Chad Freckman & Ivana Kadija

It was the Belmont/Carlton neighborhood’s turn to be heard Thursday night at Charlottesville’s second town hall meeting of the year.

The meeting, a part of the “Our Town Charlottesville” series, was held at Clark Elementary School. The forums will rotate throughout the city, said Miriam Dickler, the city’s communications director.

“The goal is to give people a chance to interact with council and staff closer to their homes, with a focus on their own neighborhood,” Dickler said.  “Whatever they want to talk about is what we want to hear.”

About 40 people took advantage of the opportunity, which included a complimentary dinner and childcare.  Four of five councilors were in attendance, with Mayor Satyendra Huja out of town on a family visit.

Over pizza, neighborhood resident Meredith Cole said the upcoming replacement of the Belmont Bridge was among her top concerns.

“I work on the Downtown Mall and live in Belmont and we want to get across Avon Street in a safe way,” Cole said. “We also have an issue with kids walking to school and crossing Avon.”
Cole said she hoped the Belmont Bridge replacement would take care of another nagging problem for her and her neighbors.
“Pedestrians are also cut off today when there is an event at the Pavilion,” she said, describing the walkway leading from the bridge.  “It’s our only access straight to the mall, and lots of people get angry about it.”
Ed Herring is a member of the neighborhood association’s board and is general manager of the restaurant The Local. He also came seeking more information about the bridge project.
“My priority is to have only short-term disruption and for keeping the cost down,” Herring said.  “A lot of us use [Avon Street] pretty often and I can’t imagine not being able to use it as a through street for even a year.”

Jim Tolbert, Charlottesville’s director of Neighborhood Development Services

Jim Tolbert, the city’s director of neighborhood development services, arrived expecting questions and started the town hall with an update on the bridge.
“Council is well aware of your concerns about the Belmont Bridge … and we are sorry that the process has gotten messed up like it has,” Tolbert said.  “We are changing the project management so that we can be more responsive, do a better job of listening and we can get better information.”
Tolbert said the city was still reviewing two replacements: A new bridge over the railroad and an underpass.
“[Of the two options], the information that’s been provided is hard to look at and it’s hard to compare apples to apples,” Tolbert said.  “We also feel like we need to talk to the railroad … and get a definitive answer as to what their issues are, … particularly with an underpass.”
“I don’t have a timetable because I don’t know how long it will take to get information from the railroad,” Tolbert added.  “The money isn’t available until 2017, so we have some time to get it right.”

Tolbert also directed residents to visit the website
In response, Belmont resident Ivana Kadija said she wasn’t pleased with how the city was managing the bridge project.  
“I am not sure we should be limited to two ideas at this stage,” Kadija said. “I have found this process incredibly lacking in transparency. … I hope these issues will be addressed as we move forward.”  
Other Belmont residents raised issues including noise from the Pavilion, traffic calming, police matters, park improvements and concerns about a development that would bring 29 new single-family homes.
In February, the City Planning Commission recommended denial of the Stonehenge development.  Neighbors at the time raised concerns about both traffic and the developer’s clearing of trees on the site.  
Developer Andrew Baldwin said at the town hall meeting that he still intends to seek approval of his planned unit development from City Council at an upcoming meeting.
Julia Williams asked the councilors to look carefully at Stonehenge proposal.
“I am concerned for my neighbors,” Williams said.  “Maybe there are ways to change the plans, or get proffers that we can hold [the developer] to.  Please just don’t pass it as it is, look carefully at the Planning Commission’s points.”

The Our Town Charlottesville series isn’t a new concept in the city. Charlottesville held similar meetings in each city neighborhood during in 2010 and 2011.
In a review by Charlottesville Tomorrow last August, the public document used to track concerns raised at previous town halls was found to have been neglected by city staff with many issues still marked as incomplete or with no status.
Councilor Dede Smith said in August that she thought the outdated list was more of a reflection of inadequate website maintenance rather than an absence of follow through.
According to the city’s performance management system, a goal has been set in 2013 to focus on outcomes from the town halls and whether “residents were impacted in any way, believed they were listened to and the action steps that occurred following the meetings.”
Dickler said residents would be able to check on the status of their concerns online or with a phone call.
“We will provide specific information so they can find the right people to get an update from and to keep the lines of communication open,” Dickler said.  “In the next week, we will have information online from the first town hall that is clear and easy to navigate so citizens can determine the status and find out which department is dealing with their question or concern.”
The next town hall meeting will be held in the Fry’s Spring neighborhood at 6 p.m. March 25 at Jackson-Via Elementary School.

Charlottesville City Councilors Dave Norris, Kristin Szakos, Kathy Galvin, and Dede Smith