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June 19, 2007

Second vehicle crossing on mall to be permanent

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Rod Gentry of Union Bank & Trust asks City Council to keep the vehicular crossing at 4th Street East

On June 18, 2007, the Charlottesville City Council reviewed the status of the Downtown Mall’s second vehicular crossing.  Council voted 3-2 to make the crossing permanent and to have staff bring back additional recommendations as to whether the crossing should remain at Fourth Street East or be relocated to Fifth Street East.  Councilors Lynch and Norris voted against the proposal. 

Councilors received a staff report which did not make a recommendation for or against the crossing and they heard from thirteen citizens during the public hearing in which residents made arguments both for and against the crossing of Charlottesville's pedestrian Downtown Mall.

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Mallcrossing20060801 "We are not making a recommendation as to whether or not there be a mall crossing or not," said Jim Tolbert, the City's Director of Neighborhood Development Services. "There's really no science that would say there should be a crossing or there should not be a crossing. It's really a philosophical decision about whether or not the Mall is closed to automobiles."

The trial crossing at Fourth Street East was initially approved by a 4-1 vote of City Council in April 2006, in part, to make up for the loss of crossings at the East end of the mall eliminated by the mall's extension for the First Amendment Monument, the Pavilion, and the Transit Center.  At the time, Councilor Kevin Lynch was the lone vote against the trial crossing.

After the vote, there was some debate as to whether this issue will require further review before the City Planning Commission.  Acting City Attorney, Allyson Davies, informed Council that state law required that road changes of this type require the Planning Commission's review. In January 2006, the Planning Commission voted 5-2 against the crossing.  Tolbert suggested that their review had already taken place.  Staff will come back to Council with a clarification on this matter.

One issue that came up during the discussion was a reported drop in pedestrian traffic on the mall in the period following the approval of the one-year experiment. The study by engineering consultants RKK found a 22 percent drop between April 2006 and May 2007.

20070619chart2 Tim Hulbert of the Chamber of Commerce said those numbers meant the city had to improve its efforts to promote the Mall.

"I think it's very clear that the decrease in pedestrian traffic may in fact be the canary in the coal mine regarding all the things we need to do as a community and as a city and as private enterprise to make sure this Mall stays accessible and vibrant, and that requires traffic, pedestrian and vehicular," Hulbert said.

Kendra Hamilton said the City needs to continue to monitor the drop in pedestrian traffic, but said the methodology of the study couldn't explain the drop. "Is it because of competition from the county? Are those people simply choosing not to come into the City at all? We don't know enough yet to say that the crossing is depressing pedestrian traffic?"

Julian Taliaferro supported the second crossing at Fourth Street. "I am swayed by what I hear from the business community. It think it is important to listen to their opinion because it's important to the future of the downtown that businesses do well.

Mayor Brown said the decision was one of the hardest he's had to make while in office. "We can all agree that there is no clear data that points in either direction. My opinions are I've never been particularly bothered by the vehicular crossing at Second Street and I don't find this crossing impacts me particularly when I'm on the Mall."

Crossing opponent Dave Norris expressed the concern that the second crossing affected the quality of Downtown. "Having another crossing  and bringing more cars on to the Mall has negatively affected the pedestrian experience. It's negatively affected the aesthetic experience when you have noise and exhaust. The question is, do the benefits of the second crossing outweigh these negative impacts? At this point, I've not seen clear data."

While he voted against a second crossing, Kevin Lynch said he would prefer Fifth Street because that would create a larger stretch of the Mall unimpeded by vehicles. Tolbert told councilors it could cost up to $970,000 to switch the crossing to Fifth Street because utilities would need to be relocated and because the street would need to be rebuilt.  He said the costs "were essentially the same" for a permanent crossing at Fourth Street.

Highlights of the discussion:

  • 01:00 - Staff report by Jim Tolbert
  • 12:54 - Public hearing
  • 49:45 - Council discussion
  • 1:13:42 - Motion and vote

Brian Wheeler


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