UVa teams finalizing designs for new Belmont Bridge

The architecture studios in Campbell Hall at the University of Virginia are filled with new ideas for Charlottesville’s Belmont Bridge . Students and faculty are shaping cardboard, metal and plastic to create designs that look beyond mere replacement of the deteriorating structure.

“We can turn a neglected part of Charlottesville into a really vital part of the city,” said graduate student Sarah Cancienne.

This team stretched rubber bands across a wooden mock-up of Charlottesville to depict travelways

Twenty-nine teams from UVa are participating in Project Gait-Way, a grassroots design competition launched by Belmont filmmaker Brian Wimer out of dissatisfaction with plans under review by the city of Charlottesville.

“It’s about having a dream about where the city is going to be, and that’s what UVa is providing now,” Wimer told the City Council at its meeting earlier this week.

However, Wimer said entries are coming in from places other than UVa as well.

“I’m getting designs from San Francisco, Brooklyn and Scotland,” Wimer said. “There is an entire school system in Rocky Mount [where the] eighth grade is dedicated to fixing our bridge issue.”

Many of the projects are conceptual and look a hundred years into the city’s future.

“As we have seen in the history of the Belmont Bridge, it is one bridge replacing the other and another bridge replacing the previous one,” student Eve Lee said. “Are we designing another fourth bridge that’s waiting to be replaced by the fifth bridge? Or [should] we design a bridge that’s like a living organism that we can incorporate into the city system and make it alive?”

The School of Architecture’s involvement is on an unprecedented scale, with more than 300 people working on designs this week.

“I think it’s a very good moment for the university to be able to take all of these proposals into the competition,” said Eduardo Arroyo, a visiting lecturer from Barcelona who is overseeing what the architecture school is calling the “Belmont Vortex.”

Cancienne’s group looked beyond the right-of-way for the bridge, and envisioned transforming the entire area by removing railway fences and changing land masses in order to create a new space.

“We are proposing a large programmed landscape and architectural surface that’s going to have some public parks on the top,” Cancienne said. “The surface itself will be thick and will contain apartment buildings and offices and housing.”

Cancienne said the idea is not far-fetched given that many parcels of land surrounding the bridge are zoned for nine-story buildings.

Erin Root’s team studied the city’s pedestrian and bicycling network and discovered that there are many gaps that need to be filled.

“[We’re] using the bridge as a catalyst to create a larger network that’s more consistent so there is not the stopping and starting,” Root said.

On Monday, the City Council agreed to contribute $2,000 in prize money for the contest.

Councilor Kristin Szakos said she was initially skeptical the city should invest in the contest.

“Seeing how much buzz this has generated in the community, since it’s coming out of council priority funds for innovative new ideas that can trigger sparks, I think it’s exactly the kind of thing we need to do,” Szakos said.

The UVa teams will unveil their designs for the Belmont Bridge at the Music Resource Center from 3 to 4 p.m. today. All entries will be displayed in CitySpace on the Downtown Mall next week.

(The dean of the School of Architecture, Kim Tanzer, is on the board of directors of Charlottesville Tomorrow.)