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Will Charlottesville build ‘streets that work’?

About 30 people gathered at CitySpace recently to offer their input into Streets That Work, a planning guide for Charlottesville’s road network.

“This is something that’s going to lead into a number of different efforts that we have going on,” said Missy Creasy, the city’s assistant director of neighborhood development services.

City planners also are working on an audit of the city’s zoning code and a green plan for stormwater infrastructure and locations of street trees.

Earlier this month, the City Council adopted an update of the bike-pedestrian master plan that was facilitated by the Toole Design Group. The company has been paid $190,000 for work on both the bike plan and the Streets That Work initiative.

“What we’re doing tonight is kind of tying together a lot of the other efforts the city has going on,” Ken Ray, an urban designer with the Toole Design Group, said at the meeting last week. “This is going to knit some of those together and get the elements of all the plans in one house.”

Ray said the goal of the Streets That Work initiative is to come up with a vision for the city’s streets. The effort began in May with a four-day charrette.

“At that charrette, we kind of realized that there is more going on in Charlottesville that needed to have this kind of planning effort to bring it all together just because there are so many things happening in silos that weren’t really talking to one another,” Ray said.

Ray said the plan will help the city assess where to invest in new infrastructure.

“You’re constrained by the width of your current streets and the right-of-ways, and we need to know from the people of Charlottesville, what do you really want and what can [you] do within the streets that are here?” Ray said.

Before the open house, Ray toured Preston Avenue with a group of about a dozen to point out ways he thought the four-lane stretch of the street could be improved for pedestrians and cyclists.

One problem area was the intersection of Ridge Street, McIntire Road, Preston Avenue and Market Street.

“From a pedestrian standpoint, it was really hard to cross,” Ray said. “If you’re a child or someone on the south side of Preston and you want to get over to the park, it’s a really challenging area to cross.”

Ray also suggested that many of the driveways along Preston Avenue are too wide and lessen the effect of the sidewalk. The intersection of Fourth Street, Preston Avenue and the Albemarle County Office Building also is too wide, he said.

“If you built that brand-new today, that wouldn’t be the way it would be built,” Ray said. “You would tighten it up.”

He also showed a mock-up of how a roundabout might work at the intersection. He said one could fit within the existing right-of-way.

“Everyone seems to want to have narrower travel lanes and then we also want all these shade trees and things like that,” one woman said at the meeting. “Narrower lanes seem to be a real priority.”

The open house concluded with a discussion of whether the fire department would approve narrower lanes, planted medians and other infrastructure that would slow traffic.

The city’s new fire chief, Andrew Baxter, said there are ways to make streets more accessible to bikes and pedestrians without sacrificing emergency response times.

“I’m not particularly interested in wide, Parisian boulevards,” Baxter said. “The fire code says 20 feet. If you get any narrower than that, if you’re somehow able to do that, it begins to impact our ability to operate effectively.”

But several participants questioned whether the fire department should play such a large role in planning for city streets.

“The fact of that matter is that [fires] are rare occasions and when you design a street to get there fast, what I’ve been told is that it’s more dangerous for pedestrians and bicycles on a regular daily basis,” said Lena Seville.

“We also respond to pedestrians who get hit by a car,” Baxter said.

A second open house will be held in the winter. A draft set of guidelines for the Streets That Work project is expected to be reviewed by the City Council in April.