A divided Charlottesville City Council decided this week against applying for a National Endowment of the Arts grant to help produce a new design for the Belmont Bridge .
A majority of councilors were concerned delaying the process would jeopardize over $6 million in VDOT funding that has so far been accumulated to replace the bridge
Organizers of the Project Gait-Way design contest failed to convince a majority of councilors to submit an application for a $150,000 “Our Town” grant to further develop new ideas for the Belmont Bridge project. The winning entry in the contest recommended eliminating the bridge altogether.
City Manager Maurice Jones said he did not recommend moving forward with the application because its full scope had not yet been thought out.
“How do you incorporate some of the ideas that came out of the design contest into a bridge design that will still meet VDOT’s requirements?” Jones asked. “The other discussion we need to have is whether it will be a bridge at all, based on the winning proposal.”
Several supporters of the project argued the grant would provide the vehicle for distilling the many ideas that came out of the contest.
“Unfortunately taking design competition ideas and fleshing them out is… the valley of death for a lot of good design ideas,” said Brevy Cannon , who ran for City Council last year.
Former mayor and University of Virginia urban design professor Maurice Cox told the council he spent three years as the design director at the NEA and helped create the grant program.
“[It is] specifically for transformative projects in urban areas centered around the power of arts and culture as an economic development tool,” Cox said.
However, Jones said the council had not yet decided to go in that direction.
“The concern we have is being locked into the arts and culture side… and whether this council has a real understanding of what that means,” Jones said.
Councilor Dave Norris said he thought the city should pursue the grant, especially given that Cox had said he would take the lead in making the application.
“If he and his team are willing and able to pull together an application and make those contacts and pull all the pieces together, I’m struggling to find a downside,” Norris said Tuesday.
However, other councilors said the process was being rushed in order to meet a deadline of next Tuesday.
“In my mind, you’re not clear on the purpose and you’re not clear on the timing or the partners,” said Mayor Satyendra Huja , who joined Councilors Kathy Galvin and Kristin Szakos in voting against a motion to apply for the grant.
“If we create something that the Virginia Department of Transportation isn’t going to fund, that’s who we’re counting on to pay for this bridge, then we end up with a project we can’t build,” Szakos said.
Norris and Councilor Dede Smith felt the grant would allow the city to implement the many ideas that came from the contest.
“I’m worried if we don’t do this, we’re just going to go right back to the replacement of the bridge, and we’ll lose this connection,” said Smith.
Galvin said the city should first develop a master plan for the area around the bridge that would include the whole Avon Street corridor as well as a site on Levy Avenue that is being redeveloped by the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority.
“We’ve come a long way from just looking at the parcel or just looking at the bridge to looking at these things together,” Galvin said.
At its next meeting, the council will consider whether to allocate $150,000 to begin a planning process.
“I think the expenditure of $150,000 is not out of the question,” Huja said. “There is a need to do something like this, but I’m not sure that the grant is the right way to do it.”
Organizers of the contest were disappointed in the vote.
“I support a can-do Charlottesville that envisions opportunities, despite the obstacles,” said Brian Wimer , a Belmont filmmaker. “That’s what we saw in the design competition and what won the community’s vote. Council’s outcome failed to meet that world-class standard.”