A firm hired by Charlottesville to develop a master plan for West Main Street had another chance Monday to explain to elected officials the merits of its work.

The city hired Alexandria-based Rhodeside & Harwell in 2013 to conduct a $340,000 study of West Main, and the firm’s concept was unveiled in December.

However, Mayor Satyendra Huja said in January that he would not support the plan, calling its implementation into question.

“We believe we have a strong plan that has flexibility and can evolve,” said Elliot Rhodeside, director of Rhodeside & Harwell. “No master plan is an end point. It is really just a beginning.”

Next year’s capital improvement program budget anticipates spending $500,000 on the project. The council reduced the amount from $1 million at a February work session.

The council took no action at Monday’s work session, but provided general direction.

The consultants spent an hour briefing the council on the plan, which has a total cost estimate of $30 million, including undergrounding utilities.

“The street is changing, but the public realm has not kept up with the change,” Rhodeside said, pointing out that there are pressing issues with crumbling sidewalks and that cyclists in bike lanes are at risk of being hit by car doors as they are opened.

Rhodeside said the benefits of his company’s streetscape concept are wider sidewalks, a continuous protected bike lane, managed parking, hundreds of new trees, new lighting fixtures and the accommodation of public safety vehicles. Other amenities would include undergrounding utilities and safe and accessible bus stops.

The number of on-street parking spaces would be reduced from 85 to 52, but the consultants identified nearby parking areas that could be utilized with cooperation of private property owners.

“It’s a very hard-working street,” said Karina Ricks, a transportation planner with subcontractor Nelson Nygaard. “This one-mile segment … is a significant vehicle corridor between the University of Virginia and your downtown.”

However, Ricks said the sidewalks are currently too narrow and cannot accommodate either wheelchairs or double-wide strollers.

The council also heard from an expert from the Timmons Groups who spoke about existing utilities and possibilities for relocating or undergrounding them.

“Right now there are three public utilities on the corridor,” said Brian Copeland. They are water, sewer and gas lines. He said the gas lines were installed in the 1930s and that there may be opportunities to replace them as part of the streetscape project.

Private utilities include power lines owned by Dominion as well as various telecommunications lines. Copeland said the city made a request to have Dominion pay to place them underground.

“That request was denied,” Copeland said. “That program looks at neighborhoods and areas that have high outage issues and expenses to Dominion … but this corridor did not qualify.”

Since December, Rhodeside and his team have been working on potential pilot projects that could demonstrate the possibilities called for in the concept.

“We think the discussion about pilot projects is a really smart way to move from the master plan to the next phase of implementation,” he said. “It will take the principles of the master plan and test them out and adjust them to serve as a first step into the design process.”

The council did not give direction on what area should get the initial attention or what the pilot project might be. Councilor Kathy Galvin said the PLACE Design task force will be a good avenue to discuss which project to select.

Councilor Bob Fenwick said he is concerned that buses will stop in the travel lane under the new configuration.

“When the bus stops, traffic stops,” Fenwick said.

The plan also involves removing the slip lane that allows motorists to turn right from West Main onto Ridge-McIntire. That would allow for creation of a pocket park.

Fenwick said he did not know why the slip lane needed to be removed.

Ricks said pedestrians currently have to cross traffic three times to get from the south side of West Main to the Downtown Mall.

Huja repeated many of his concerns with the plan, which include the removal of existing trees and the elimination of parking to accommodate bike lanes. However, he had to leave before the meeting concluded to attend a Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority meeting.

Rhodeside said possible pilot projects could test reduced parking, might identify sidewalks that need immediate attention and could demonstrate the benefits of the pocket park at West Main Street and Ridge-McIntire.

Councilor Dede Smith said she does not support eliminating a turn lane that allows eastbound motorists to turn left onto Fourth Street.

“That’s going to hold up a lot of traffic,” Smith said.

Galvin suggested that, with interest rates so low, the city could finance a complete overhaul of the gas lines in the near term. She also said city investment in trees and other features could be justified, given that staff are also working on a green infrastructure plan to help meet federal and state mandates to reduce pollution that enters the Chesapeake Bay.

Galvin also suggested the city could fund infrastructure on West Main by creating a tax-increment financing district.

Last week, the Board of Architectural Review granted a certificate of appropriateness for a pair of multistory buildings in the 500 block of West Main.

One member of the public asked for the council to provide some guidance in view of the large amount of development currently underway.

“When we talk about all the things we want, from undergrounding utilities to trees to improved public space, I want us to try to keep our eye on the ball,” said former Councilor Bitsy Waters. “To the extent we can start getting our private sector partners to help us here … let’s make it happen now or as soon as we can.”
 

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