Council to discuss future of $49 million West Main Streetscape

This article is the kind of in-depth article made possible through subscriptions and Patreon contributions. It was originally posted on the Charlottesville Community Engagement newsletter page. Coverage of the September 30 work session will be posted shortly.

The cost estimate for a multi-phase project to add wider sidewalks, bike lanes, and other urban amenities on West Main Street has climbed to $49 million, up from a figure of $31 million anticipated three years ago. 

The funding would go to implement a streetscape plan in development since 2013 that seeks to fulfil turn-of-the century visions of a West Main that would bring in more tax revenues through additional economic activity enabled through bigger buildings. 

“The corridor’s long promised overall redevelopment has been beset by fits and starts, with only a modicum of benefits to show for decades of effort,” reads page 70 of an influential study from December 2000 that set up a rezoning in 2003 that set the stage for several multistory buildings that now define the corridor. 

The current City Council will be briefed on the status of the project at a work session that begins at 4 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon.  

“No other corridor in Charlottesville has been studied as well and as often as West Main Street,” the 2000 Corridor Study continues. Local planners refer to as the “Torti Gallas” study after one of the planning firms hired to do the work.

It has now been a fifth of a century since that document was published. In the past ten years, several developers have invested in the city by building well over a million square feet in building space on West Main. 

But what about the public realm? 

The view from the middle of West Main Street, September 28, 2020

Background and context for community engagement

No other roadway in the past ten years has transformed as much as West Main Street, which has seen construction of more than a half-dozen multistory buildings in the past eight years. There are hundreds more apartment units and hotel rooms, bringing more people to sidewalks, and bike lanes. 

To understand all of the changes on West Main, refer back to the 2001 Comprehensive Plan and page 3 of the urban design chapter. That plan copied language from the 2000 Corridor Study verbatim.  

“The West Main corridor is the most important link between downtown Charlottesville and The University of Virginia, between ’Town and Gown’. West Main Street links extraordinary physical, social and economic variety. The corridor ranges from a physically intact retail street to open parking lots and abandoned auto-oriented, service facilities. Though originally part of a continuous route into downtown Charlottesville, modern highway engineering and 1970’s urban renewal has cut West Main Street off from what is now Downtown. There is near universal appreciation in the community for the recent pedestrian streetscape improvements and the reconstruction of the Drewary Brown Bridge. However, the corridor’s long promised overall redevelopment has been beset by fits and starts, with only a modicum of benefits to show for decades of effort, the bridge not withstanding.”

In September 2003, Council rezoned West Main Street to allow for higher density as a way of increasing property tax revenues. This was done as an alternative to reversion to becoming a town in Albemarle County, which had been discussed in the late 90’s as a way to reduce the city’s financial obligations. Instead, the Torti Gallas report pointed the city in the direction of becoming more populous. It was understood there would need to be infrastructure to support more people.

To guide that infrastructure, a conceptual plan had been created by the firm LPDA in 2010. In October 2012, then-NDS Director Jim Tolbert told the PLACE Design Task Force that this document was not intended for direct implementation. They recommended a new study.

2010 LPDA plan

Rhodeside & Harwell is an Alexandria-based landscape architecture, planning, and urban design firm hired in the summer of 2013 to conduct a full review of the street at a time when the city was anticipating construction of several large-buildings. They began work in October 2013. City Council endorsed the preliminary design schematics in May 2017

Despite years of planning to make the street a more welcome place for pedestrians and cyclists, no new public infrastructure has been built on West Main Street until this year when a long-planned water line along Roosevelt Brown Boulevard was replaced at a cost of $1.16 million. 

That project is separate from the multimillion West Main Streetscape which was split into four distinct geographical phases in October 2017 in order to help secure funding from the Virginia Department of Transportation to complete financing for the project. 

Now, a relatively new City Council will hold a work session Wednesday to better understand what is going on with the streetscape project, which was last before elected officials in November 2019. 

The previous Council voted to remove the Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea Statue at the intersection of West Main, Ridge Street and McIntire Street. Such an idea was anticipated in the conceptual plan put together by Rhodeside & Harwell.

Wednesday’s meeting

The objectives for Wednesday’s meeting are “to provide a high level overview of project history, current status, [and] associated costs (project development, construction and maintenance).” 

The materials clearly state the event is “NOT intended to discuss design details.”

Another objective is to seek direction from Council on their continued support for the project, budget input, and the future of the statue. Another topic is value engineering, which is a process that seeks to reduce costs by substituting materials and finding other ways to provide the same function at a lower price. 

A new update on the project was made available this week. Prior to that, information about the West Main Streetscape has been hard to come by. The front page of a dedicated website for the project has not been updated since May 2017.  Elsewhere in the site, there is a reference to when the schematics went to the Board of Architectural Review for a presentation in April 2018.

Slide from April 2018 presentation to Board of Architectural Review

Tracking the progress to date

Until the packet for this week’s meeting was available, the most recent update available is from the Department of Neighborhood Development Services, which has traditionally managed transportation projects in Charlottesville. In April, a project update list described the status of the West Main Streetscape. 

“Scope being finalized for Phase 1,” reads the ‘status’ section of the update for the project. “Value engineering scope also being finalized for Phases 1-4; pre-application for Phase 3 has been submitted to VDOT for Smart Scale funding.”

Smart Scale is the name of the Virginia Department of Transportation’s main funding process, which ranks projects across the state by how they would meet a series of criteria. In the first-ever round, the city was successful in securing funding for three streetscape projects. 

In the second round, the city applied for $18.3 million in state funding and pledged $11.7 million in city funds to cover the $29,968,42 cost estimate. This application provides a glimpse into the overall vision. 

“West Main Street is an emerging, mixed-use corridor, which has seen significant private reinvestment in recent years,” reads the project description. “To keep pace with the evolution of the street and the adjacent neighborhoods, the City has recognized the need to create a new vision for the corridor- one that captures the needs of both today and the future. This vision has been translated into a plan that will improve the economic vitality of the City, improve the environmental sustainability of the corridor, and provide multi-modal connections to surrounding areas of the City.”

However, the project was not funded. 

In October 2017, Council agreed to split the project into four geographical phases to improve the chance at securing funds. The Smart Scale system favors smaller projects as well as projects that can demonstrate money from other sources. 

For the project’s first phase, the city applied for funding through a revenue-sharing program VDOT offers. They were successful in securing funding for Phase 1, which would run between Ridge Street and 6th Street. VDOT’s database breaks that down as $588,000 for preliminary engineering, $500,000 for right of way, and $11.5 million for construction.

In the third Smart Scale round, Charlottesville was awarded $2 million for the second phase of the West Main Streetscape, which covers 6th Street NW to 8th Street NW. The project has a total cost estimate of $12.7 million according to the VDOT database. The city also received $2 million in revenue-share funding for this phase. 

The city recycled elements of the first application in making the second, repeating the need to “keep pace with the evolution” of the street. 

“West Main Street provides a critical transportation linkage between the University of Virginia and the City’s Downtown,” reads the application for VDOT Smart Scale funding for that phase. “A community-focused design process has yielded solutions that improve the safety, efficiency, and aesthetics of the street.”

As a reminder, that community-focused process was the one led by Rhodeside & Harwell, with a public process that last had a dedicated meeting on December 18, 2016. 

Image included in public handout on West Main Phase 3

In the third Smart Scale round, the city was successful in an application for $12.7 million for Phase 3 which has this technical description. 

“Reconfiguration of West Main Street between 6th Street NW and 8th Street NW to widen sidewalks, improve bicycle facilities and increase safety for all users through this corridor,” reads VDOT’s Smart Scale page on the project. “Also included – landscaping/street furniture/historic interpretation.”

This August, the city formally submitted an application for $7.9 million for Phase 3 between 8th Street NW Roosevelt Brown Boulevard/10th Street NW. The current Council sanctioned that request. 

“To address increased travel demand/capacity, on-street parking will be reallocated to improved bicyclist/ pedestrian facilities, bus shelters added, pedestrian crossings improved, the latest ADA standards met, while improving aesthetic and safety of this important corridor,” reads an informational sheet on the application. “The signal at Roosevelt Brown Boulevard will be replaced, street furniture added, historic interpretive signage included as well as enhanced landscaping.”

Various city applications refer to a community-led process but the Rhodeside & Harwell work is not named or described. None of the current elected city officials were part of that experience or the decision to split the project into four phases. 

Construction takes place 

At the time of the first Rhodeside & Harwell tour of West Main Street in October 2013, there were several large buildings in the planning process that had not yet been built. 

Since then, the Draftsman Hotel, Battle Building, Flats at West Village, The Standard and the Lark on West Main all have been built on the western side of Drewary Brown Bridge where Phase 3 and Phase 4 will eventually be undertaken. 

The eastern side of the bridge has seen construction of the Marriott Residence Inn and Six Hundred West Main, Earlier this year, the Hotel Quirk opened and Council recently approved another apartment building at 612 West Main Street.

Several buildings along West Main have been built without the benefit of utility relocation. A good chunk of the $49 million estimate is to place these lines underground.

Recall that the Smart Scale application for Phase 1 and Phase 2 stated the goal is to keep up with development.

 “This vision has been translated into a plan that will improve the economic vitality of the City, improve the environmental sustainability of the corridor, and provide multi-modal connections to surrounding areas of the City,” reads the application.

Some infrastructure in this area has recently been replaced. A $1.16 million project funded by utility ratepayers that replaces an older cast iron water line was completed this August.

“This project will eliminate a problematic railroad crossing on 9th St NW, as well as improve the connectivity to the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority’s Urban Water Line at the intersection of 9th St NW,” reads that project’s description on the GIS viewer. 

The size of the line increases water capacity to handle a growing population. 

“The second phase of the water line project will be installed ahead of the West Main Streetscape and will move forward regardless of whether the streetscape happens,” said Lauren Hildebrand, the city’s utility director late last year.

Hundreds of pedestrians now live in large apartment buildings that have been constructed in this section of West Main Street.

The water main replacement has been anticipated for years, as was the construction of the apartments. Yet infrastructure under the planning control of the city’s NDS Department won’t be built for some years to come, with completion currently not anticipated until some time in the 2030’s. 

According to a staff email sent on December 10, 2019, Phase 3 is not scheduled to be advertised for construction until 2030. Phase 4 is not intended to be advertised for construction until 2035.

Further cost increases

The estimates for the West Main Streetscape were last shown to public officials during the last budget cycle. Since then, costs have increased. 

Materials provided for the meeting have raised the estimate for Phase 1 to $16.7 million, up from the $13.9 million presented during the development of the last budget. The preliminary engineering is now listed as $1.7 million, $863,835 million is set for right of way acquisition, and $4.3 million is allocated for utility relocation. The Construction estimate is now $9.8 million. The city has obtained $3.27 million through the revenue-sharing program and there is a locally required match of $13.4 million. 

The second phase now has a cost estimate of $13.5 million with $1.2 million in preliminary engineering, $383,488 in right of way acquisition, $4.6 million in utility relocation, and nearly $7.3 million in construction. Another $2 million in revenue sharing has gone to this project, as well as the $2 million in Smart Scale funds. The local match is $7.1 million. The materials state that another $2.4 million in funding needs to be identified. 

Phase 3, for which the city states it has asked for $10.4 million in Smart Scale funding, will surely have a cost increase in the future. That’s because the line item for utility relocation has not been filled out yet. Construction for this phase is estimated at $8.6 million 

Phase 4, which currently does not have any identified funding source, has a total estimate of $9 million. This is the section from Roosevelt Brown Boulevard to Jefferson Park Avenue. However, the budget is more precise than Phase Three. Preliminary engineering is estimated at $1.4 million, right of way acquisition is at $574,808, utility relocation is at $1.27 million and construction is estimated at $5.8 million.   

Local funds have gone to pay for a master plan for the overall corridor, which includes design development and schematic design. 

UVA involvement?

The materials include a March 2018 letter from Pat Hogan, then executive vice president and chief operating officer at the University of Virginia, committing support to the project.

“In the interest of supporting progress toward a safer and more bike and pedestrian friendly community, the University has set aside up to $5 million in support that we are prepared to provide to the City for its projects adjacent to the University Ground,” Hogan wrote.

Earlier that year, UVA had requested the Council convey property to allow for the construction of new infrastructure to support new buildings on Brandon Avenue, including two new dorms and a new student health facility. However, Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker asked they pay the fair market value of the property. 

“If Council decides to seek payment for Brandon Avenue (with a fair market value of $539,000) we are able to cover that purchase price from the funds that we have previously set aside,” Hogan wrote. “The remaining portion of our $5 million funding commitment will remain available for the West Main Streetscape project.” 

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