Several business owners who will be affected by construction of the $84 million grade-separated interchange at Rio Road and U.S. 29 pleaded with the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors on Thursday to delay the project while its economic impact is studied.
“We’re trying to get people to find us today and we’re concerned that in a year from now it’s going to be even harder to find us,” said Jim Luck, of the Jefferson Coin Shop, which recently opened a new location in the northwest quadrant of the intersection.
Supervisors invited Luck and others to give their ideas on how to create an assistance package to help businesses during the construction period in the summer of 2016.
“We have a lot of different examples of what other communities have done,” said Lee Catlin, assistant county executive for government relations.
However, many of the business owners used the opportunity to vent their dissatisfaction with a project that remained a planning concept until earlier this year.
“Hearing the verdict that the Rio Road interchange was going to take place was like being diagnosed with cancer,” said Phil Jaderborg, manager of PJ Network Computer Service.
“I realized it would be a long and painful ordeal and maybe my company would survive, and maybe it wouldn’t,” he said.
The Commonwealth Transportation Board approved $230 million for various projects to address congestion on U.S. 29 in June, just four months after the Federal Highway Administration indicated it would not support a planned 6.2-mile, four-lane Western Bypass.
In addition to the interchange, $54 million has been allocated to build a northern extension of Berkmar Drive, $51 million will be spent to widen U.S. 29 to four lanes between Polo Grounds Road and Hollymead Town Center and $30.5 million will go to complete the extension of Hillsdale Drive.
All projects are to be completed by October 2017.
Under conceptual plans drawn up by Virginia Department of Transportation engineers, four lanes are to descend underneath Rio Road, which will cross U.S. 29 on a new bridge. Local access will be maintained by two lanes on either side of the through-lanes.
The Rio Road interchange will be built first. Work to excavate the intersection cannot begin until late May 2016 and must be completed by early September or there will be financial penalties levied against the contractor.
Many business owners want the interchange to be delayed.
“I have few doubts about the benefits of building the parallel roads first,” said Carter Myers, a former member of the Commonwealth Transportation Board and owner of Colonial Auto Center. “The two parallel roads would give some alternative routes for traffic during construction of both the interchange and the widening north of the [South Fork Rivanna River].”
Other speakers were concerned that the interchange would permanently harm their businesses.
“We see this one-mile interchange as an absolute nightmare,” said Phil Wendel, CEO of ACAC Fitness and Wellness Centers. “It is going to take 32 months at best to complete and I would like to encourage significantly more study before this radical step is taken.”
Philip Shucet, a former VDOT commissioner hired to oversee implementation of the so-called Route 29 Solutions Package, disputed Wendel’s assertion.
“There is no information in any project document related to the Rio Road grade-separated intersection that would lead anyone to believe that construction will take 32 months,” Shucet said in an interview.
He said he expects principal construction of the interchange to take 103 days, and that the interchange’s project length is 2,000 feet, not one mile.
“Those are the key numbers here when it comes to understanding how access is going to be materially affected and maintained during construction,” Shucet said. “Any business located in or affected by that intersection should know the facts about how access will be affected and maintained during those 103 days.”
ACAC is a tenant of the Albemarle Square shopping center, but Wendel said he has stopped negotiations to renew the lease because of the uncertainty.
“Albemarle Square has taken some serious hits from the Great Recession,” said Jim Plotkin, with Dumbarton Properties, a Richmond-based company that operates the 24-acre property. Several storefronts are vacant and the Northside Library will move to a new location in January.
“Our plans for redevelopment of Albemarle Square have literally been in the valley of the shadow of death,” he added.
Plotkin said he wants to make sure that detours are clearly marked with signs so motorists do not use the shopping center as a cut-through.
The manager of Fashion Square mall said all businesses in the area will suffer after construction because drivers won’t be able to see the businesses.
“When you go through Rio and 29 now, you have a full view of everything,” said Karen Weiner. “When this new [interchange] comes through, you lose all that visibility.”
Supervisors took no action at the hour-long meeting.
“We haven’t reacted or tried to answer questions because we wanted to preserve the time for you to do as much talking to us as possible,” said board Chairwoman Jane Dittmar.
County staff is expected to present details of a potential business assistance package to supervisors at their meeting Dec. 3.
The package could take the form of counseling, customer loyalty strategies and marketing.
“A lot of communities will identify businesses along a corridor where work can be channeled to during construction to keep dollars in the community,” Catlin said.
Toan Nguyen, the owner of C-Ville Coffee, was on hand to offer his advice to businesses. He estimated that he has lost $200,000 in business since construction of the Meadow Creek Parkway interchange began.
He suggested that the county work with landlords to encourage them to negotiate lower rents during construction.
“To have the official capacity of the county working with you makes a lot of difference,” Nguyen said. He also encouraged the county to purchase meals and other goods and services from affected merchants.
The Route 29 Solutions Package also includes $10 million to study a future grade-separated interchange at Hydraulic Road. Both intersections are called for in the Places29 Master Plan but until this year had not received any funding. VDOT soon will advertise for construction firms to apply to build $17.2 million in improvements at the U.S. 29/250 interchange.