On Thursday evening around 5 p.m., two lines of roughly 20 cars stacked up at the intersection where the John W. Warner Parkway turns into Rio Road.Several proposals to build apartments and townhouses — on top of several large projects under construction in the Belvedere neighborhood — have neighbors concerned that existing traffic on Rio will become unbearable. “It’s not really ‘Not In Our Backyard’,” said Dunlora homeowners association president Jennifer Mathes. “When people avoid the area because of traffic, it just makes you feel like, who wants to live here?”However, transportation experts say that the only way to make traffic better in places like Rio is to do the one thing neighbors worry will make it worse.
Sometimes the only way to solve traffic is more housing.
The theory is that it is more effective to concentrate housing in major nodes close to employment centers than allowing it to spread over large areas. The higher density allows people to choose to bike, walk or take the bus to work instead of driving. For areas with thriving economic centers, like Charlottesville, the number of people traveling to those jobs is only expected to increase. Transportation experts say that the question is where you house those workers.Andrew Mondschein is an urban planning professor at the University of Virginia and focuses on transportation.
“We get wrapped up in the idea that if we build a development here, there’s going to be more traffic. The truth is the traffic is coming, and the best thing you can do is put it in the right places,” Mondschein said.Albemarle County has drawn a bright line between the areas where it wants residential and commercial growth, called development areas, and the rural areas that it wants to keep undeveloped.Neighbors in the development areas north and east of Charlottesville recently have argued that the extent of this split puts an unfair burden on quality of life for development area residents. They have asked the county to hold off on approving further housing until new infrastructure can smooth the transition.
Mondschein said that opposition to change stems from a very real sense of place and commitment to where people live.“If we oppose development within the county’s designated growth areas, then we’re fundamentally asking for development to occur even further beyond the county boundaries in counties that will welcome development,” Mondschein said. “It’s going to lead to a lot more driving, a lot more congestion and a lot more pollution.”Most of the jobs in the region are in Charlottesville or Albemarle, and many are concentrated at the University of Virginia and in downtown Charlottesville. Roughly 28,000 people who sleep in Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa and Nelson counties commute to work across county borders, according to a recent housing needs assessment facilitated by the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission.
Turning into traffic
Laura Mulligan Thomas lives within easy biking distance from her job.Thomas directs Charlottesville High School’s award-winning orchestra program. The program is such a draw that parents in surrounding counties sometimes pay to enroll string players in CHS.Thomas has lived just over the city line in the Dunlora neighborhood for 20 years.“Sometimes I think it would be just so much quicker to walk, which makes sense, right? If I weren’t schlepping instruments, I probably would,” Thomas said.Thomas leaves her house around 8 a.m. every morning and has to wait in an overflowing left turn lane to get onto the John Warner Parkway. As many Dunlora residents know, the timeline from designing a fix for this problem to receiving funding and starting construction will likely be several years.
Thomas grew up in Alexandria, where she felt the infrastructure was in place to support higher density housing there. “If you’re going to rezone, fix the infrastructure first and then rezone,” Thomas said.Thomas is one of more than 450 Dunlora and neighboring residents who have mobilized to oppose two developments planned for Rio. One proposal would redevelop a small property at the corner of Rio and Belvedere Boulevard. The other envisions several large apartment buildings on a 27-acre piece of land known as the Wetsel property.At public hearings and in private, Dunlora residents put those redevelopment projects in the context of the build out of the Belvedere neighborhood, particularly the intergenerational Center at Belvedere and the new headquarters for the Soccer Organization of Charlottesville Area.Mathes is skeptical that biking will take any of those new users off the roads. Mathes is in her second year as HOA president of Dunlora. She used to be an attorney and now raises her four children.Mathes said that her husband sometimes bikes to work at the Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital, but she said that the ride both there and to closer destinations like UVa is unsafe.“We looked at the current number of housing units surrounding Dunlora and then we looked at what’s been approved or what’s in the planning stages, we found that it’s more than a 50% increase,” Mathes said. “But there’s nothing being addressed for transportation.”
Kevin McDermott’s job is to look at transportation problems in Albemarle and work with the Virginia Department of Transportation to find solutions. VDOT manages and maintains county roads, from fixing potholes to timing traffic lights to building bridges. McDermott said that concerns about traffic on Rio Road are more than anecdotal. The intersection of the Hillsdale and Rio roads is the most unsafe but easily fixable stretch of road in Albemarle County, according to VDOT’s ranking system.McDermott said that the county hopes to work with VDOT to build a new section of Hillsdale that ends with a roundabout closer to U.S. 29. He estimated that because the solution is a priority for the county, construction on the road might be complete as soon as 2025.
The two intersections that most worry Dunlora residents are not on the VDOT list, but McDermott said he is thinking about solutions. He said that the county is applying for funding for the intersection of Rio and Belvedere Boulevard to get ahead of the traffic expected to and from that neighborhood. The Rio-John Warner Parkway intersection also is a top concern for the county, he said.How much time McDermott spends on various traffic solutions is in some ways up to the Board of Supervisors. The county’s Community Development Department plans to ask the board on March 4 for input on how to prioritize staff’s limited time.One potential project would be a Rio Road corridor study, which the Planning Commission asked for when they first looked at 999 E. Rio Road proposal at Belvedere. The study would look at car safety as well as things like how to improve transit and close sidewalk gaps. Another project would be the first step in the county’s next update of its Comprehensive Plan, a vision document required for every local government in Virginia. This multimodal system plan would look at the entire county in terms of districts of high and low development and centers that can be connected by transit, biking or walking.McDermott said that it is already clear that downtown Charlottesville is a center and the intersection of Rio and U.S. 29 is going to be a center if it redevelops according to the county’s new Rio29 Small Area Plan. The county will need to figure out a good way to connect those two areas.He said that there are good real estate projects and bad ones, but that Rio Road is a good place for higher density. Otherwise, those who cannot find housing within the county move elsewhere, but the county still has to pay for their use of its roads and spread its resources along longer stretches of road.“We need to do better job of communicating,” McDermott said. “Even if they’re not riding buses or biking, it’s still better over all to have them driving shorter distances.”