The firm hired to create a design for a replacement for the Belmont Bridge asked the Charlottesville Planning Commission Tuesday for feedback on the long-awaited project.
“The bridge that we have now, that I have hated for more than 50 years, was designed to move cars and not people,” said Commissioner Genevieve Keller, who added that motorists will adjust to the new design over time.
Kimley-Horn began work on the project in January after signing a $1.98 million contract with the city to design a replacement for the current bridge, which was built in the early 1960s. The goal is for City Council to approve a design in the fall so work can begin on construction documents.
“We really focused on the fact that we have a deteriorating bridge, we need to improve bicycle accommodations and we need to generally enhance aesthetics in the corridor,” said Sal Musarra, project manager with Kimley-Horn.
VDOT’s six-year improvement program lists a total budget of $23.5 million for the project, including $4.5 million that comes from city taxes required for a local match.
“We’ve been told by City Council that they’ve provided quite a bit of local funding,” said Jeanette Janiczek, the manager of the city’s urban construction initiative. “We’ve got a lot of federal and state funding. We need to fit the project within the budget that we currently have.”
The Planning Commission’s role is to determine whether the “general character” of the replacement bridge is consistent with the city’s Comprehensive Plan.
On the new bridge, the number of vehicular lanes would be reduced to one in each direction, though it would retain turn lanes on both of its approaches. The bike lanes would be physically protected with a buffer, but emergency vehicles could use them when necessary. The eastern sidewalk would be opened for the first time since April 2011.
The span of the bridge would be reduced by half. The design concept also closes off Old Avon Street from the current five-way intersection at Levy Avenue, Garrett Street and Avon Street.
The entrance to the Pavilion and the Downtown Mall from the bridge would be much wider and would also feature a pair of staircases down to Water Street. One remaining question is where to place a ramp that would be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“There is a large cost implication because we have to impact the structural wall that is there today to hold up the pavilion,” Musarra said.
Another remaining question is whether Buckingham Branch Railroad and CSX will require a fence to stop pedestrians from dropping items onto the rails. Kimley-Horn has designed the bridge with such a fence, should the railroad decide one is necessary.
Planning commissioner John Santoski sat on the project’s steering committee.
“A lot of our discussion was about how do we move traffic, how do we move pedestrians and bikes and how do we do it effectively and efficiently all the way between East High Street all the way to Monticello Avenue,” Santoski said. “There was a long discussion about the parking that exists underneath the Belmont Bridge and what happens to those spaces.”
Musarra said the plan currently eliminates around 30 spaces to stay within the project’s budget. He said the city will have other opportunities to work with nearby landowners for shared parking and that new spaces could be built as part of redevelopment.
“We also are moving towards a community where there are fewer cars and fewer demands for parking,” Musarra said. “We do think a more global look at parking … is the solution to a short-term loss of inventory.”
There are several open questions about the project, including whether a mid-block crossing at Graves Street should be retained. The design calls for a pedestrian underpass to be built beneath the southern approach to the bridge.
“The concept today is to use the underpass to go east and west to avoid the vehicular conflict,” Musarra said. However, the mid-block crossing is still shown in the plan despite engineers’ concerns.
“It is a condition we believe is fairly unsafe,” he said.
One Belmont resident suggested during the informal public hearing that money could be saved by not building the pedestrian underpass.
“Nobody is going to use it,” said Steve Huff of Lyman Street. “We have a homeless issue in that area. We have a drug issue in that area. You can’t make that safe enough unless you make it gigantic enough to drive vehicles through it.”
Another open question is whether cars should be able to turn left onto 9th Street from Graves Street.
“The turning moment can create some traffic congestion,” Musarra said. “For vehicles trying to make that left turn during peak hours is very challenging and maybe a little bit dangerous.”
Tim Freilich of Levy Avenue said he hopes that the left turn from Graves Street will be kept.
“Anybody who wants to go left onto Avon Street from Graves Street will end up instead circling around Goodman, Graves and going all the way to get out,” Freilich said. “You’ll have a lot more traffic going around the neighborhood streets.”
The plans will next go to the city’s Board of Architectural Review on Aug. 15. The Planning Commission will vote on the project Sept. 12.