Work underway to connect Pollocks Branch to city trails

Charlottesville’s Strategic Investment Area plan recommends development of a greenway along Pollocks Branch, a tributary of Moores Creek, much of which currently either runs through an underground pipe or is hidden from view.

While no plan has been established to “daylight” the stream as it flows underneath Friendship Court and the Ix property, a crew of volunteers has begun clearing a trail along the lower portion of the stream that runs open through an urban forest.

“We thought we should get a trail in there to get people introduced to a creek they’ve never met before,” said Chris Gensic, the city’s trails planner.

Gensic and about 20 volunteers spent a recent Saturday building a pathway through the woods behind the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority’s South First Street site.

The clearing was in honor of both National Trails Day and Clean the Bay Day, programs designed to raise awareness of pathways and water quality.

“Forgotten waters also tend to go through forgotten communities,” said Alisa Hefner, of Skeo Solutions. The Charlottesville-based company is working with the James River Association and the city on a project called Walkable Watersheds.

The project is funded in part by a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Federation. The goal is to develop a concept plan and a list of “green infrastructure” projects that will both improve the water flow and make the area more pedestrian friendly.

“Water can be a revitalizing force for communities, so that’s why we’ve developed this walkable watershed concept,” Hefner said. “It’s really looking at how you can link water quality with quality of life.”

The grant will help pay for the installation of one infrastructure project to be determined later this year. Options include improvements to Monticello Avenue, Sixth Street or Jordan Park.

“We’re looking to make improvements for pedestrians to get better access and safer routes,” said Dan Frisbee, the city’s stormwater management coordinator. “We’re also looking to improve water quality in Pollocks Branch and Moores Creek.”

The trail is on land owned by the housing authority. The 58 units at South First Street eventually are to be redeveloped, which makes the future of the property uncertain. Accordingly, Gensic said agency officials told him to “not go crazy” when building the trail.

“Given that the trail is in a creek valley, I don’t see the trail being threatened by [future] redevelopment,” Gensic said. “The trail could be improved by whatever they come up with.”

Gensic said volunteers encountered a lot of trash in the forest, which helps explain why both Pollocks Branch and Moores Creek are considered to be impaired by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. He said removing the trash and keeping it out will create an urban amenity where none currently exists.

“You get back there and it’s this oasis of quiet,” Gensic said.

The city also is negotiating with two landowners for an easement that would connect the trail to Jordan Park.

“This trail could exist from Elliott Avenue to Moores Creek within the year,” Gensic said.

About two dozen residents attended a recent workshop held at the Ix building to offer input on the project.

However, no residents from the public-housing property itself attended.

“As a community, we have to do a better job of engaging everyone in the community for items like this Walkable Watershed,” said City Council candidate Wes Bellamy, who was in attendance. “An urban trail could be very beneficial to residents all over the city, and could specifically help introduce some of our residents to something that is outside of their norm.”

Hefner acknowledged the need to improve outreach efforts.

“While we worked with the housing authority, it’s still something of a challenge,” Hefner said. “We need to figure out how we can reach everyone in the community.”

A final concept plan for the Walkable Watershed will be developed later this year.

“At its heart, we’re really talking about marrying healthy waters with healthy communities,” Frisbee said.