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February 12, 2012

UVa teams unveil Belmont Bridge concepts

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DailyProgressBy Sean Tubbs
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Sunday, February 12, 2012 

More than 300 people packed into Charlottesville’s Music Resource Center on Saturday to review the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture’s conceptual plans for redeveloping the city’s Belmont Bridge.

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Photo: Daily Progress

“The ideas are many and varied and the level of practicality varies from project to project, but I think that in almost every single one of them there is a nugget to pull out that can give us a principle of how to proceed,” said City Councilor Kathy Galvin.

Twenty-nine teams consisting of both students and faculty have been working since the beginning of the month to redesign the bridge as part of a contest meant to reopen discussion of the bridge’s replacement.

“We have here [nearly] 30 ideas for the city to put in the back of their mind and let it roll around and say, ‘what are the next 100 years going to be?’” said Brian Wimer, a Belmont filmmaker who launched the contest.

More than 75 members of the public voted to choose a favorite, and the prize was awarded to an entry titled “Belmont Unabridged” that removed the bridge altogether.

“Our main issue with the current bridge is that, although you would believe it to be a connector between Belmont and the Downtown Mall, it really is a separation,” said Nell Connors, a member of the design team.

Connors and her team decided to route Avon Street as an at-grade crossing with the railroad tracks. She said close to a hundred trains used to pass through Charlottesville each day, but that number is now much lower.
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City Councilor Kathy Galvin points out an element she likes in the "Belmont Parkway" entry (Source: Daily Progress)

However, Jim Tolbert, the city’s director of neighborhood development services, said the Buckingham Branch Railroad would have to approve an at-grade crossing.

“It would take a lot of work with the railroad to make that happen,” Tolbert said.

The Belmont Unabridged entry would also extend the Downtown Mall, relocate the Charlottesville Pavilion and place the City Market on the land currently occupied by the Beck Cohen building. Traffic would be accommodated in part by widening the underpass on Fourth Street Southeast to two lanes.

“I like that they totally removed the bridge,” said Cindy Conti. “The space is more friendly and inviting.”

Mayor Satyendra Huja said he appreciated the enthusiasm conveyed in the entries.

“I think they have creative ideas that are bold and out of the box and we can get some principles from these ideas to incorporate into our new bridge,” Huja said. “[But] I don’t think we can give up on the bridge itself.”

Other members of the public said they were impressed by the scope of the project.

“I like the way that the students have taken the area beyond just the bridge itself, unlike what the city’s consultant had done,” said Steven Meeks, president of the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society. “They’re coming up with concepts for a true entrance into Charlottesville.”

Meeks said he favored the designs that fully separate vehicular and pedestrian traffic.

“I think there are some very innovative approaches there,” Meeks said.

The student prize went to an entry called “Belmont Parkway,” which also placed a linear park directly on top of the roadway.

“Looking at a map of Charlottesville city parks, we realized that most of them are on the periphery,” said student Katherine Canella. “We wanted to give the people of Belmont and Charlottesville a park to not just pass through but to enjoy for leisure.”

The entry “Once Upon a Time Charlottesville” sought to turn back the clock.

“[Charlottesville] is the victim of a criminal in disguise,” read the project narrative. “In the area around the Belmont Bridge, rail and automotive infrastructure have gained hegemony over a once pedestrian landscape. We say out with such totalitarianism.”

All of the student entries will be on display at CitySpace in the Market Street parking garage all week. They’ll be alongside other entrants in the Project Gait-way contest.

The city and university are in talks to submit applications for a grant that would help incorporate some of these elements into a new design.

“That is the next intention and I’ll do everything I can to encourage City Council, city planners and the community to collaborate on this,” Wimer said.

“Right now, this is kind of like everything and anything went, and now we have to see what can really go,” Galvin said.

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