Downtown-area neighborhoods get turn to speak at Our Town meeting
Charlottesville City Council heard an earful from citizens Thursday on sidewalks, speeding and more topics at their latest town hall meeting.
“The point of doing this is to put us all in the same room together,” said Mayor Mike Signer, adding that councilors and staff are always present at the events.
The “Our Town” meetings have been held since 2010 to provide an informal way for people to talk directly to councilors without the three-minute time limit of regular meetings.
The latest event covered the concerns of the North Downtown, Little High, Locust Grove, Martha Jefferson and Woodhaven neighborhoods. Three of the five councilors live in one of those neighborhoods.
Councilor Wes Bellamy, who has come under fire for tweets posted before he was elected, opened the meeting by asking for forgiveness from the dozens of people who attended.
“It’s important for me to say that I apologize,” Bellamy said. “While I absolutely and 100 percent agree that the words that were used in years past were disappointing, I am proud of the man that I have become today and much of that is because of the experience that I have had in the city of Charlottesville.”
The matter was not mentioned again for the rest of the meeting.
Brad Connors, of Belleview Avenue in the Locust Grove neighborhood, brought up traffic concerns on his street.
“It seems that I’m new to the neighborhood and it seems it’s a major cut-through,” Connors said. “There are a ton of kids in my neighborhood, as well as disjointed sidewalks. Kids walking to a bus stop or coming home from school have to cross the street twice.”
Planning Manager Missy Creasy said the process for choosing which sidewalks get built or updated is a long one but that proximity to schools is a factor.
“It’s not an easy answer at all, but it’s definitely something we’re aware of,” Creasy said.
One city councilor said recent staffing issues may be slowing down the process of getting new ones constructed.
“We had a new traffic engineer, and he didn’t last too long, so we’re back at square one,” said Bob Fenwick. “This is a continuing conversation and it’s getting stronger and stronger.”
Rashad M. Hanbali stepped down from the position earlier this year after only five months on the job. He had advocated raising the speed limits on several city streets. The city jobs board lists the open position with an annual salary range between $59,935 and $119,085.
Rebecca Quinn said the North Downtown Neighborhood Association conducted a walkability exercise in early October and uncovered several issues such as broken sidewalks, missing crosswalks and drainage issues.
“We look forward to meeting with Neighborhood Development Services and presenting our issues,” Quinn said.
Paul Reynolds, a retired University of Virginia computer scientist who built a speed camera system, said he has recorded data across the city from more than a million vehicles.
“My videos are showing that you have succeeded in slowing down city buses,” Reynolds said, but he added he is still seeing many school buses exceeding the 25 mph speed limit on his street.
Reynolds also thanked the council for agreeing to include support for legislation allowing speed cameras on the city’s legislative agenda for the General Assembly.
Another speaker called for the city to do more to make living in the city more affordable.
“We just in our last meeting looked at a set of recommendations from the housing advisory committee to do a better job,” said City Councilor Kristin Szakos.
“Affordable housing and redevelopment has been a topic in Charlottesville [for years],” Bellamy said. “I think we are much further along than we have ever been.”
Other topics included raising the minimum wage for city employees to $15 an hour, funding for the Senior Center and government transparency.
“Earlier this year, we directed the city manager to come up with an open data policy,” Signer said.
One person asked for an update on the Landmark Hotel. Earlier this year, the council directed staff to explore legal options to declare the property blighted, but Signer said negotiations with Dewberry Capital are underway.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of work this year with the owner to get a hotel there and other mixed-uses,” Signer said.
Two people asked councilors to withdraw support for a plan submitted by the Metropolitan Planning Organization to expand the number of vehicular lanes on U.S. 250 at Free Bridge.
The next Our Town meeting is scheduled for Jan. 12, 2017, and will cover the Belmont/Carlton and Woolen Mills neighborhoods.