One of the tables at the Belmont Bridge public discussion

Three years after the city of Charlottesville began planning the replacement of the nearly 52-year-old Belmont Bridge, residents gathered in CitySpace once more this week to express their thoughts about what an “enhanced” structure would look like.

“There are a number of people at our table who were here three years ago and this feels very much like Groundhog Day,” said Chris Hays, a Woolen Mills resident.

Hays referred to a November 2010 meeting that launched the design effort for a bridge to replace the 1960s-era structure.

However, design work stopped in February after conceptual plans for both a bridge and an underpass were unveiled. The preliminary cost estimate for the underpass was twice the one for the traditional bridge.

Proponents of the underpass accused the city of inflating its cost estimate to make the bridge option more attractive.

“At that time, we backed up and realized we made mistakes,” said Jim Tolbert, director of the city’s Neighborhood Development Services office. “We also wanted to do an apples-to-apples comparison.”

In September, the city whittled down the estimate for the underpass to $27 million, but did not develop one for an “enhanced” bridge that would make innovative connections for pedestrians and bicyclists. The City Council directed staff and MMM Design to do so.

“What we wanted was to make sure we were getting a bridge design that was as well thought out as the underpass,” Councilor Kathy Galvin said. “We felt the bridge design that was being compared with the underpass was a standard-issue federal highway design that had been summarily dismissed by this community.”

The first step in the new design process was to hold another meeting for public input. On Thursday, more than 60 people broke up into groups and crowded around tables to offer their opinions and to sketch out potential features for the bridge.

“It should be a gateway into the city and so it is important it be beautiful and be something the community is proud of,” said Mike Callahan, of River Vista Avenue.

Callahan’s group also said they wanted the new bridge to be integrated into future redevelopment.

“One idea was to close the stretch of Old Avon Street and bring buildings closer to the bridge when redevelopment happens,” Callahan said.

Hays said the space under the bridge should be treated as an amenity for the city.

“Don’t treat it as secondary space,” he said.

One person suggested the space under the bridge could become a home for the City Market.

Cycling activist Ruth Stornetta said the city should consider a shorter span.

“What needs to be bridged should be considered,” Stornetta said. “The bridge originally spanned more railroad tracks.”

Stornetta also said the city should divert traffic onto other roads to avoid the need for a highway bridge.

Several of the groups wanted seating on the bridge, as well as barriers between sidewalks, bike lanes and vehicles.

“Our group said that bike and pedestrian access is paramount,” said city resident Chris Gist. “There should be separated lanes for bikes and pedestrians in both directions and uninhibited access to the [Downtown Mall] regardless of events at the Pavilion.”

Barbara Gehrung, who lives in Belmont, suggested slowing traffic by reducing the bridge to “one lane in each direction except for turning lanes.”

However, another group was concerned about reducing the bridge to two lanes.

“What happens if a car breaks down over the bridge?” asked PLACE Design Task Force member Scott Paisley. He suggested a reversible third lane to accommodate peak traffic.

Paisley also said that if the desire is to go to two lanes, the city should experiment by temporarily closing a lane to see if traffic volumes could still be supported.

The next step is for the MMM Design team to review the suggestions and develop a new plan. It will then present the plan to PLACE Design Task Force before returning to the City Council.

Tolbert said that process could occur in late winter or early spring.

“Our goal is to be able to start construction as soon as the federal money is available,” he said.

According to the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Six Year Improvement Program, that is scheduled for late 2015.

Throughout Thursday’s meeting, proponents of the underpass asked why their option was not being considered and if their option would go through the same public input process. Tolbert said that was up to the council.

“We know that VDOT will fund the bridge,” Tolbert said. Funding of an underpass is not certain, he said.