A steering committee that is considering a $340,000 “action plan” for West Main Street met again recently amid continuing disagreements over how the city should respond to ongoing development along the corridor between the University of Virginia and the Downtown Mall.
“The challenge with this project is that there are so many people with a strong vested interest in West Main and their interests are often in conflict,” said Rachel Lloyd, a member of the steering committee. “This whole design has been an exercise in compromise, and we don’t want anyone to have to compromise too much.”
The action plan was coordinated by Rhodeside & Harwell of Alexandria, took a year to develop and was presented to the City Council in December. The firm’s vision called for wider sidewalks, protected bike lanes, undergrounding of utilities and creation of public spaces.
In January, Mayor Satyendra Huja said he did not support the plan because he said it was cluttered and incoherent. He said he also was concerned about the relocation of on-street parking and the replacement of existing street trees.
One of the purposes of the steering committee’s meeting last week was to draft a document that would explain to the City Council why the group had unanimously recommended the plan last year. The group is strictly advisory and has no voting power.
However, Starr Hill resident and steering committee member Pat Edwards began the meeting by saying she does not support the plan.
“I feel like my neighborhood will be destroyed and I don’t want to see that,” Edwards said.
In the past few years, the Flats at West Village and the Battle Building have gone up in the western end of the study area. There are plans for several more large structures along the corridor. The Board of Architectural Review is expected to consider approvals for two of them Tuesday.
Edwards said some residents in the neighborhoods that adjoin West Main are not happy with the development that has occurred.
“There are lots of people who are going to be affected by what happens on West Main Street who have not been heard from,” Edwards said.
But other members of the group told Edwards that the streetscape plan was not the driving force behind those recent developments.
“A lot of this was set in motion 10 or 15 years ago,” said Tim Mohr, a member of the Board of Architectural Review. The City Council rezoned the street in 2003 to make way for taller buildings that can house many hundreds of people.
A streetscape plan from 2010 was never adopted because development activity began to pick up as the recession faded.
“My understanding is that there were so many changes happening to West Main Street that it would be helpful to look at things in the current context,” said Missy Creasy, acting director of the city’s Neighborhood Development Services department. Creasy was not present at last week’s meeting.
Mohr said the current plan is a chance to accommodate growth while lessening its impact on surrounding neighborhoods.
“The one real opportunity of the West Main study is to try to address this now before more damage is done,” Mohr said.
Some aspects are still not finished, such as the details for proposed changes to the street’s zoning to restrict the size of future buildings.
Lloyd said the plan still can be adjusted to meet the community’s competing desires.
“We have to figure out a way to chart a path forward that is productive for everybody,” Lloyd said. “Change is happening. My career is in historic preservation … but preservation isn’t about locking things in amber forever.”
But members of the steering committee have different ideas about how to proceed.
“If we were prioritizing the aspects of the design that we want the most, it would be wider sidewalks and undergrounding utilities,” said Laura Galgano, owner of the Blue Moon Diner and a member of the steering committee.
Mike Signer, president of the Fifeville Neighborhood Association and a candidate for the City Council, said protected bike lanes would come at the expense of wider sidewalks.
“The bike lanes are the real fly in the ointment,” Signer said. “That’s the commitment that started skewing the whole project.”
Signer suggested the road could be painted with special markings called “sharrows” to indicate that bicycles travel in the same lanes as vehicles. Such markings are used on Water Street, which does not have bike lanes.
But a representative of Charlottesville’s cycling community said shared lanes can safely handle only 4,000 vehicles a day without compromising bicyclist safety. The current volume of West Main Street is 16,000 vehicles a day.
“If you leave all the parking and improve the sidewalks, then there’s no room for the bike infrastructure,” said Scott Paisley, owner of Blue Wheel Bicycles and a steering committee member. He said other communities that have invested in safer bike pathways have reduced congestion while improving economic development.
Lloyd said bike lanes are needed to prevent fatalities and have been part of the discussion all along.
“I would prefer to not see us force that conflict between parking and biking,” Lloyd said.
While the steering committee took no vote, there was consensus that the City Council should separate the zoning changes from decisions that need to be made about what infrastructure should be built.
“I feel like we don’t want to hold the zoning up because of lingering streetscape issues,” Lloyd said. “I feel like we should convey to council that we all agree on that.”
Funding also could become an issue.
Full implementation of the action plan has a preliminary cost estimate of more than $30 million.
The City Council agreed earlier this month to reduce the budget for implementation of the plan from $10.75 million to $4.5 million over the next five years. Further discussion of that line item will come as the council debates the proposed budget for the coming fiscal year.
The council is expected to have a work session on West Main Street in late March, according to Carrie Rainey, a planner for the city.