FORUM WATCH EDITORIAL
By. Neil Williamson, President
“You have to show people the ramps, you have to show people the expressway you’re building,” Henry Weinschenk said.- Charlottesville Tomorrow May 2010
Henry was right — the Expressway is coming. It was likely a dozen years ago, and countless ‘stakeholder’ meetings ago when I first heard the term “US29 Expressway”; today as I review the documents and plans, I see the expressway being an accepted reality.
Today, even as the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) is calling out highways that separate communities, Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) consultant planners are prepared to take US29 over (or under) Hydraulic Road and perhaps top it with a green feature, a cap park.
One of the biggest challenges to “planning” the future is current reality. As VDOT consultants draw conceptual maps, each has a small disclaimer:
ILLUSTRATIVE AND FOR CONCEPTUAL PURPOSES ONLY INTENDED TO ILLUSTRATE BROAD CONCEPTS AND ALTERNATIVE APPROACHES TO REPRESENT POTENTIAL FUTURE DEVELOPMENT SCENARIOS [ALL CAPS IN ORIGINAL – nw]
While I understand that none of the three concepts presented so far are the likely outcome of the transportation planning piece of this study, the direction is of critical import.
Despite this important caveat, significant changes to the future of Hydraulic and the areas around it are being discussed and not all of the ideas are gaining traction with panel members or the community.
The concept of urban interstates was very big in the 1960s. Today, many of these same roads are now charged with hindering community cohesion and promoting gentrification. The very highways that were originally constructed to promote mobility and connect communities to each other are being targeted as fracturing communities.
CNU’s recent report Freeways Without Futures is the fifth in a series of reports suggesting the destruction of such intercity interstates. The report states:
But some highways on this list are here to stay—and even expand. State highway engineers still love straight, wide roads, and this inertia cannot be underestimated. At the very least, some state DOTs are becoming more sensitive to impacted communities. Lately, “cap parks” have emerged as compromise solutions that restitch neighborhoods bifurcated by highways by literally covering up their air and noise impacts. Denver’s much-protracted fight over I-70 came to a decisive moment last week, when the Federal Highway Administration approved Colorado’s plans to lower the highway below grade, widen lanes from six to ten, and put a grassy “cap” over a small section of it. It will adjoin a local schoolyard. The I-70 saga offers one illustration of the challenges in such highway facelifts: Many residents love the prospect of a grassy cap park, while others fear that hiding the highway beneath it could draw in a tide of gentrification and displacement. (Emphasis added – NW)
But what does this have to do with Charlottesville?
Last week, the Route 29 Solutions Hydraulic Planning Advisory Panel (colloquially known as the HPAP) heard three different Framework Concepts for the US29 Hydraulic Intersection. Two of the three concepts embrace some measure of the cap park concept.
US29 Over Hydraulic Concept:
In the meeting, many panel members expressed concern with creating such significant ‘public space’ under the highway. This option likely had the least amount of support.
Alternative B where US29 goes Under Hydraulic Road:
Some panel members were intrigued by this concept especially the pedestrian orientation of the upper plaza. There were some concerns raised but this concept will likely move forward for more refinement.
In Alternative C the “Park” bridge most closely resembles CNU’s grassy cap concept.
The “Park” bridge/tunnel is designed to connect Seminole Square Shopping Center and The Shops at Stonefield and eliminating direct access from these important job creating properties.
Reminding readers of the consultant caveat above, one part of this concept map included the creation of a large public park where Sperry Marine currently sits. While appreciative of the planners’ open mindedness, one must wonder what the 500+ Sperry employees think of their office becoming a park. Albemarle County economic development folks would be wise to be proactive in these discussions. Once maps are part of the public record people get antsy.
It is also of interest that last week’s presentation did not include any images of an at grade intersection with more limited turning movements that had been discussed in the previous meetings.
The Free Enterprise Forum does not have a preferred vision for this intersection but we would echo the voice of one HPAP member who, in a previous meeting, asked “What if, in 30 years, the community decided to build a bypass, will this significant infrastructure investment still be worthwhile?”
Significant philosophical questions remain on the table:
- If we are putting an expressway through our Main Street, should we camouflage it? How?
- How will the neighborhoods react to a designed litany of roundabouts and through traffic?
- How will this infrastructure investment impact property values and redevelopment possibilities?
- What is in the best long term interest of our community?
- If community needs and transportation needs are in conflict – which wins?
As usual, we have more questions than answers.
Neil Williamson, President
Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and Nelson County.
Photo Credits: VDOT Route 29 Solutions