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New Belmont Bridge concept envisions going under railroad tracks

For over 100 years, a bridge has carried pedestrians and vehicles over the railroad tracks that travel south of Charlottesville’s downtown area.

A team of architects hired by the city to imagine a new vision for the bridge have proposed that the city lower Avon Street under the railroad tracks instead.
 
“This allows for what is currently the bridge to be developed as a street and not to have as many limitations that you have with a bridge,” said Pete O’Shea of Siteworks Studio, a landscape architecture firm.
 
On Thursday, O’Shea and architect Jim Rounsevell unveiled two scenarios for bridge replacement to the city’s PLACE task force. The group was created earlier this year to advise the City Council on the design of public infrastructure.
 
In one of the scenarios, the bridge would be replaced and would continue to carry Avon Street across the CSX railroad tracks.
 
The other scenario would lower Avon Street about 25 feet. Bridges would be built to carry Water Street, the railroad tracks and an access road over the street.
 
Both scenarios have several common features, including a steel suspension bridge that would carry pedestrians across the railroad tracks completely separated from vehicular traffic.
 
“They both entertain the idea of replacing the canopy of the Transit Center with an elevated catwalk that would let you walk around the building during events at the Pavilion,” O’Shea said.
 
The new scenarios were created after some Belmont residents opposed replacement plans crafted by MMM Design because they did not connect downtown and Belmont. Filmmaker Brian Wimer launched a design contest to seek fresh ideas.
 
The entire University of Virginia School of Architecture participated in the event. The winning team envisioned removing the bridge entirely, leaving an at-grade crossing of the railroad tracks. Rounsevell, the second-place entrant, imagined a pedestrian-bridge that would curve over the railroad tracks separate from vehicular traffic.
 
Afterwards, the Department of Neighborhood Development Services worked with faculty to distill lessons learned from the experience.
 
“We went through all the submittals from the contest and we pulled out what we felt were the really good things, the things that could carry forward in principle,” said Jim Tolbert, director of Neighborhood Development Services.
 
O’Shea and Rounsevell examined old Charlottesville maps and found that the land where the bridge is located was used very differently before first bridge was built in 1905. The current bridge has been in place since 1961.
 
“This was a dense, thriving urban place with sawmills and lumberyards,” O’Shea said. “There’s a lot of potential here for really enlivening the places around here.”
The underpass would need to be at least 19 and a half feet deep in order to satisfy Virginia Department of Transportation requirements for clearance on arterial streets, according to Rounsevell.
 
O’Shea said there are several precedents in Charlottesville for placing streets below railroad tracks. For instance, the Roosevelt Brown Connector was built underneath the CSX tracks in the 1990s to replace an at-grade crossing at Ninth Street Southwest.
 
In both scenarios, cyclists would use 5-foot-wide bike lanes on either side of the roadway. These lanes would possibly be elevated in the bridge scenario.
 
Siteworks hired Faulconer Construction to conduct estimates of both scenarios. The bridge scenario has an estimated cost of $15.9 million and the underpass scenario is $17.3 million. Those estimates include the pedestrian bridge, but do not include landscaping, professional fees, or the catwalk at the Transit Center.
 
VDOT currently classifies the replacement as a $14.5 million project. The city would have to pay for the pedestrian bridge separately.
 
“The pedestrian bridge was always going to be extra but that’s something this community has insisted on,” said City Councilor Kathy Galvin.
 
The bridge could be replaced with two years of construction, whereas the underpass would take three years.
 
O’Shea said one advantage of the underpass scenario is that the city and VDOT would save on long-term maintenance costs.
 
A disadvantage of the underpass scenario is that Avon Street might need to be closed for at least four months to build the railroad bridge.
 
“We have two almost opposite concepts and we have to see what the community feeling is and what council wants to do,” Tolbert said. “We’re trying to get as much information as we can so it will be an apples to apples decision.”
 
PLACE member Rachel Lloyd pointed out there may be a possibility of the pedestrian bridge being built at a different time than the underpass.
 
“My concern is that going under a tunnel as a pedestrian in the short term would actually make it worse,” Lloyd said. Until the bridge is built, people would have to walk through a tunnel.
 
“The underpass scheme offers more opportunities for redevelopment,” said PLACE member Richard Price. “I think this underpass has great potential to knit together the two sides of the tracks.”
 
“The citizen and architect in me is very interested in the underpass,” Galvin said. “The councilor in me is going to want to know what net positive we will get. Not just looking at the costs but in terms of reclaiming buildable land.”
 
PLACE member Andrea Douglas said the underpass could help rebrand Charlottesville. She compared it to the decision by the University of Virginia to connect the South Lawn project to the rest of Grounds via a lawn-covered pedestrian bridge over Jefferson Park Avenue.
 
The next step in the process is for the two scenarios to go before the city’s bike and pedestrian safety committee on Jan. 3, followed by a presentation to the public sometime later that month. Tolbert said he hopes to present the City Council with the two scenarios in mid-February.