The Charlottesville City Council has delayed for at least one month consideration of a preferred design alternative for the interchange to connect the future Meadowcreek Parkway with the Route 250 Bypass. After a two and a half hour public hearing, Council decided they needed more time to select a preference. A work session will be scheduled held in late May to consider the comments of 34 citizens who spoke.
On March 19, the Steering Committee overseeing the design of the interchange voted 5-1-1 to designate Alternative C1, a grade-separated interchange above an oval roundabout, as its candidate for preferred alternative. Since then, the vote was expanded to 8-2-2 after all members of the Steering Committee were polled.
Before the public hearing, Mayor Dave Norris asked Angela Tucker of the City’s Department of Neighborhood Development Services how much the interchange was going to cost. Tucker said the estimate for the project ranged between $31.5 million and $35 million, but those figures would be refined as the design goes from conceptual to actual. When she explained the City received an earmark from the federal government for $27 million, Norris asked how the Steering Committee expected to close the gap.
“With direction from Council, we can be directed to stay within the earmark budget,” Tucker said. “We can certainly refine and do intend to refine the estimate as we move forward with design.”
Councilor Julian Taliaferro asked for some examples of how that cost-cutting would affect the interchange. Tucker said that the bridge itself could be reduced in scope, and that the non-vehicular items such as the bike and pedestrians trail could be phased, something that she said would go against the direction and vision of the Steering Committee. But Tucker said it was most important for Council to make a “timely decision.”
“The inflationary costs of holding projects back even months when we’re on the accelerated schedule that Council asked us to undertake this particular project can make the difference or $4 or $5 million dollars just from one fiscal year to the next,” Tucker said.
Owen Peery of the consulting firm RK&K said a less expensive bridge design would look common, and the Steering Committee and the Project Team had been charged with developing a design that would be one of the City’s main gateways.
Nearly three dozen people speak at public hearing
Perhaps most notable among the comments were those of former City Councilor Kay Slaughter of the Southern Environmental Law Center, who told Council she felt the two alternatives presented to Council were too big for the community.
“The interchange in conjunction with the Meadowcreek Parkway is the most important physical project in Charlottesville since the Mall was built,” Slaughter said. She requested that Council adopt six specific directives for any interchange design:
- Develop for the public an appropriate simulation of the appearance of the interchange with a bridge
- Downscale the bridge design paying attention to materials
- Fit the project into the landscape rather than the other way around
- Avoid removal of existing trees and create other stormwater mitigation through natural plantings
- Use transportation management including signalized crosswalks for bicycles and pedestrians and weekend closure of the Parkway to all but walkers and bikers
- Incorporate Rock Hill Gardens into Parkway Design
She said without these conditions, the Meadowcreek Parkway would become a “supersized” road like Route 29. By the end of the meeting, at least two Councilors said they supported her directives and will consider them at a future work session.
The majority of the other speakers during the public hearing spoke against a grade-separated interchange, though many expanded their opposition to include the entire Meadowcreek Parkway project.
G. Edward White addresses Council
G. Edward White of Park Street said the interchange was too large and would further empower the role the automobile plays in downtown Charlottesville. Chad Freckman, who lives nearby McIntire Road, said heavy amounts of traffic predicted by various models would not materialize because of sharp rise in fuel costs. John Cruickshank of the Sierra Club, a County resident, presented a petition with 77 signatures asking the City to abandon the Parkway and instead spend the money to expand public transit.
As a child, Pat Napoleon of Lyons Avenue attended McIntire Elementary (now Covenant School) and said the man who donated the parkland, Paul Goodloe McIntire, would be horrified that the “City fathers have caved in to the demands by the County, state and Chamber of Commerce” to build the road through the park. Susan Michaels of Northwood Circle said her neighborhood would receive more cut-through traffic if the interchange and Parkway were built. Peter Kleeman said it was important for the City to take the three projects together into consideration as one, and that if they were, it would be evident that the entire Meadowcreek Parkway would provide no transportation benefit.
Daniel Bluestone said the interchange design was “poorly flawed” and suggested the City merely build a bridge carrying the Parkway over Route 250 with no ramps or connections to the bypass. Colette Hall said that her North Downtown Neighborhood Association would only support an at-grade interchange.
Betty Mooney, who served on the Planning Commission in the 1980’s, said the City should decline to vote on the interchange until the County agrees to build the Eastern Connector.
Ted Jones of Hillcrest Road was concerned that both Alternatives C1 and G1 would close his street, leaving only one way in and out of his neighborhood.
Several speakers felt the County was not paying its fair share. Freckman said the County should pay the difference between the earmark and the project’s total cost because it will benefit the most from the road. School Board Member Colette Blount said the County cannot solve its transportation problems on the the backs of City taxpayers who own McIntire Park. Blount will get the chance to vote on whether the City School Board will grant an easement for the County’s portion on May 1.
A handful people of did speak in favor of the Interchange and the Parkway, though most of them were on the Steering Committee. John Hossack represents the Park Street neighborhood on the Committee, and said Park Street currently carries approximately 30,000 vehicles a day, and will get worse if nothing is done. Hossack said the Meadowcreek Parkway is not a perfect solution, but that the County intended to build its portion with or without the City.
“It will terminate onto Melbourne, and my position is that we either engage in the process and control it, or we lose control and we have a situation where that traffic pours onto Park Street and into Greenbrier, and destroys both of those neighborhoods,” Hossack said. He implored those advocating the no-build to come up with other alternatives.
Bob Hodous, another member of the Steering Committee, said the road was necessary to help County residents to get to jobs in the City, and for City residents to get to jobs in the County. He pointed to a recent Chamber of Commerce study on the area’s work force.
“Approximately 44% of the jobs in the City of Charlottesville are in fact filled by people coming in to Charlottesville from Albemarle County,” Hodous said. “Over 30% of the people who seek jobs from the City of Charlottesville go into Albemarle County, so whatever is done to get back and forth between the County is in fact positive for the citizens of Charlottesville and its economic vitality.”
Hodous said opponents of the Parkway were spreading misinformation about its design. He said the bridge height would not be known until detailed engineering work could be done, both the Charlottesville-Albemarle Rescue Squad and Vietnam Memorial would remain in their existing locations, and that the Steering Committee would continue to oversee the interchange design as details are worked out.
County resident Leigh Middleditch, another Steering Committee member, said the economic vitality of downtown Charlottesville depends on good parking and vehicular access. Planning Commissioner Cheri Lewis, another Steering Committee member who lives in the North Downtown neighborhood, said the no-build alternative would result in a 17-lane at-grade intersection to handle all of the traffic volumes anticipated by the MPO’s UNJAM 2025 plan. Instead, she said Alternative C1 would allow improve conditions for three modes of north-south transportation: vehicular, bicycle and pedestrian.
Not all Steering Committee Members supported the road. Former City Councilor John Conover told Council he voted against Alternatives C1 and G1 on March 19, and suggested Council look at an at-grade intersection because it would be the safest.
Albemarle County resident and developer Chuck Rotgin warned the City that it would lose a competitive advantage unless it invested in ways to improve access to the downtown corridor.
“I have some knowledge about pending competition that the retail and the restaurants on the downtown Mall are going to face in the future,” Rotgin said. “Not the least of which will be Albemarle Place and the redevelopment that is going to occur in the Route 29 North corridor-Hydraulic Road corridor… There’s no way that enough residential units can be built in the downtown area and in the Main Street corridor to allow the downtown mall to flourish.”
Rotgin, who is not on the Steering Committee, reminded the present Councilors that when their predecessors agreed to build the Parkway in 2002, they set the condition that the interchange would be grade separated. He said a bi-partisan coalition, including then Mayor David Brown and Albemarle County Board of Supervisors Chairman Ken Boyd (Rivanna), helped secure the funding from Senator John Warner to construct that interchange.
The final speaker, Ariana Williams, urged Council to not make a decision after the public hearing, but instead to take time to consider how the interchange construction would affect “the next seven generations.”
Council agrees to defer after discussion
After the public hearing, Council debated the issue for another forty minutes before deciding to postpone a vote. Councilor David Brown spent 12 minutes asking questions about the project. He first said he was concerned about the safety of cyclists using the roundabout, and said a traffic light would seem to be more safe to him. Peery said they would have a choice of either traveling through the roundabout or using a special exit lane to enter the 10 foot wide multi-use path.
Brown also asked how tall the bridge would be. Peery responded that would depend on the length of the bridge, but he estimated it could be in the 30 foot range. Brown also asked what the advantages of a roundabout would be. Tucker responded that north-south traffic would keep moving without an intersection, and that there would be a posted speed limit of 25 miles per hour.
Brown also took up Slaughter’s concern that no model has been developed depicting the scale of the bridge. He said he had requested one months ago, but has yet to see it. Peery said his team had developed and presented a video at the November 1 public hearing, but Brown insisted he had never seen it.
Rather than ask questions of the project team, Councilor Satyendra Huja took Ariana Williams up on her suggestion to postpone the decision, preferably after a work session. He said he continued to support the Meadowcreek Parkway but thought the footprint for the interchange should be as small as possible.
“I realize that time is of the essence. We’ve been talking about it for 40 years and I think a few more months won’t make a difference,” Huja said. Huja, who recently joined the Steering Committee, supported Slaughter’s six conditions, but said he would support an at-grade interchange but if grade-separation was necessary, he seemed to favor further refining Alternative G1, the signalized diamond.
Councilor Julian Taliaferro also said he supported the Parkway, and wasn’t against an at-grade intersection.
Angela Tucker said the Steering Committee selected C1 and G1 because they had the smallest footprints of the 14 alternatives that have been vetted since the interchange design process began. Alternative C1 would take up 7.3 acres, whereas Alternative G1 would be 5.9 acres.
Councilor Holly Edwards, who in September 2007 told Charlottesville Tomorrow that she did not anticipate she would be in a position to ever vote on the Parkway or its interchange, said she did not feel comfortable with Alternative C1, and that the delay would give Council the chance to reevaluate the whole concept of the Parkway.
“I think of all of the things that I heard this evening, the most compelling has been if we are making the decision now for the next seven generations, and if this is my time on Council to do it, I really want to do it well,” Edwards said.
Councilor Brown said he was attracted to Alternative G1, which would stop traffic using a light. He asked staff to find ways to make the design smaller, which he said would lower the cost of the interchange. Tucker said one way to do that would be to shrink the size of the traffic lanes from 12 feet wide to 9 feet, but she doubted VDOT would allow that reduction.
After asking a couple questions of his own, Mayor Norris said it was clear that Council would not act that evening. He said Council wasn’t qualified to redesign the intersection, and his preference would be to direct the Steering Committee to return to the drawing board, specifically to address Kay Slaughter’s six conditions.
Huja disagreed and said Council should use the work session to give more specific guidance to the Steering Committee, after sifting through the many suggestions provided by the public. Councilor Brown agreed. Edwards was concerned the public would not have an opportunity to comment at the work session. (Public comment has been allowed at all 12 of the Steering Committee meetings)
City Manager Gary O’Connell said the earliest a work session could be scheduled was late May, but said he was concerned that he did not have clear direction on what new information staff would need to bring to the table. Huja said Council did not need any new information, but just needed to assess the information it already had. Norris disagreed, and said he wanted more information on the future of Hillcrest Road, for instance.
“I would challenge staff and the team and the consultants… in advance of our work session to take a stab at some other alternatives that might address some of these concerns, and when we come back together in a work session we can maybe use that as a basis for our conversation.”
And with that direction, the two and a half hour discussion ended and will resume at a later date.