In an effort to make the streetscape friendlier to pedestrians, the city of Charlottesville is nearing completion of a $177,000 project to install landscaped medians, crosswalks and planters on Hinton Avenue.
Donovan Branche, the city’s traffic engineer, said the push for a more walkable downtown originated with Belmont residents.
“The neighborhood association was the lead,” Branche said. “There has been interest in revitalizing the area and making it more beautiful.”
The ideas were translated into action through the neighborhood Capital Improvement Program. The CIP funds and facilitates improvements to streets, public land and public buildings that cost more than $50,000.
According to Greg Jackson, president of the Belmont Carlton Neighborhood Association, it all began 10 years ago when a group of neighbors met at Mas Tapas to discuss the “renaissance” of downtown Belmont. At the time, the area was emerging as a popular restaurant district, and it had begun to attract “lots of pedestrian activity day and night.”
“The old Y-intersections at Mas and La Taza [were] acting more as yielding exit ramps rather than stop sign intersections,” Jackson said. “Also, the road was so wide in front of Fitzgerald’s Tire that one could do a continuous 360.”
Though the new streetscape is the result of extensive neighborhood talks, both Jackson and Branche said they have found the reactions of Belmont residents and businesses to be mixed.
“I’m for it,” said Sarah Otto, a Belmont resident. “I think it’s an improvement.”
Otto added that downtown Belmont has always had “kind of a weird traffic situation” and that the changes in the streetscape would help drivers know where to make turns and help pedestrians to decide where to cross.
Mary Caldwell, another Belmont resident and an employee at La Taza Restaurant and Coffeehouse, agreed. Caldwell said the construction was “annoying in the short run,” but should prove “good in the long run.”
One of the more major installations being made is a “bulb-out” where Monticello Road meets Hinton Avenue. Bulb-outs, also known as curb extensions, are typically employed to widen the sidewalk, reduce the distance a pedestrian must travel to cross the street, and slow down traffic.
Branche emphasized that the Hinton Avenue project was meant to enhance pedestrian activity, not to slow down drivers. However, she added that Belmont had been experiencing “a high volume of cut-through traffic.” A number of cars and a few trucks have been taking advantage of the neighborhood’s orthogonal street grid to get from Carlton Road to Avon Street without waiting at traffic signals.
By reducing the width of the street, medians and bulb-outs could calm traffic and reduce the number of vehicles cutting through.
“If traffic calming is the intention [of the project], it’s doing a good job,” said La Taza patron Hank Browne.
Adam Frazier, a Belmont resident and the owner of The Local restaurant, said he thought the bulb-out was “unnecessary,” arguing that it removed up to seven parking spaces, adversely impacting the restaurants, and made the road too narrow. Frazier said the city “did not consult businesses” about the change.
The city’s assistant traffic engineer, Jared Buchanan, responded that the city invited input, though not from specific parties.“This project, a number of years ago, went through the public participation process and any interested parties could attend,” said Buchanan. “It was as fully vetted as any other project.”
Other complaints come from bicyclists, who compare the new bulb-out and planters in Belmont to curb extensions built on Park Street some years ago. They say that where the curb juts into the street, it forces bicyclists to leave the road shoulder and join automobile traffic. As a result, bicycling becomes more dangerous and stressful.
Branche maintains that Park Street’s challenges are not being replicated in Belmont.
“We believe that the improvements should not pose a problem for cyclists,” Branche said. She added that the project includes a plan for new bicycle parking facilities.
Jackson also endorses the bulb-out. He said the parking it eliminates was dangerously situated and already has been replaced with an equal number of spaces found elsewhere.
In addition, the bulb-out is an opportunity for a miniature plaza complete with trees, benches and even use of bricks leftover from the Downtown Mall’s 2009 facelift.
Rather than an inconvenience, Jackson sees the curb extension as an asset to the neighborhood and to local businesses.
A similar streetscape transformation for Rose Hill Drive is in the planning stages. While traffic-calming measures will not be used on that road because of the traffic volumes, the Kellytown Neighborhood Association and other residents have worked with city staff on a variety of measures to improve pedestrian and bicycle amenities.