Dissatisfied with the design process for a new Belmont Bridge in downtown Charlottesville, a local filmmaker has launched a contest to solicit fresh ideas for its replacement.

“In the city’s design brief, this was to be an iconic gateway to the city, [but this] design is neither,” said Brian Wimer, a resident of Belmont who runs Amoeba Films.

Source: City of Charlottesville

In 2003, engineers determined that the bridge’s deck was deteriorating. City officials determined it would be more cost-effective to replace the structure than to repair it.

The bridge replacement has a cost estimate of $14.5 million and the city has accumulated nearly half of that amount.

The city hired engineering firm MMM Design to develop a new bridge with community input. However, Wimer and many others feel the work did not go far enough to connect downtown with Belmont.

“After a year of charrettes and things like that, they came up with a design that the community didn’t like,” Wimer said.

In September, members of the Board of Architectural Review agreed, and directed city staff and MMM to develop a new design that takes public input into account.

Earlier this month, Wimer asked the City Council to contribute $2,000 to serve as prize money for a contest called Project Gaitway.

“It’s spelled [that] way because it’s about being pedestrian-centric and not just a VDOT road that’s going to bring traffic through,” Wimer said.

Wimer said the new chairman of the University of Virginia’s Department of Architecture, Inaki Alday, feels the project is important enough to serve as a learning experience for the entire department.

“They are having 30 teams of 10 students and their entire faculty dedicating to finding us a better bridge and a better urban design for that area,” Wimer said.

Work by the UVa teams will be entered into the contest. Submissions from entrants will be accepted through Feb. 11 and the results will be displayed at CitySpace in mid-February.

Adlay said in an email that the bridge should not be seen as just a way to move vehicles from one place to another.

“The Belmont Bridge is the welcoming gateway to Belmont and to downtown, two of the most characteristic areas of the city,” Alday said. “The renewal of the bridge is an enormous opportunity for rethinking this link … and perhaps to spread and expand the powerful civic space of the [Downtown Mall] further away, increasing and expanding the density and the urban condition.”

The City Council has not held a formal discussion on the bridge design following the presentation to the BAR, but some members are receptive to Wimer’s contest.

“The Belmont Bridge is such an important and highly visible gateway that we really need to think big and think creatively about its design,” said Councilor Dave Norris .

Councilor Kathleen M. Galvin said she is concerned that members of the community felt compelled to launch their own design contest.

“What does this tell us?” Galvin asked. “[That] people don’t feel heard or they lack confidence in our ability to execute a well-designed project? We need to make sure that we’re not viewing this project in isolation of its context, both physically and historically.”

Virginia Department of Transportation traffic counts indicate that the Belmont Bridge has an average daily volume of 15,000 vehicles.

Former City Council candidate Brevy Cannon said many in the Belmont neighborhood feel the design may have been sufficient to satisfy VDOT’s requirements, but fell short of serving the community’s needs.

“A lot of assumptions were made earlier in the process that hindered the range of clean-sheet thinking,” Cannon said. “[City staff] wanted to keep [the new bridge] in the existing right of way. There could have been options but those were never examined.”

Cannon said that when the existing bridge was built in 1962, the Downtown Mall did not exist so ramps led to what was then East Main Street. He also said the bridge originally had to cross more than a dozen railroad tracks.

“A lot of those things do not necessarily need to be part of the solution anymore,” Cannon said.

Jeanette Janiczek, the city’s urban construction initiative manager, said staff will present the council with a new schedule for the project’s development in the coming months.

“We understand that additional work, refinements and coordination is needed to satisfy the majority’s needs and wants,” Janiczek said.