Council moves forward with application for Preston/Grady intersection

The Charlottesville City Council has agreed to proceed with a funding request to redevelop the intersection of Preston and Grady, along with three other transportation projects. This happened despite concern from some that the city has not yet done enough to prepare for development on the Preston Avenue Corridor. 

City Council voted 3-2 on Monday, July 20, on a motion to proceed with applications, which are being made under the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Smart Scale program. This is the fourth round of the program, which ranks candidate projects according to a series of metrics, including how they will improve public safety. 

The first phase of the Dairy Central project is nearing completion, and on July 22 a section of 10th Street NE is closed to facilitate construction (Credit – Sean Tubbs)

The projects are:

City engineer Jack Dawson told Council said these will compete with other projects in VDOT’s Culpeper District for an available $20 million. 

“Some projects may also qualify under the high priority projects program which allows these projects to compete for another pool of funds if they provide capacity on a corridor of statewide significance or a regional network,” Dawson said. “However it is unlikely that our projects would be competitive for that.” 

The Preston Avenue Grady project was submitted in the third Smart Scale round in 2018, and was eventually suggested for funding after another project in the Culpeper District was canceled. City officials decided to submit the application again. 

“We started from a list of projects that had originated in our department from the various transportation planning documents, and most of the projects had been previously scored by VDOT so we had a good feeling for their likelihood of receiving funding this time,” Dawson said. 

He added that the city’s Streets That Work and new Standards and Design Manual also played a factor in what got selected.

In this round, the third phase of the West Main Streetscape was the city’s first priority, followed by the Preston / Grady intersection. That project was briefly selected in the last roud but the city opted to use the funding for another project at Elliot Street and Ridge Street. The two other projects are on Emmet Street and Ridge Street. Dawson said the Preston / Grady project is conceptual, but safety concerns played a role in having it be chosen again. 

Several nearby residents had asked for the Preston/Grady project to move forward at this time. Vizena Howard is the president of the 10th and Page Neighborhood. She said she and others in nearby neighborhoods collected nearly 300 signatures opposing the project. 

“I believe that rerouting the traffic through Grady Avenue is an error with which a high volume of traffic would create additional congestion issues for residents on the adjacent side of the street,” Howard said. ” I believe it is important more than ever that those in positions of power to be listening to residents who have long lived in this neighborhood,” Howard said. 

The application concerned some who thought the design should be informed by a more comprehensive look at the entire Preston Avenue corridor

Dawson said the application being submitted is just a concept and that the exact parameters can change. 

“If we get these funds, we won’t be able to use these funds at least until 2025 without a special deal with the state about how we’re going to use them,” Dawson said, adding it is a matter of securing money now for eventual use in the future. 

“What we’ve given to VDOT in this application is a description, more of a narrative description of what we’d like to do in the intersection with regard to safety improvements, multimodal, pedestrian crossings,” Dawson said. 

City traffic engineer Brennen Duncan explained he did not think vehicles would be pushed onto Grady Avenue because many want to get elsewhere. 

“Each individual spot whether it is the hospital or the university acts like a magnet and draws traffic to it, it wants to go to where it wants to go,” Duncan, adding people going to Barracks Road not likely to go down Grady Avenue. He said future development on Preston Avenue as well as the redeveloped Dairy Central require the intersection to be reconfigured. He said the current configuration is flawed.

“We know the history of it and we know that when Preston happened it did separate the historically African American community of 10th and Page from Washington Park,” Duncan said. “Reducing this back down to one intersection and one light where we can control pedestrian crossings I think is a huge benefit for trying to reconnect that community to the park that was historically theirs.” 

Duncan said there would be full public participation in creating the actual design, but the budget, project boundaries and narrative would have to stay within the scope of the application. Councilor Lloyd Snook said the drawing as submitted didn’t give that impression.

“What I’m looking and what I’ve seen doesn’t really designate a perimeter, but if we designate a perimeter that goes far enough to the east, at least until the eastern end of Dairy Central, it would seem to me that would provide more room to do more stuff,” Snook said. 

The developer of Dairy Central, Chris Henry, asked for the project to be stopped for now. 

“The current VDOT-centric approach misses the forest for the trees, leaving many other factors of place-making, urbanism, economic development, sustainability, and equity out of the equation,” Henry said. He called for a small area plan to be conducted, similar to the one Council approved in November 2018 for the Starr Hill Neighborhood. 

“This application for Smart Scale funding for the Preston Grady intersection is being pushed through despite robust grassroots opposition from adjacent neighborhoods, property owners, and environmental advocates,” Henry said. 

City Councilor Michael Payne said the Smart Scale process itself needs to be reviewed. 

“I think it tends to promote urban sprawl, it is a flawed process, granted it is out of our control, and this is the kind of thing where if we were to approve it tonight it’s still ten years until anything even begins to happen and  if we didn’t approve it that could be fourteen or fifteen years maybe even longer than that,” Payne said. “My concern is about what happens with the institutional inertia of this process and outside out of our intentions about the future of the corridor, what will actually happen.” 

Payne said he would support a small area plan and supported not submitting this proposal forward.

Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker said she was concerned that Henry and others were trying to stop the process so they could control the intersection in the future. 

“I’ve heard more from, minus Ms. Howard’s comments, more about people trying to control what they think this intersection should look like, and then using the fear of individuals in the neighborhood to sell that narrative that they are channeling versus their actual concern about ensuring that the neighborhood is protected,” Walker said. “They’re already doing things that are not protecting the neighborhood and the people who have lived in the neighborhood.” 

Walker said she was concerned that a small area plan would lead to further gentrification on Preston Avenue.  Payne said the street is one to watch.

“There’s going to be an explosion of development on this corridor if my memory is correct. At least portions of this corridor are going to be part of a proposed tech innovation district and I think the Dairy Central is going to accelerate that process and this corridor is going to change substantially over the next decade plus in a way that to the extent we are able to I hope we are proactive to shape it as best we can to fit the desires and needs of the corridor.” 

Council adopted a resolution supporting all four of the city’s submissions for funding through the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Smart Scale program. The scoring will be made public next February.

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