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September 26, 2007

City-County Planning Commissions discuss transportation and University issues

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The Charlottesville and Albemarle County Planning Commissions were briefed on transit and trail improvements at a joint meeting on September 25, 2007. Also present were top planners from the University of Virginia.

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Harrison Rue, Executive Director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission, gave a presentation outlining the status of several transportation studies, including the United Jefferson Area Mobility Plan (UnJAM) which serves as a guideline for future road projects.  He also showed slides from the 29H250 Study detailing how the area around the intersection of US 29 and US 250 could be transformed through a series of transit improvements and commercial redevelopment.  For example, Hydraulic Road in the City could become a new “main street” once motorists have more options to get around.

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      A photo-simulation of how a redeveloped Hydraulic Road might look

“I think that the Planning District works best as a kind of in-house consultant for the localities,” he said. But, he pointed out that local governments are the ones who have to figure out how to pay for the projects. He said some of the projects laid out in UnJAM have been built, but many have not because there is no money to pay for them. 

Juandiego Wade described the efforts of the Tri Modal group, which consists of City, County and University planners. The idea is to coordinate plans for bike and pedestrian trails to give people more choices to get where they’re going in the region.  “We’ve actually caught several projects that each of us were doing that we didn’t know about,” he said.  One project he’s working on now it negotiate with churches outside of the urban ring to see if it might be possible to use their parking lots for park-and-ride lots. 

Charlottesville City Trail Planner Chris Gensic demonstrated what projects have either have recently been completed or are proposed.  They include a pedestrian bridge over the Rivanna River connecting Pen and Darden Towe Parks, a trail connecting downtown with the Rivanna Greenway via the Coal Tower project, and the Meadowcreek Parkway multimodal trail.

“From my point of view, I think we’ll see quite a bit of new bike, pedestrian and multimodal stuff in the next few years,” he said. “It’ll be a whole different place.”

COMMISSION DISCUSSIONS

After the presentation, City and County Commissioners discussed a variety of topics, sharing ideas about possible solutions to traffic congestion and other issues. They took the time to pepper Harrison Rue with questions about ongoing projects.

County Commissioner Bill Edgerton asked Harrison Rue how critical grade separation at key intersections was to the success of the Places29 Master Plan. Rue said the new interchanges will be required in order for the plan to work for several reasons. Through-traffic will have a smoother flow through the corridor, but more importantly, Rue said it would connect centers on both sides of the highway to allow safe passage across for bikes, pedestrians and drivers. 

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  County Planning Commissioner Eric Strucko

County Commissioner Eric Strucko took the opportunity to ask University of Virginia Architect David Neuman if the University has been participating in efforts to reduce single-occupancy vehicles.

“When I look at the planning I see from the Real Estate Foundation and the University, I see a lot of planning for parking decks next to the buildings where people work,” he said. “To me, that’s not very multimodal.”  He cited plans to build new parking decks at the Medical Center and the Fontaine Research Park.   

U.Va Senior Land Use Planner Julia Monteith said the Grounds Plan contains a transportation demand management program which is designed to reduce single drivers.  Strucko pressed on.

“I hear good intentions and designs but in actually what we’re seeing being developed is potentially something different, and that is an orientation towards a single vehicle,” he said.

“I think that’s wrong,” said David Neuman.  He said there are currently too many spaces at Fontaine, and that they are not used enough.

“We have approached the county on several occasions about lowering the normal standard for parking because we do have bus circulation to that site.” He went on to say that the parking structures at the Medical Center are for patients and their visitors, for who transit would not be appropriate.

“But in terms of employee parking we now have most of the hospital people park at the Stadium, so the idea is that that becomes a park and ride facility.”

Neuman said one challenge is getting the appropriate density in the area to support a working population that can take transit. He said the University is planning housing projects for North Fork Research Park for employees, but Fontaine is increasingly becoming integrated with Central Grounds via transit.

“Even though the proposal for rezoning at Fontaine Park does show three parking structures, that’s based on what the County’s requirement,” he said. “It’s not based on what we hope would happen, which would be that the bus service and potentially some redevelopment at Piedmont for housing would encourage a much more transit-focused/pedestrian combination.”

Strucko said he was encouraged to hear Neuman’s comments. 

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City Commissioner Michael Farruggio (left) and Harrison Rue (right) 

Harrison Rue pointed out that current conditions require parking, citing the Reston Town Center as an example of how that development has evolved.

“They actually started out with surface lots, and they had one parking garage, and they gradually in-filled what were surface lots with a walkable mix use of high -density.” He recommended that Commissioners consider flexibility in site plans to allow for changing conditions.

City Planning Commission Chair Bill Lucy said he was struck by the possibilities for commercial and housing redevelopment that could occur in the 29H250 Study Area.

“We of course know about Albemarle Place in the County, but we haven’t talked much about more density in that immediate area in the city, and what it looked like to me, conceptually, as a third downtown for the City,” referring to the Downtown Mall and Barracks Road Shopping Center as the other two.  He said that would raise questions about whether the City actually wants that kind of development in that area and whether it would transform the whole Emmett Street corridor.

County Planning Commissioner Chair Marcia Joseph asked her colleagues in the City if they have been following the Places29 discussion.

“You need to look beyond and see what’s being planned for near the airport, because that truly is another downtown bigger than Albemarle Place,” referring to the Uptown area. Harrison Rue said the City was actively engaged in the 29H250 Study, which is the precursor of the Places29 Study. “Since 95 percent of the corridor is in the County, most of the public involvement work and the new work is in the County area,” he said. He pointed out that the City is now moving ahead with implementing the high priority suggestions made in the 29H250 Study - for instance, an extra ramp to the 250 Bypass from 29 South.

Lucy wanted to know what the status of Places29 is, and asked about opposition from the North Charlottesville Business Council. 

Wayne Cilimberg, the County's Director of Planning and Community Development , said the County Planning Commission has three more chapters to review, including the section on implementation. The Board of Supervisors held a work session in September, and the Commission will resume its deliberations with a work session in late October.  Joseph encouraged her colleagues to look at the maps and offer feedback.

Commissioner Bill Edgerton predicted that adoption wouldn’t happen for at least another nine months to a year, an assertion Chief Planner David Benish agreed with. Harrison Rue and his team are meeting privately this week with business leaders to discuss the grade separated interchanges.  He said he’s making progress explaining how grade separated interchanges would work.  While some remain skeptical about grade separated interchanges, there is also some support.

“We’ve met with six or a dozen different property owners and developers who just think this is a great idea and are moving ahead with their plans,” he said, adding that they see an improved 29 and the resulting redevelopment as a competitive advantage.

That prompted Commissioner Strucko to wonder if some departments in the University may  lose a competitive advantage if it becomes harder to recruit and retain top tier faculty because of a lack of parking. Strucko said he deals with this issue in his capacity as the Chief Financial Officer for the Health Services Foundation.

“To have a renowned  physician park at Scott Stadium and get on a bus or to have a renowned researcher do the same becomes a very difficult business consideration to deal with,” he said.

Commissioner Edgerton asked how critical transit is to making the Places29 model work.  “The reality is, it’s a chicken and egg thing. In order to increase the ridership significantly, we do have to build some [transit-oriented projects],” he said.  “Developers are acting on this stuff. They don’t do it unless the market is there.”

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      City Planning Commission Chair Bill Lucy and County Planning Commission Chair Marcia Joseph

Commissioner Bill Lucy asked what the University’s plans for the Emmett Street Corridor between Grounds and Barracks Road.  Neuman responded that the plan is redevelop those areas to have more dense housing, and that the areas across from the shopping center are set to eventually be developed as mixed-use, but there are no plans to do so at this time.

Edgerton asked if the University will try to house more students on Grounds. Neuman said on-Grounds housing is guaranteed for second-year students, but that a culture shift is necessary to make such arrangements more attractive. The real target is to house more graduate students in rooms closer to their laboratory space.

“We’re housing 40 percent of our students,” said Julia Monteith.

“It does seem as though the combination of asking how to reduce driving alone and the timing of some of the County’s Work, and the TJPDC work seem to fit together pretty well,” Lucy said, just before adjourning the meeting.

The next joint meeting of the City and County will be held later this year. No specific subject is under consideration at this time. Cilimberg suggested the MPO’s CHART Committee would be another location for both City and County Commissioners to provide input as the UNJAM plan is updated.

CONCERNS ABOUT LOCATION OF MEETING

Even though there was no opportunity for public comment, two members of the public stood to be heard after the meeting was adjourned.   One man said he had a hard time hearing the discussion, despite his hearing aids. “I got about one-third of the conversation. I think this is an important meeting, and this is a very poor place to have an important meeting,” he said. He suggested the two bodies should meet in Lane Auditorium, which he said provides special equipment for the deaf and hard of hearing.  Another newcomer said she had a hard time finding the event.

Sean Tubbs

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