. “We’re going to have more and more of that.”

The Autograph is expected to be completed by the spring of 2018, according to city planner Brian Haluska. The Standard is expected to open in time for the fall of 2018 to provide “affordable lavish living.”

In the meantime, two new buildings may also soon be under construction.

The city is still reviewing a site plan for the Quirk Hotel in the 500 block of West Main Street. The site plan for Six Hundred West Main Street, a 53-unit apartment complex built around the Blue Moon Diner, has been approved and groundbreaking could occur this summer.

Gist wants the city to be prepared.

“When they start doing construction of the hotel and the apartment building at the same time on opposite sides of the street it’s just going to get ridiculous,” Gist said.

Ikefuna said if both buildings are underway at the same time, the city will deal with it.

“Both of these projects have existing buildings that will remain along West Main Street and the majority of the work is back behind so the need for closing the sidewalk won’t be the same as what is currently being done further down West Main,” Ikefuna said. “Also we have approximately 44 feet of pavement width curb-to-curb and can require them to provide a protected pedestrian detour within this area.”

The city is also working on a plan to create a new look for West Main Street. The firm Rhodeside and Harwell has been working since October 2013 on a concept for a new streetscape. The Council approved the project in March 2016, giving the firm the green light to work on construction documents.

As of May 17, Rhodeside & Harwell has been paid $2.1 million for their work. That consists of $475,000 to develop the concept and $1.2 million to initiate the construction document process and create the schematic design. There is no estimate yet for how much it will take to complete the blueprints.

The city’s Smart Scale application for $18.6 million to go towards the $31 million cost estimate for the road did not qualify. Ikefuna said the project has been split into four phases so not all needs to be completed at once.

Whatever the streetscape ends up looking like, Cox wants the city to send a message to the rest of Charlottesville that a successful urban environment works for all users.

“I think if it can happen on West Main, it’s a large enough area that it very well would likely influence driver’s behavior on Cherry Avenue,” Cox said.