Bike lane in the Belvedere Neighborhood Credit: Credit: Andrew Shurtleff, The Daily Progress

The growing Belvedere neighborhood off East Rio Road has forced Albemarle County to re-examine some of the details of its neighborhood model.

“The neighborhood model is all about bringing the urban context to the suburban growth area,” said Belvedere resident and county Supervisor Brad Sheffield. “It’s a fine balance.”

Adopted in 2001, the model aims to create mixed-use communities in which walking and other forms of alternative transportation are viable. It encourages a development form that emphasizes pedestrian orientation and neighborhood-friendly streets and paths.

David Harrell said he and his wife moved to Belvedere two years ago after living in nearby Dunlora for 12 years.

“I met more people here in the first two weeks than I did in 10 years in Dunlora,” Harrell said.

Sheffield said the neighborhood model approach in Belvedere is one of the reasons his family chose to move to Belvedere. As part of that approach, he said, he expects pedestrians to have priority over automobiles.

However, as the county works through designing and completing the streets in Belvedere, a development approved in 2004, staff must grapple with balancing calls for walkability and the needs of public services.

“Belvedere was one of the first neighborhood model developments,” said Jack Kelsey, Albemarle County’s transportation engineer.

Hurdles in the development process have come with that trailblazer status. Belvedere’s street design utilizes on-street parking, as well as alleys that provide access to rear garages.

Sheffield said that on-street parking in front of homes and narrow roads contribute to pedestrian safety.

“The narrower the road, the slower people go,” he said. “So, in theory, on-street parking should slow down traffic in the neighborhood.”

Kelsey said the parking lanes in Belvedere are especially narrow, communicating to drivers that they need to get used to being on a more compact road.

“The street provides areas for parking which is intended to be random and intermittent,” said Kelsey.

Credit: Andrew Shurtleff, The Daily Progress

Gaye Johnson has lived in Belvedere for the past four years. She said the neighborhood is “very safe” for pedestrians, and their companions like her Schnauzer Finn.

“It’s very conducive to walking around,” Johnson said. “I think it’s because the houses are close together and the sidewalks are easy to get around.”

Harrell added that the neighbors keep a close eye on each other, too.

“People slow down because they don’t know when and where kids will appear,” Harrell said. “If someone speeds through the neighborhood, it ends up pretty quickly on the [online] bulletin board.”

However, the Albemarle County Fire Rescue department found navigating the streets with their trucks a challenge.

Soon after Sheffield’s family moved into the neighborhood, the fire department raised concerns about the narrow streets and there was talk of removing all on-street parking from Belvedere Boulevard, the neighborhood’s main artery.

“The residents had been living there for a while with no paint lines on the roads and suddenly they were being told they couldn’t park there any longer,” Kelsey said.

The county met with the fire department several times to hear its concerns. The county also got input from residents who had gotten used to lots of on-street parking. 

Harrell said the fire department has been “very good” about communicating with the homeowners.

“They were apologetic and said it should have been caught in the planning process,” Harrell said. “I think we all understand.”

“It was a matter of pulling everybody together and letting them know the concerns,” said Kelsey. “We were able to work out some reasonable compromises.”

Representatives from the fire department could not be reached for comment.

Kelsey said the compromises included removing some on-street parking and reengineering street corners so firetrucks could make sharper turns.

Sheffield added that the fire department has done drills in Belvedere to become more accustomed to navigating the neighborhood’s narrow streets.

“If we’re going to push a neighborhood model like we have in Belvedere and Old Trail, then we need to make sure that we stand behind the concepts of those neighborhoods and meet the goals we set out,” he said.

Sheffield said the initial lack of public engagement about the Belvedere street design process was one of the reasons he decided to run for the Board of Supervisors. He added that when he and his neighbors worked on communication with the county, the fire department and the police department, it felt like they were being ignored.

“It seemed like all the decisions were being made by county staff without any input from the residents,” he said.

Sheffield said this is problematic because staff has only a limited amount of time to dedicate to individual projects and they cannot be expected to catch everything.

“That’s why we need to hold better public meetings about these things,” he said.

“A lot of us on the Board of Supervisors have higher expectations now on the county’s methods of engagement.”

Now that construction at Belvedere is drawing toward completion and the county has worked through some of the kinks of the neighborhood model, Kelsey said he hopes Belvedere will serve as an example for other neighborhood model developments in the county.

Kelsey said the county often looked to streets in the city of Charlottesville for inspiration. As the county’s development areas get more urbanized, street designs and standards are starting to reflect those in the city to a greater extent.

“If people can make it work in the city, it should be workable here,” he said. “It’s just a matter of getting used to something different.”