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Belmont Bridge contest winners comment on underpass concept

Members of a team that won a design contest earlier this year to come up with new ideas for the replacement of the Belmont Bridge have expressed concern that they were not contacted to help turn their entry into a reality.

The winning entry in the Project Gait-Way contest imagined a future where the bridge was replaced with an at-grade railroad crossing. The project, which was developed by students and faculty at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture, won all four prizes at the contest.
 
“If you’re going to have a design contest, you have in my opinion an obligation to carry through with it,” said W.G. Clark, a UVa architecture professor. “They owed us the decency of talking about it.”
 
Last week, the city unveiled two scenarios for replacing the bridge, both of which feature a suspension bridge to carry pedestrians across the tracks separate from vehicular traffic. One scenario replaces the bridge, but the other drops Avon Street a couple dozen feet below the railroad tracks and Water Street.
 
Clark said he supports the underpass option if it is proven to be feasible from an engineering standpoint.
 
“The bridge in a funny way acts as a barrier between [downtown] and Belmont,” Clark said. “The bridge is there serving suburban people and  [Interstate] 64 visitors as much as its serving the neighborhood.”
 
Clark said people seeking to drive downtown from south of the city should use Monticello Road and Ridge Street, allowing Avon Street to become a neighborhood street.
 
As part of the winning team, Madeleine Hawks conducted historical research about the Belmont community to help put the no-bridge option into context. She is now an intern in the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development Services.
 
“I was impressed by the presentation of both designs,” Hawks said. “The underpass seems not only financially logical, but also makes a great statement about the continued importance of railroad transportation.”
 
Meghan Maupin, a graduate of the School of Architecture who was also part of the winning team, said she also would like the underpass to move forward.
 
“Crossing the bridge around rush hour has been especially problematic for Belmont residents,” Maupin said. “I think it would be a way to increase various types of activity happening in that area, especially if the city was to do something like we proposed and give the farmer’s market a permanent home that would incorporate the iconic Flour Mill and relate back to the rich history of the site.”
 
Daniel Bluestone, who also served as a faculty advisor on the Belmont: Unabridged project, said there are national precedents for dropping streets below railroad tracks.
 
“In Boston, the sinking of the Central Artery has had incredibly positive effects on the pattern of development and urban life in downtown,” Bluestone said.
 
However, Bluestone said there would be a down side to creating a tunnel through east downtown.
 
“Having cars emerging from the dark underpass is dangerous for pedestrians who will use the pedestrian bridge but need to get across Avon at some point,” Bluestone said.
 
Other people with a stake in the future of the Belmont Bridge also have opinions on the project.
Greg Jackson, president of the Belmont-Carlton Neighborhood Association, said he supported the design contest because he said the original plans presented by MMM Design did not reach their full potential.
 
“The bridge is Belmont’s primary connection to the city of Charlottesville and the north part of the area for all modes of transportation — automobile, pedestrian, bike, and stroller,” Jackson said.
 
Jackson said the ideas presented earlier this month are exciting and he wants to see more details. However, he feels a third option should be on the table.
 
“A lot of the concepts from UVa design competition were quite elaborate and the exercise expanded our perception of the possibilities,” Jackson said. “The plan that won was unfeasible but fun to consider. I think we … should include a scenario that has a single bridge replacement that is designed well and meets the established criteria.”
 
Filmmaker Brian Wimer, who launched the contest, said he is convinced that the underpass option would be the best for Charlottesville despite whatever inconveniences commuters 
might experience during construction.
 
“This is going to usher in a significant wave of long-term vitality to the area and the surrounding communities,” Wimer said.
 
Wimer said the project’s cost could be reduced by eliminating nearby parking lots and by not building the pedestrian-only bridge.
 
“The pedestrian bridge, although a beautiful addition, is a pricey bit of icing on the cake. The underpass works perfectly fine with a brief pedestrian ‘tunnel,’ just when like you walk under the trestle on the Corner,” Wimer said.
 
Bruce Odell, a resident of the Martha Jefferson neighborhood, said he thinks the underpass option should be further explored. However, he said the safety of the entire Avon Street and Route 20 corridor should be looked at by the city no matter which option is selected.
 
“Either a new bridge or an underpass should be accompanied by a hard look at other Route 20 corridor issues in the city,” Odell said. “[These include] the dangerous intersection at Lexington Avenue and East High Street, and how the Free Bridge intersection is and will continue to be tied in knots.”
 
The plans will next be presented to the public at the city’s Bike and Pedestrian Safety Committee meeting Jan. 3.