A committee that reviews Charlottesville’s infrastructure projects from the perspective of walkers and cyclists has informally endorsed a plan to replace the city’s Belmont Bridge with an underpass that would carry Avon Street underneath a railroad and two city streets.
“I would think that with the underpass there will be more opportunities for more trees and that would be extremely desirable,” said Stephen Bach, one of the members of the city’s bike and pedestrian safety committee.
The city is currently reviewing two scenarios for the replacement of the Belmont Bridge, which was built in 1961.
The original replacement plan produced by MMM Design met with resistance after some community members expressed concern it did not do enough to connect the city’s Downtown Mall with the Belmont neighborhood.
Last winter, filmmaker Brian Wimer sponsored a design contest called Project Gait-way to solicit solutions that could garner more community support. The entire University of Virginia School of Architecture participated in the event.
When the contest concluded, the city hired the firm Siteworks Studios to sift through the entries to develop two new scenarios to present to the City Council.
“The goal is to try to maximize the connectivity for pedestrians and cyclists, and everyone who is not in a car between Belmont and downtown,” said Pete O’Shea of SiteWorks Studios.
On Thursday, members of the committee studied wood mock-ups of both concepts. One would replace the bridge in place, while the other would drop Avon Street underneath the railroad tracks, which are owned by CSX and operated by the Buckingham Branch Railroad.
“As we dug into this, we realized that embedded here is a wonderful asset for Charlottesville,” said Jim Rounsevell, an architect working with SiteWorks. His entry, which envisioned a pedestrian suspension bridge, placed second in the contest.
The underpass option was inspired by the winning entry, which envisioned removing the bridge altogether and letting Avon Street cross the railroad tracks at-grade. However, CSX officials said they would not grant an easement allowing for that to happen.
The bridge scenario would feature a five-foot bike lane on each side of the bridge. Each would be raised by about two inches using a feature known as a cycle track.
“I really like the raised lane,” said committee member Ruth Stornetta. “I think it will encourage more people to ride if they have a separation from traffic.”
The western half of the bridge would have a 10-foot-wide sidewalk and the eastern side would have a seven-foot-wide sidewalk.
The underpass would be about 800 feet long and would need to be deep enough to get under the railroad tracks, Water Street and Avon Street . While bike lanes would be on both sides of the underpass, they would be separated from vehicular traffic because an underpass would not require a median.
“If the underpass went forward, we would like to make it as wide as possible,” O’Shea said. He added that private property would constrain the footprint of the project, as well as the space designated for the nTelos Wireless Pavilion.
Both scenarios also envision a separate suspension pedestrian bridge that would allow people to cross straight to the Downtown Mall. However, this project would be separate from the bridge replacement.
Many members of the committee said the pedestrian bridge should be wide enough to also accommodate cyclists.
However, O’Shea said his initial recommendation was not to include that because the northern end of the bridge would land on the Downtown Mall.
“The glitch we have is that cycling isn’t allowed on the mall,” O’Shea said. However, he added that because the bridge would likely be a single mass suspended, there would be flexibility to consider the option.
At this moment, the underpass scenario assumes that vehicular traffic on Avon Street will be shut down for four months.
“The questions we should be asking is, what set of ideas makes Charlottesville better in the end,” O’Shea said. “Four months in the big picture is nothing. If it ends up with something positive afterwards, people will forget about it quickly.”
O’Shea said the bridge is also being planned in connection with another study to examine the “strategic investment area” along the greater Avon Street corridor.
“We’re hopeful we’ll be able to coordinate and interact with that team of planners, especially on economic development opportunities,” O’Shea said.
Members of the committee took a straw poll and a majority indicated they prefer the underpass option.
“It seems like the underpass provides more access to the mall in all directions,” committee member Susan Elliott said.
However, committee member Michael Koslow said he supports the bridge because it retains an existing pedestrian crossing.
“Right now there is a dedicated pedestrian crossing in front of LexisNexis,” Koslow said. “[The underpass] would also be a more challenging grade for pedestrians.”
Jeanette Janiczek, the city’s urban construction initiative manager, said the two scenarios are just conceptual at this point.
“This is the best information that we have right now,” Janiczek said. “The numbers, figures and schemes could all change.”
The city will hold a meeting in mid-February to present the two scenarios to the greater public. The City Council will then be briefed and will be asked to select one of the two options.