Council adopts new ‘complete streets’ policy, allocates $50K for consultants

Charlottesville‘s City Council has adopted a “complete streets” policy that aims to ensure that new and redeveloped roadways better accommodate pedestrian, cyclists and street trees.

The council also has agreed to spend $50,000 from a capital contingency fund to pay consultants to assist city staff to ensure the policy is implemented. One councilor is questioning the city’s expenditures for outside expertise.

“What do we want our streets to look like so that they carry traffic but they also carry bikes and pedestrians safely and accommodate transit?” asked Jim Tolbert, the city’s director of Neighborhood Development Services.

The council previously adopted a complete streets policy in November 2010 that called for streets to be “designed and executed in a balanced, responsible and equitable way to accommodate and encourage travel by bicyclists, public transportation vehicles and their passengers and pedestrians of all ages and abilities.”

However, Councilor Kathy Galvin said that resolution lacked enforcement mechanisms.

“Our streets are not doing what we say we want them to do,” Galvin said.

Last week, the council adopted a three-page complete streets policy, as well as a set of steps to implement it using a “context-sensitive” approach.

Under the new policy, if the city cannot install a street tree when a street is redesigned, at least four department heads will have to sign off on an explanation.

Among the city streets that will have to be redesigned, according to the policy, is Rose Hill Drive.

“I am thrilled that this is in front of us,” Galvin said, adding that the city’s 2003 rezoning did not result in policies that led to complete streets. To remedy the situation, she wants the city to audit its zoning code to see if there are any obstacles to “complete streets.” She said that work can draw upon that of the city’s volunteer committees.

“The Tree Commission identified in a four-page memo in October 2013 all of the conflicts they see with current zoning,” Galvin said. “They are not prepared to rewrite the rezoning, but they identified the conflict with their mission.”

Galvin also criticized staff for not having the capacity to implement other recommendations made by citizen groups, such as a 2008 request from the Charlottesville-based Southern Environmental Law Center to reduce the width of streets and encourage pervious surfaces to reduce the amount of stormwater runoff.

“There have been, over and over again, opportunities to change our codes, wanting code changed, but it hasn’t happen,” Galvin said.

Galvin originally had suggested creating another advisory committee to guide implementation of the complete streets, but instead that work will be handled in part by subcommittees of the PLACE Design task force. That group also was created at the behest of Galvin.

However, the $50,000 will go toward supplementing work as needed to hire consultants.

Councilor Bob Fenwick expressed concerns about that approach.

“You do have a very talented staff,” Fenwick said. “Why don’t you just turn them loose on this without having anyone from out-of-town guide them?”

Tolbert said he agreed his employees are capable, but there are expertise gaps that would need to be filled by hiring outside talent. For instance, no one in his department is experienced at developing traffic models.

Tolbert pointed out that the amount of $50,000 is reduced from staff’s original recommendation of $300,000. Fenwick was the lone vote against the new policy and the new allocation.

“All of these things that come in front of council are being treated separately, but the budget has got to tie this all together,” Fenwick said. “We’re looking for ways to save money, and yet we have the community saying there are too many consultants, and they have a point there.”

Galvin insisted that consultants are needed.

“We can have all of the resolutions and policies in place that we want but if the implementation plan is not well-resourced, it’s not going to happen,” Galvin said. “If our zoning isn’t changed, we are not going to implement a green infrastructure plan. We are not going to get a multimodal plan.”

Councilor Dede Smith expressed skepticism that all of that work should be done by the PLACE group, which largely consists of architects and design professionals.

“I am a little concerned the PLACE Design task force is involved in a lot of different things,” Smith said. “It feels kind of like an insular group, and I really wonder if it represents the diversity that we need.”

The council’s vote was 4-1.

“I think this is a well-thought-out strategy,” Mayor Satyendra Huja said, adding that $50,000 was a reasonable amount to spend on consultants.

Meanwhile, the city is in the midst of a $340,000 study of West Main Street. The Toole Design Group is helping the city to draw up construction documents for portions of Monticello, Cherry and Elliott avenues. Additionally, the Washington-based company is doing a trail design for Dairy Road and the bridge that crosses the U.S. 250 Bypass.