City to jumpstart West Main improvements

Charlottesville’s City Council has agreed to spend up to $350,000 on a missing ingredient required before sidewalk enhancements and other improvements can be made to West Main Street.  

The city will hire a firm to develop streetscape design guidelines, but it will be too late for three major projects recently approved.
“Over the course of many years, the city has had several urban design plans for West Main Street,” said Jim Tolbert, the city’s director of neighborhood development services. “All of these have been conceptual plans. We’ve never progressed to the status of getting construction documents so we could build anything.”
“If a developer comes in and says, ‘What can I do in front of my property?’ we can hand them this,” Tolbert said.
The city’s PLACE design task force recommended the city pay to have the documents produced in order to shape the street’s future.
“The PLACE task force has made this a priority project and we have spent many hours to refine this proposal,” said Genevieve Keller, chairwoman of the city Planning Commission and a task force member. “I can’t think of another project that probably would be of more benefit to the city in terms of tax revenues that will be generated.”
Several development projects on West Main are either under way or imminent.
The University of Virginia is building a $ children’s hospital that is expected to be completed in 2014.
The Ambling University Development Group is expected to break ground later this year on a 595-bedroom, eight-story apartment complex in the 800 block of West Main.
A new Marriott Residence Inn also is planned at the corner of Ridge-McIntire and West Main.
However, all three of those projects will be built without being informed by the streetscape plan.
Tolbert said those projects will refer to a 2004 report from Wallace, Roberts and Todd for general guidance.
“Our zoning has been in place for 10 years on West Main Street,” Tolbert said. “We adjusted it based on some of the recommendations in the [ Wallace, Roberts and Todd ] report, but  some of our recent struggles with the Board of Architectural Review and the Planning Commission on some approvals have made us think we need to take a look at the zoning to see if it’s appropriate.”
For instance, some members of the BAR hesitated last fall to approve the Plaza on West Main because of a concern that its high density would overwhelm the rest the historic fabric of the street.
The study also will look at the future of parking on West Main Street, as Tolbert said on-street spaces might need to be removed to make way for wider sidewalks and bike lanes. It also will suggest ways to improve the street’s intersection with Ridge-McIntire.
“That is an area that we’ve all talked about as being one of the most difficult pedestrian intersections in the city,” Tolbert said.
Funding for the study will come from unspent funds for the Old Lynchburg Road project, as well as a budget line item for underground utilities.
At the City Council’s meeting last week, Mayor Satyendra Huja said he felt $350,000 was too much to pay for the study and asked for the total cap amount to be reduced to $250,000.  
However, Councilor Kathy Galvin said she thinks the higher price is worth the investment.
“This is an interesting hybrid of both planning and construction documents,” Galvin said. “They are actually going to be drawings and plans to build from and there’s a lot of professional liability associated with that sort of a drawing and that’s often where the price tag goes up.”
The exact cost of the plans will not be known until the city has received proposals. Tolbert said the request will be issued soon.
The co-owner of one restaurant on West Main Street is pleased that the city will move forward with the plans.
“I will live or die by these improvements,” said Peter Castiglione, of Maya. “We’ve put a lot of money into the property with the promise of the future.”  
Castiglione, who refers to West Main Street as “Midtown,” said he is already seeing the benefits of the 2010 paving of the parking lot next to the Amtrak station owned by Gabe Silverman, as well as Silverman’s decision to renovate several empty buildings into a restaurant and retail complex known as the Main Street Market Annex.
“We see more and more jogging up and down and we get a lot more foot traffic,” Castiglione said.  
Castiglione added that the price tag for improvements pales in comparison to the $7.5 million spent in 2009 to rebrick the Downtown Mall. He also said he would like West Main to have spaces where public art can be displayed in order to help make it a destination rather than a corridor.