Charlottesville planning commission resumes West Main discussion

The Charlottesville Planning Commission has weighed in on a concept for a new look for West Main Street, a rapidly developing corridor that has been the subject of many years of study.

“There are many steps still left in this,” said Missy Creasy, the interim director of the city’s neighborhood development services department. “One of the next steps would be to get this to council for their approval.”

In the face of several looming construction projects, the council voted in February 2013 to spend up to $350,000 to hire a firm to develop a concept for the streetscape. The city recently hired Alexandria-based Rhodeside & Harwell to update earlier plans.

The Rhodeside & Harwell plan would provide 9-foot sidewalks and wider bike lanes. As many as 33 on-street parking spaces would be removed. The concept also includes the removal of a dedicated right-turn lane from West Main to Ridge Street.

The total cost estimate to implement all of the recommendations in the Rhodeside & Harwell study is $30 million. A large portion of that would be to place utility lines underground.

The future of the plan was called into question in January when Mayor Satyendra Huja said he could not support it. Since then, it was has been slightly revised.

City staff has recommended approval of the streetscape concept with the understanding that construction documents should not be developed until a way is found to mitigate the loss of the 33 parking spaces.

In the meantime, a pilot project would be conducted.

“The pilot program would basically take place between the curbs,” said Carrie Rainey, the city’s urban designer. “We’re talking about striping and testing out the removal of parking to make way for bike facilities.”

Commissioners spent 1½ hours debating several components of the plan.

They recommended their support for the general plan while also asking for further review of the western side of the streetscape.

Commissioners did not share Huja’s concern about removing the parking.

“I don’t have an issue losing that number of parking spaces as long as it is coupled with managed parking that was mentioned in the study,” Commissioner Kurt Keesecker said. “The trade-off seems fair to try to enhance this corridor.”

Commissioner Dan Rosensweig said he thought the western side could use more strategic parking to help businesses.

“I don’t have any heartburn over losing the number of spots, but I don’t think it was done very strategically,” Rosensweig said. “There are some places where losing parking is going to create economic dead zones.”

Commissioner Genevieve Keller served on the streetscape’s steering committee which unanimously supported the plan.

“This isn’t necessarily the plan I would have developed if I had been on the team,” Keller said. “Everyone needs to realize that this is a plan that has been put together to meet the needs of a lot of constituencies.”

Commissioners spent much of the meeting debating the minutiae of the plan, including whether the sidewalks and bike lanes could be slightly narrower.

“Can you cut a little off of everything and figure it out how to make it all fit in there together?” Commissioner John Santoski said.

Creasy said this is similar to the discussions that have been held over the last two years.

“It is a literal battle to try to fit everything in and not everything is going to fit in,” Creasy said. “Choices were made to try to balance all of the different constituencies that were coming forward.”

Another topic was whether the fire department should hold so much control over how city streets are laid out.

“One of the frustrating things to me with any of our transportation stuff is that we always go back to the size of the fire vehicles we need to have and what we need to have for turning radiuses,” Santoski said. “There’s got to be a different way to do to this.”

There was consensus to support the pilot program, but some expressed concern that about what would actually be done as the pilot.

“I can see that conversation taking place over many months and being just as contentious,” Keesecker said.

There was also consensus to have the commission recommend high-level conversations to get Dominion to help pay to put their lines underground.

Representatives from the University of Virginia said they felt they should have been consulted earlier in the planning process.

“From the Medical Center’s perspective, the unimpeded flow of emergency vehicles on West Main Street is critical to our operations,” said Kevin Fox, facilities administrator for UVa Medical Center.

Fox also took issue with a concept in the plan to have buses stop within the travel lane rather than the pull-off areas that exist in locations near UVa.

“Having buses drop people off in the drive lanes doesn’t foster a conducive traffic flow on the street,” Fox said.

Mary Hughes, interim architect at UVa, asked that a thorough traffic analysis of the entire corridor be conducted before any more detailed design goes forward.

Members of the bike community pushed for protected lanes that separate bikes and pedestrians. The plan features this element in some locations but in some areas bikes and pedestrians are in the same general area at the same level.

“The idea of sharing space with bikes and pedestrians really does not work for people who are commuting by bike on West Main,” said Ruth Stornetta. “By moving back and forth between protected and non-protected bike lanes it’s kind of doing a disservice to the people you’re trying to get to commute on bike.”

The future of the street’s zoning is being considered as a separate but related conversation. That would include removing the ability for buildings to be constructed to 101 feet with a special use permit.

The Council is scheduled to take up West Main Street at its Aug. 17 meeting.