How much detail should be required during the master planning process?

Around 25 members of the North Charlottesville Business Council attended the meeting

That’s one of the major questions that came up when members of the North Charlottesville Business Council met on June 25, 2007, with planners who are currently coordinating the Places29 process. The meeting was the result of a letter written in May by NCBC Chairman Michael McGowan to the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors.

The letter expressed McGowan’s disappointment in the process to date, and asked the Board to slow the planning process down so that business and property owners along the Route 29 corridor could take a closer look. The Metropolitan Planning Organization, which coordinates transportation policy in urbanized Albemarle County and the City of Charlottesville, suggested holding a detailed meeting to better explain the process.

“Our interest in U.S. 29 is that it’s the main street of our county, and our ambition is to see 29 evolve into an urban boulevard,” McGowan said at the beginning of the meeting. “We don’t want to see it continue a path of becoming the main regional expressway through the middle of our town.” He said the NCBC’s opposition to the Places29 plan is based on its reliance on grade-separated interchanges at Hydraulic Road and Rio Road, as well as several other locations.

Harrison Rue, Executive Director of the Thomas Jefferson Planing District Commission, speaks to members of the North Charlottesville Business  Council

Harrison Rue, Executive Director of the MPO, thanked the NCBC for their letter, and said that his organization will continue to do everything it can to involve property owners, including one-on-one conversations with planners if necessary.

“We have a lot more in common that we agree on than not,” Rue said.

One of the other concerns expressed in the letter was the lack of detail in the master plan. Albemarle County Planner Judith Wiegand told the group the eight chapter text for Places29 is just now being written.

“We’ve mentioned throughout this process that you’re going to have more definitions, more explanations, more details about all of these things we’ve been showing you, and it would be in the text,” Wiegand said. She added that the text will be ready in time for a series of eight work sessions to be held by the Albemarle County Planning Commission. Staff will present the transportation study on July 10, Chapters 1-4 on July 17, Chapters 5 and 6 on July 31, and further work sessions will be scheduled throughout the year. After the plan is adopted, Wiegand said planning staff would engage in small area plans at the intersections of Hydraulic and Rio to begin planning for the grade-separated intersections.

“This is a review period,” said Wiegand. There was some concern in the NCBC’s letter about slowing down the process because people thought this was the beginning of the approval process. It’s not. We’re not there yet.”

But asked by principals of the Great Eastern Management Company if the grade-separated interchanges at Hydraulic and Rio Road were definitely part of Places29, Wiegand responded that they are “very likely.”

That prompted GEMC President Chuck Rotgin to insist the small area plan process be undertaken immediately.

“Otherwise I can see contentiousness, political in-fighting, and I think we’re all wasting our time.” He said he did not want to hurt the small-business fabric of Route 29 during the “years of construction” he said would be required.

But Wiegand said Places29 is a framework plan, meaning that there are far too many details to be worked out at these preliminary stages. A framework plan gives the county, the city, and VDOT flexibility when the intersection project enters the design stage. “If we waited to do that level of detail throughout the corridor at the places where there might be overpasses, we’d be here working for another three years, and by the time we got a plan ready, it would be so far out of date, it would be pointless.” But Wiegand said the text would clearly state that the small area plans would follow soon after adoption of Places29.

Rue said other meetings with business owners affected by each intersection would be held in the future, but that small area plans could not be undertaken at this time because the TJPDC/MPO does not have the financial resources to pay for such studies.

A debate about grade separation also occurred earlier this month before the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors when they received an update on Places29 during their June 6th meeting.  Reflecting some of the same concerns of Chuck Rotgin, Supervisors David Slutzky (Rio) and Ken Boyd (Rivanna) expressed their interest in having a work session before the Planning Commission got too far along in decisions on transportation.  At the meeting, Slutzky said, “When there is a clear cut issue of disagreement like the grade separated interchanges along 29, that is the backbone of this Places29 exercise, I just think it’s not efficient for us to wait until it comes to us.”  Boyd said he felt like the Board needed to give big picture direction to the Planning Commission on grade-separation.

Supervisor Dennis Rooker (Jack Jouett) expressed his concerns about having the Board step in to the middle of the Places29 process currently before the Planning Commission.  He encouraged his colleagues to wait and see what recommendations and rationale came forward before they preemptively weighed in with changes based on limited data.  The Supervisors reached consensus to have a work session only after the Commission receives the transportation plan for Places29, but before the Commission makes their final recommendations.  The decisions at that meeting will likely have a major impact on the future of Places29.

Henry Weinschenk, who owns the Express Car Wash, said he is an opponent of the grade-separated interchanges, but says he got frustrated participating a previous design study (the 29H250 process) because elements he thought had been approved later disappeared from the plan.

“Business people are always going to lose, because you have all this staff who work at this five, seven days a week, and we have limited time and we can’t constantly watch you every step of the way, unless you also look out for [the business community’s] interests,” Weinschenk said. A former engineer, Weinschenk said he thought the plans revealed for the interchange at Hydraulic were unbuildable without taking a lot of buildings, including his own.

U.S. Route 29 as it passes underneath DuPont Circle in Washington, D.C.

Rue disagreed, and pointed to a few examples of other communities in the nation that have overcome similar obstacles. “There is a new road science that is really remaking suburban corridors into being boulevards that still carry a lot of traffic. We’re not alone. This is not an expressway. This is a boulevard.”
Two examples of urban-style grade separations with buildings nearby include Highway 101 in Santa Barbara, California and U.S. 29 under DuPont Circle in Washington D.C.*

Other business owners expressed concerns about the extent of the proposed parallel road networks to be built to help take local traffic off of U.S. 29. Rue said many of these will only be possible as owners redevelop their property into mixed-use. For instance, he said roads networks through Hollymead Town Center and Albemarle Place are being built by the respective developers as part of their approval.

Only 12 percent of the traffic measured along the Places29 corridor is considered “through”, meaning origin and destination are out of the urbanized section of Albemarle County. 24 percent are “external” and 64% are internal, meaning people traveling within the corridor. That’s why the Places29 plan is tied to the expansion of the local road network, such as the extensions of the Hillsdale Connector and Berkmar Drive. But to do that, Rue said need to have a grade-separated intersections to get across U.S. 29.

“The grade separations are kind of critical to make the parallel road network work because you have to have places to cross,” Rue said, adding each new improvement will provide immediate benefit to congestion on 29, forestalling a traffic crisis as vehicle counts continue to climb.

“If you go way back to the original western bypass study that recommended a western bypass, even that study said even if the bypass is built, there are five locations along here that fail after twenty-years,” said Rue.

Rue said the Meadowcreek Parkway and the Hillsdale Connector would both need to be built before the interchange at Hydraulic could begin construction. He also acknowledged that the four businesses at the corners of the Hydraulic interchange would be affected, and possibly taken.

The current framework shows a different kind of intersection at Rio to handle extra traffic flows generated by the Meadowcreek Parkway, in part to boost development at each of the four corners. But, the full details would be ironed out when the small area plans are developed. Among the likely conditions suggested by Rue before a grade separated intersection at Rio, Berkmar Drive would need to be fully extended to from Sam’s Club to Hollymead Town Center.

One reason why grade-separated intersections are opposed is the fear that traffic delays during construction will hurt business. A Virginia Department of Transportation planning engineer tried to convince them otherwise.

“We’ve instructed the developer of Albemarle Place to demonstrate a plan that would keep three lanes open in each direction during construction,” said John Giometti.

Rue said his staff will add more details to the plan to include possible construction strategies before the September workshops with property owners, and that his staff would look at similar intersections to see how their construction times affected local traffic. “Before this is built, you’ll see the full plans for that maintenance of traffic and what the impact is on every business,” he said.

Business owners Henry Weinschenk and Chuck Rotgin want to see more details as soon as possible.

Weinschenk said he was tired of hearing sermons from planning officials about failing levels of service. “The sky is not falling. Right now you can drive 65 miles an hour on 29, almost any time of day.”

“I think for this plan, your framework to be credible, you need to show all buildings on your plan so there is relationship between framework design and the existing structures,” said Rotgin. “It makes absolutely no sense to approve the framework that has no chance of ever being implemented.”

But VDOT’s Giometti said it was important for business owners to remember that planning studies are inherently less detailed than full engineering studies.

“A lot of the questions that you’re asking are things that will be answered when the actual design of the interchange is done. A lot of effort has gone into this planning study to develop concepts to depict them as realistically as possible.” Giometti said that the level of detail requested by some NCBC members would be too expensive to undertake until the project can actually get underway.

Rue said his team will incorporate traffic counts and buildings into the next set of plans in advance of a second meeting with business owners tentatively scheduled for September.

Sean Tubbs