Monthly Archives: October 2020

Winter is Coming – Charlottesville Quarantine Report, Episode 48

This is the 48th episode of the Charlottesville Quarantine Report. I created this show the first weekend of the pandemic as a way of covering how our community would be affected. At the time, I had a different job and felt this tremendous need to spend all of my time documenting what happened. Most of the shows were made in the first three months, and they now serve as a first rough draft of history of what happened.

But we’re still in this. I created the Charlottesville Community Engagement newscast and newsletter to do continuous coverage, but I will keep this show going. What follows is a transcript that is not edited. I will come back later and do so, but I want to get the words out, too.

Audio of the 48th episode of the Charlottesville Quarantine Report

(opening bell) 

As winter approaches, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam said it is crucial to avoid COVID fatigue and to remain vigilant.

“I know it’s been a long eight months. People and businesses are suffering and we’re heading into darker colder months. Folks, we need to keep doing what we’ve been doing.”

I’m Sean Tubbs and this is the 48th installment of the Charlottesville Quarantine Report. Since beginning, I’ve been tracking the numbers and trying to make sense of changes. Since then, I’ve launched a daily newscast and newsletter and one of the stories has been the rise in cases in our area caused by the return of UVA students to the community. 

“This has been a very trying two months for everyone involved.”

That’s Dr. Denise Bonds, the director of what will soon be called the Blue Ridge Health District. We’ll hear from her later on in the program today.  We’ll conclude today with a brief story about the Jefferson Madison Regional Library’s decision to open up two more branches to in-person service. 

This show has had a small newscast at the beginning of each show, and this is no exception. Here’s where we were on October 29. 

(clips) 

On October 28, 2020, Northam began his comments by drawing attention to Virginia’s relative success in stopping community spread. On the day he spoke, the Commonwealth was averaging 1,140 new cases a day and the seven-day percentage of positive cases was at 5.1 percent. 

“As you have heard on the national news, virus cases numbers are going up across our country in nearly every state. We’re lucky here in Virginia that while our case counts are trending upwards in some regions, we’re not seeing large increases.”

Northam said Virginia is not an island. The Commonwealth has borders with five states plus the District of Columbia. He said that a sudden surge of cases in rural areas can put a lot of pressure on the health care system. 

“For example, Ballad Health, the hospital system in Southwest Virginia and eastern Tennessee is warning that it’s seeing an increase in COVID patients. Part of the issue there is that cases just over the border in Tennessee are spiking.”

A quick look at the cases numbers for health districts in far southwest Virginia show a surge underway. Wise County had a seven-day average of 36.1 new cases a day. That number was 37.8 in Washington County, 50.4 in Lee County, 61 in Scott County. 

Such spikes alarm health officials and the state of emergency we have been in since mid-March gives the Governor additional powers.

“During the summer, we saw a spike in cases in the east and we had to reinstate some restrictions in some localities to help get our numbers down. I’m pleased to say that worked. People took it seriously and now the eastern region case counts are not spiking.”

When Virginia began to reopen the economy in late May, northern Virginia held back for a few weeks to help improve their metrics. 

Northam said he has similar concerns now for far Southwest Virginia, but stopped short of imposing any restrictions. 

“The number of cases has been steadily increasing and the percent positivity is now just under eight percent for the region. In the southwest localities in the western end of the state it’s actually more like nine percent and has been increasing for 15 days. That’s twice the rate of the rest of the Commonwealth.”

Northam said because of contact tracing, health officials know what is causing the increase. 

“The spread in Southwest is driven in part by small family gatherings. I strongly urge everyone in the southwest to look at these numbers and step up your precautions. I ask you also to wear face protection. We know that that works.

Case numbers are rising in most states and around the world, other states and other countries, they are reimposing restrictions to get case numbers under better control. Nobody, nobody wants to have to do that but this virus remains a very real threat.”   

Northam said the Virginia Department of Health is working with local health officials in southwest virginia on ways to combat the spread without imposing restrictions. He said he is aware of COVID fatigue.

“I know that many people are tired of COVID restrictions. We are all tired of not having social get togethers, not going to see sports or shows, not having the regular interactions that we count on in our lives. Most people are doing the right thing and they are tired of seeing other folks disregard the rules and disregard the health and safety of other people.” 

With Halloween and other holidays approaching, Northam is telling people to avoid gatherings and crowds, and wear a mask when around other people.  

“As scientists learned a lot more about this virus over the past eight months, we all learn more about how easily it spreads through the air and we learn more about how these guidelines truly do reduce the spread if we all follow them.”

Turning to the financial crisis, Northam described how his administration has used some of the $3.1 billion in federal CARES Act funding Virginia has received.

“We’re using CARES Act dollars to help Virginians from our small businesses to free clinics to colleges and universities. $116 million to colleges and universities to help with their COVID response. Three million for free clinics. $66 million to support access to child care. $73 million for hazard pay for home health workers. $220 million for K-12 schools. $30 million to fast-track local broadband projects. And $22 million for Virginia’s COVID vaccination program planning.”   

And the crisis will continue. Northam concluded his remarks on October 28 by repeating the call for vigilance.

“I am so proud of how Virginians have stepped up during this pandemic. You can see the results in our numbers compared to other states. We just need to keep it up. This pandemic will end but it will not end in the next few weeks or months. This winter will be hard on a lot of people but you have done a good job of taking of yourselves but just as importantly taking care of our neighbors.”

Earlier, Northam said that contact tracing in southwest Virginia traces many cases back to small family gathering. But what does that mean? 

Let’s hear from Health Secretary Dan Carey. 

“Really the question is, and what our contract tracers have told us, is what do you mean by that and how small is? Really if you’re in a different household it may sound innocent that you’re going over to your brother’s house and they have three kids in the household and a spouse and there’s a total of only six or eight people, if they’re from different households with different connections they really should be socially distanced. Can you do it safely? Yes, you can keep your mask on. Yes, you can keep six feet. Yes, you can use hand sanitizer frequently. But coming together as an extended family as if you are in one household does present risk. Again, we want people to stay connected emotionally but we need to be clear about physical connection and we need to keep that distance if you are not in the same continuous household. That’s what we mean. We talk to our contact tracers and they tell us it was a group of four or five people that had dinner but they didn’t have the distance, they didn’t use masks. Obviously with eating you’ve got to take the mask off, and that means you may need to spread out and as it gets cooler, it will be harder to do that.”

This has been a summary of the press conference from October 28, 2020. In a moment, we’ll get a local update from the Blue Ridge Health District. 

*

Ad-lib about patreon numbers

The University of Virginia has been critiqued by many for opening up to in-person education this fall, and for planning to do so again in the spring. However it appears that cases there did not lead to large amounts of community spread. So far. 

The topic came up  during the briefing officials with the Blue Ridge Health District gave during the October 28, 2020 meeting of the Charlottesville City Council, Albemarle Board of Supervisors and top UVA officials. 

The main focus of that meeting was equity, and the three agreed to a Memorandum of Understanding to work on racial equity. 

Like Governor Northam earlier in the day, the health district’s Ryan McKay began by drawing attention to Virginia’s place as one of the state’s doing better to control the spread of COVID.

“A lot of the strategies that we are implementing here in Virginia seem to be working whereas if we compare strategy and policy across the country, we may find that those differences have created opportunities for greater spread and exposure. Among those strategies include things like social distancing, minimizing the size of social gathering, restricting visitation to different facilities and really adhering to those guidelines.” 

McKay cited Carnegie-Mellon data that shows states with mask-wear requirements have lower transmission rates. This will be important as the temperature drops.

“I think that’s a critical component as we head into late fall and winter, more people will be indoors,” McKay said. “The mask-wearing combined with other mitigation strategies is going to be really critical.”

The COVID-tracking dashboard on the UVA website has been listing active cases since August 17. On that day, Charlottesville listed 560 cases and Albemarle had 913. As of October 29, Charlottesville had overtaken Albemarle and had 1,607 cases. Albemarle had 1,593. 

“In September and October we saw some pretty big increases in the daily cases. We’ve dropped off a little bit in early October but now we’re picking up again. I think this is sort of the nature of how COVID is going to work. We’ll see increases, we’ll work quickly to mitigate and hopefully contain spread and then at some point we see another increase.” 

Cases roses as UVA began classes on September 8. But McKay said they were largely contained to the UVA community. 

“I will say that even though we say larger numbers of cases coming from the University setting, we did not see transmission from students or faculty into the community,” McKay said. 

However, the University has been conducting a lot of tests, and they all count toward the percent positivity rating. On September 6, the positive percentage for PCR tests was 7.5 percent. That number was at 2.7 percent on October 29.

“It’s important to understand that positivity rate may be being skewed by all of those tests that are being done,” McKay said. “We really need to look at what we’re seeing in terms of the raw data, the number of cases we’re seeing, and where that transmission is occurring.” 

McKay pointed to a key demographic when it comes to the impact of COVID-19. 

“We also see a pretty significant change when it comes to age,” McKay said. “Even though the majority of our cases are among those who are 10-19 and 20-29, those who are dying of COVID are of older populations, 50 and above.” 

Since the pandemic began, we’ve had Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day. McKay say holidays lead to increases as more people gather together. So will the colder months.

“COVID isn’t going away but the challenges will increase and I think it’s important for us to understand how we can  address those now by strengthening what we’ve done, but also how we can adapt,” McKay said. 

As we approach the winter, Dr. Denise Bonds suggests this is a time to talk about resilience. She said the community has demonstrated an ability to come together in difficult times. 

“This has been a very trying two months for everyone involved,” said Dr. Bonds. “Resilience here is our ability to cope with a variety of situations in a healthy and productive way. There’s many components to resilience. Strenghthening and promoting access to public health, health care and social services is certainly one. There’s been significant coordination between the city, the county, the health district and many of our nonprofits to provide wrap-around services in our area. Additionally, early on in the pandemic and continuing even now today there were community-led testing events that were supported by both of our hospitals as well as the health district.”

However, Dr. Bonds said more resources are needed to help ensure that people in this diverse community get the care and attention they need. 

“We certainly need more community health worker positions. We know that this can be a really successful way to gain the trust of our communities, to have individuals from that community work in partnership with us and community members.”

“Public health is one of those agencies that really needs substantial funding on a regular basis to do its job correctly. It makes it very challenging when public health or other social agencies are underfunded and then are asked to respond as we have here with COVID.”  

For now, Dr. Bonds said one of the biggest threats is that people will just get bored of all of this, and decide it’s no longer an issue. 

“We are seeing a huge amount of COVID fatigue both here internally in the health department but I think even among the citizens in our community. People are really tired. They’re tired of the stress and anxiety that COVID has built up about not really knowing what the next phase is going to bring, knowing if we’re going to bring a vaccine, when that’s going to be available, and we’re just now beginning to see the impacts of that. We know that its really impacted small businesses in our community. Many individuals have lost their jobs and been forced to seek unemployment. I think we’re just beginning to see the start of how this is going to be the long-term effect.”

In conclusion, the bottom line is that an increase in  cases may be inevitable due to changing seasons.

“Winter is coming. We’re going to see a lot of people moving to indoor activities which are higher risk. This is an aerosolized virus and we know that it’s shared when you breathe out and there’s less air turnover in an inside space. That I think is what is being reflected in the upper Midwest and the North Dakota area. They’re having the beginning of a very cold season so they’re going inside. We know that there are things that will help so for first of all, stay at home. Don’t go out if you don’t have to. And wearing masks does prevent it.”

Dr. Bonds said she personally has canceled her family Thanksgiving celebration, even though her family had been planning to do it outside.  

(musical sting)

Two more branches of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library are set to reopen by appointment only for extremely small numbers of people. David Plunket is the library system’s director. 

“Next Monday, Crozet and Scottsville will be joining Greene, Louisa and Nelson in moving to tier 3 appointment service,” said David Plunkett, the library system’s director. “Scottsville, unfortunately at the moment will only be one appointment at a time in order to keep the six-feet social distancing to make this work. The branch is so small it’s about the size of my office here.” 

The library closed early in the state of emergency but added curbside service at the Central and Northside branches in the summer. They opened branches in outlying counties in September and added Sunday hours to the Central branch earlier this month. Plunkett told the JMRL Board of Trustees at their meeting Monday that they will continue to add back services slowly, but would revert back if COVID conditions drastically worsen. If they remain steady, Plunkett plans to continue adding service.

“The goal is going to be to work with Charlottesville to open the city area branches,” Plunkett said. “I’m aiming for between Thanksgiving and Christmas for Gordon Avenue, Northside and Central. Albemarle has been reviewing the tier 3 plans to make sure they don’t have any objections to Crozet and Scottsville. I have heard none so far.” 

The initial number of patrons at a time will be five. 

Lisa Woolfork is one of three library trustees for Charlottesville. She posed an important question.

“This question isn’t really a critique at all of the plan,” Woolfork said. “I guess it’s a question about some of the speculation or what your thoughts might be on the speculation that we can expect numbers to rise nationally maybe as well as in the state as the weather gets colder and flu season converges on COVID. Do you have any thoughts about what a bump in infection rates might mean?”

“I believe that the model that we have in place at Greene, Louisa, and Nelson could continue throughout a bump because you’re talking about nobody being in close contact with any members of the public, you’re talking about everybody masked at all times and you’re talking about very limited people in a building, and you’re talking about a massive amount of cleaning by staff that’s happening on a daily basis.”

Plunkett said staff is reviewing closely the new definition that the Centers for Disease Control have for “close contact.” Previously it was listed as someone who had been within six feet of an infected person for a 15-minute period. Now close contact is defined as someone who has been within six feet of a positive case for a cumulative 15 minutes over a 24-hour period. He said that change would not affect the plan to open up the Scottsville and Crozet libraries to appointment-only service beginning on Monday. 

-ad lib out 

Council approves agreement for Friendship Court funding

Charlottesville City Council has endorsed an agreement that describes how a $5.5 million loan from the city to the Piedmont Housing Alliance will be used for the first phase of the redevelopment of Friendship Court.

“It has been over four years getting to this point and with a tremendous amount of work from in particular on the part of residents of Friendship Court and in particular the advisory committee at Friendship Court,” said Sunshine Mathon, the executive director of Piedmont Housing.

(read the staff report for this meeting)

Take a listen to the audio!

There are currently 150 rental units at Friendship Court, which was built in 1978 on land cleared through the urban renewal of Garrett Street.

“Resident-led redevelopment efforts propose a four-phase approach to replace all of the existing units and add additional residential units over the next eight to nine years,” said Brenda Kelley, the city’s director of redevelopment.

In 2019, Piedmont Housing was awarded funding from the Virginia Housing Development Authority through the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program to help finance the first phase of the project. The loan from the city helped make that application more attractive. The VDHA is now known as Virginia Housing.

“In total, the overall redevelopment proposes to construct approximately 450 new affordable units and more details to come before City Council in the future,” Kelley added. “This approach allows current residents to move directly into newly constructed units in each phase so that there is only one move associated with the relocation of residents.”

The first phase will be built where playgrounds and the community gardens have been. Mathon said the gardens will be relocated elsewhere within the development.

There will be 106 units, 46 of which will be new replacements for existing subsidized units at Friendship Court. The terms of the deal require the affordability restrictions to be maintained for 99 years.

“The item in front of you tonight provides for a master covenant that spells out the overall master plan requirements and also more specifically provides a separate phase one covenant that identifies the terms and the conditions for allocating the forgivable loan,” Kelley said.

In fiscal year 2019, Council allocated $5.545 million in capital funds to the project to pay for public streets, infrastructure, utilities, and affordable units for households with low to moderate incomes.

“The master affordable housing covenant will be recorded in the public records to provide assurances of affordability for the entire site,” Kelley said. “However, in the event of foreclosure, the affordability restrictions will terminate.”

Piedmont Housing will be required to submit an annual report. When the terms of the LIHTC funding are up, the city will have first right to lease or purchase units that are constructed. They’ll also have that right if the projects are ever foreclosed upon.

Piedmont Housing’s repayment will be deferred for 40 years as a forgivable loan, but if the nonprofit breaches the terms of the agreement, they will be responsible to pay for the full amount plus interest.

Part of the funding structure involves an agreement between Piedmont Housing and the Charlottesville Economic Development Authority.

“To help facilitate the financing of the project, Piedmont Housing has requested that the city consider an agreement that will share the incremental increase in real estate tax revenue generated by the investment,” reads the staff report for Council’s discussion. “With a commitment from the city to contribute the future revenue stream (as a grant), Piedmont Housing will borrow on this with a private lender to create the cash needed to begin the project.”

Mayor Nikuyah Walker was concerned about how this was set up given the number of other projects that will have the city paying to cover the costs if its own taxes, such as with Crescent Halls and South First Street.

“Essentially [Piedmont Housing] is taking out a $3 million loan for the gap funding for this and the request for the [Tax Increment Financing] would mean that the city would then forgive taxes up to the amount of the initial loan plus the interest that would accrue over the 30 year period,” Walker said. “Is there a better option than this arrangement where they’re taking out a loan that we will pay back anyway?”

Councilor Heather Hill said she thought this was a result of increased costs for the project.

“Things change,” Hill said. “There are a lot of moving parts, there are some inflationary costs in terms of the construction and that’s what I remember being like, you know, things were covered. Things are now not coming in like we thought. I remember sitting around a table with staff and another Councilor and that’s kind of where I remember that precipitating and then a lot of brainstorming going on to feel like what are some ways to get through this because we knew the city wasn’t going to be in a position to just outlay that capital outright.”

Walker said her caution is based on not knowing what future financial requests will be for the additional phases.

“I think these are two very important projects,” Walker said. “Of all the projects that I have voted on or not voted on that have been in front of us, and I’m just speaking for myself have looked at it, I think [CRHA redevelopment and Friendship Court] are going to take us to places and help us in ways that none of those other projects could do, and so it’s very important but I don’t think we’re looking at any of these projects in a fiscally sustainable way.”

Mathon said this approach was first discussed with city leadership in the spring of 2019. Phase 1 is being built atop a buried creek called Pollocks Branch.

“The site costs for doing work on Friendship Court continued to go in the wrong direction because of the soil conditions there being far worse than we originally anticipated,” Mathon said. “The proximity to the underground creek just caused site work to increase significantly and so we were trying to search for some additional source to cover that delta.”

Chris Engel, the economic development director, said these discussions occurred with Mike Murphy was interim city manager, before former city manager Tarron Richardson began work in May 2019.

This section of the discussion took place before Engel had a chance to give his staff report.

“What you’re going to hear about next in the performance agreement is a way to use the increment without the borrowing and it’s a mechanism that works and we’ve used it in a couple of cases,” Engel said. “This case is a little different in that it involves not a commercial interest, but commercial and residential, primarily residential but it can be helpful in funding something.”

Mathon said he believed this mechanism was in keeping with common practices. He gave a quick overview of how he believes capital budgeting works.

“The city has prioritized in terms of how it uses dollar on an annual basis out of its general revenue fund to pay for its priorities and it bonds a whole number of different items for infrastructure, schools, to pay for things it can’t afford in the short term,” Mathon said.

In this case, the $5.545 million the city is spending on the project will be paid for through the sale of bonds. All localities are evaluated by ratings agencies to determine their creditworthiness at paying bond holders over time. Charlottesville has a AAA bond rating which affords a lower interest rate. There are limits to how much a locality can borrow without jeopardizing that rating, and so the additional $3 million was above the city’s capacity. Hence the need to find a different way forward.

Walker said she was also concerned about the lack of details about phase 4. Mathon said it may take Piedmont Housing another year to begin to plan because of physical distancing protocols caused by the pandemic.

“In the schematic diagram that is included in the performance agreement, Phase 4 continues to be a bit of a placeholder because we are working in a co-design process with the residents,” he said. “Our focus on the last nine months, and COVID has complicated this of course, and has slowed down the process even further but our focus has been on the one hand preparing them and the community for start of construction and on the second hand we’re deep in the throes of final design of phase 2 so that we can apply for tax credits for LIHTC in March 2021 in a few months.”

Council reached consensus to move the loan to the consent agenda for the November 2 meeting.

Before we go, let’s hear one last time how the tax increment financing would work from Chris Engel.

“Essentially what the performance agreement does is use the tax increment that’s created by the project… PHA pays real estate tax that is assessed on the new project. And we would then transfer, the city would set aside as has been discussed, that amount to the [Charlottesville Economic Development Authority] and the EDA would grant back to PHA in this case 100 percent of the incremental taxes created by the project.”

The agreement has a 40 year term, but ends as soon as the EDA has granted a total of $6 million back to Piedmont Housing.

Walker voted for the agreement but said she still did not support it.

There will be a budget work session on capital financing in November, and interim City Manager John Blair said they could have a more full discussion about potential financing arrangements.

Councilor Michael Payne said he supported the agreement.

“I do think the timing is critical on these projects,” Payne said. “I do think that this has something that has helped made the project actually be able to come together and keep together the tight timelines for LIHTC applications and other funding sources and I do think that this is a real critical way to make sure able to be a a shovel-ready project that is able to happen.”

Council approves HUD-required recovery agreement for Charlottesville public housing

The Charlottesville City Council meeting on October 19, 2020 lasted until nearly midnight. When I began my reporting from it the next day, I ended up writing several hundred words about Council’s discussion of a performance agreement for direct city investment of $3 million in public housing renovation and development. I’m posting articles on other items that happened that night. 

The Charlottesville City Council has agreed to a recovery agreement that commits the city’s public housing agency to develop an action plan to address issues uncovered in an audit. 

“That audit found fiscal deficiencies, accounting errors with the collection of rent tenant account receivables so we were not collecting rent in our field,” said John Sales, who has been the executive director of Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority (CRHA) since this August. 

Listen to audio version of this story!

Following the audit, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development placed the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority on its “troubled” list based on a scoring system of how well agencies are performing. 

At their meeting on October 19, 2020, Sales stated his agency does not want to put people on the street. 

“We do believe in not evicting families because that just puts other stress on other services that the city has to fund,” Sales said. “We try not to evict any family for non-payment of rent.” 

Sales said CRHA works with families to help come up with repayment plans and to lower rents where possible. 

“We’ve actually created an eviction diversion program that we have asked to be funded through the [Community Development Block Grant] so that will come in front of you hopefully and it will get funded and that will allow us to work more with the families on non-payment rent,” Sales said.

According to a memo Sales sent to Council before the October 19 meeting, there were 163 CRHA households that owed back rent as of October 15. Later in the meeting, Council considered using a portion of the CARES Act funding to cover that backlog. 

But, the agency cannot collect rent on units that are empty. 

Sales said there were 64 vacant units when he arrived in August. 

“The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) begins to penalize Housing Authorities that have a vacancy rate above 3 percent,” Sales wrote in the memo. “The Housing Authority had a vacancy rate of approximately 17 percent.” 

Sales said that when he started there was a shortage of maintenance workers to fix up vacant units, but that has changed. Habitat for Humanity has helped refurbish seven units so far as part of an agreement with CRHA, and the agency has hired a contractor to get others moving.

“A contractor typically charges about $25,000 to turn a vacant unit, and it costs us around $11,000 to turn a vacant unit,” Sales said, adding they have hired a contractor for three units to get more units ready for new occupation for those on a wait list. He said the CRHA will fill all the units by the end of the year. That doesn’t include units at Crescent Halls that are being left open due to planned construction. 

In his memo, Sales outlined how he has identified other issues that need to be addressed, such as mismanagement of the housing choice voucher program. Still, he sounded a positive town.

“I think we’re heading in the right direction,” Sales said. “We still have a long way to go but we see the light at the end of the tunnel.” 

Council was appreciative of Sales’ efforts. 

“I’m in awe right now, that’s all,” said Vice Mayor Sena Magill. 

Councilor Heather Hill said she appreciate the candid nature of Sales’ reporting.

“I just feel like some of these things have come up in the past and have just been kind of put to the side or not really answered or addressed and I just really appreciate the transparency by which you have presented this information,” Hill said. 

City Councilor Michael Payne said much of the work conducted is what will be called for in the separate sustainability plan he has to provide to both HUD and Council. 

Mayor Nikuyah Walker is a member of the CRHA Board of Commissioners. She said she has had many friends and relatives who have lived in public housing, and there had been initial skepticism from some that Sales had the skills to do the job. 

“There were some people whose resume had more other things that you look for in this position but it took you no time to get in and show that even people who have been hired in the past had had all of those things listed and had previous experience, that you’ve done things that they in just a short window of time that they were unable to do during their tenure,” Walker said. “And some of those were a lot of years.” 

Resources:

Public housing projects move forward after Council talks on CRHA financial sustainability, CCDC property tax liability

On October 19, 2020, Charlottesville City Council signaled they would approve a performance agreement for direct city investment of $3 million in public housing renovation and development. The funding will be used for the Charlottesville Redevelopment Housing Authority’s nonprofit to renovate Crescent Halls and new units at South First Street.

CRHA currently is authorized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to operate 376 public housing units, and many units were built in the 80’s and have not been well maintained. Brenda Kelley is the director of redevelopment for the city, and she presented Council with an ordinance to grant the CRHA $3 million in city funds to help finance the work.

(read the staff report including the draft ordinance)

“CRHA and its partners have been engaged in robust resident-led redevelopment planning efforts,” Kelley said. 

One of those partners is something called the Charlottesville Community Development Corporation, which is actually the CRHA Board of Commissioners, a body appointed by Council. The CCDC is a nonprofit entity that is eligible to receive and distribute Low Income Housing Tax Credits which help to subsidize the projects through private investment. 

“The funding will be disbursed as a grant to CRHA, CRHA will provide the funds to the CCDC, whereby the CCDC will lend the funds to the project as an interest-free 30-year loan,” Kelley said. “One hundred percent of the units constructed will be provided for rental by low and moderate income persons having household incomes at or below AMI. No fewer than thirteen units will be public housing units at South First Street phase one, and no fewer than 53 units will be public housing units at Crescent Halls.” 

AboveProject cost breakdown for South First Street Phase One

CRHA would not own the properties, but will continue to own the land and operate the buildings, but the CCDC will own the structures. That means they will be responsible for paying taxes. We’ll come back to that in a bit. 

These details are worth documenting. 

“The private sector project owner has an investment member and the investment member has a right to sell its interest in the project prior to the end of the 30-year LIHTC term,” Kelley said. “If the investment member’s interest cannot be bought out by CRHA, this could potentially result in termination of an extended use agreement after year 15. So year 15 may be a significant milestone whereby CRHA has an option to purchase the project. This raises unknowns also including how much this purchase price would be and where will CRHA obtain the funding.”

Council’s discussion centered around two issues. 

One is a clause in the resolution that compelled CRHA to complete a financial sustainability plan that was requested by Council in February 2019. CRHA has to complete that plan anyway as part of a plan with HUD. The federal agency considers CRHA to be a “troubled” agency and the local authority must document how they can hit performance measures. 

The ordinance before Council required that plan to be in place in order for the CRHA to get a third payment from the $3 million. 

CRHA Executive Director John Sales said that requirement would prevent the project from breaking ground by the end of this year. 

“It’s going to be really hard for us to close on both loans with that requirement in there because we won’t be able to show a bank that we’ve satisfied that requirement in order to close, so that could really put both projects at a point where they would not go forward,” Sales said. 

Council discussed a financial sustainability plan for CRHA in February 2019. Since then, it has gone through a leadership change, and Sales just became director in August. 

Councilor Heather Hill said she wanted the sustainability plan to be completed. 

“I want to know that by the time we get to that third draw which is our intention that we’re seeing real progress made to a reasonable end to the sustainability study because I just think that the longer this goes on, it’s not to our advantage,” Hill said. 

Councilor Michael Payne said he would be willing to drop the requirement

“I’m certainly willing to be flexible,” Payne said. “Our intention is not at all to have this jeopardize any funding or jeopardize these projects.”

Council agreed to require the plan to be produced by the time a second phase for South Street moves forward. 

The other issue regarded the taxes. The CCDC will not be exempt from local taxes. 

Sales said the existing resolution did not give a guarantee that future Councils might stop paying an annual subsidy “equal to the dollar amount of the real estate taxes assessed and billed to the new project owner.” Currently the CRHA makes an annual payment to the city in lieu of taxes. 

Jeff Meyer at the Virginia Community Development Corporation said the project will not attract investors if there is the potential for future liabilities that are not built into their proforma.

“No one is going to go forward with lending money or investing money into the project if we understand from the very beginning that they are not economically feasible because they have to pay the full liability for property tax,” Meyer said.  “The concern would be that a future city council could overturn what’s written in the ordinance here.” 

Under Virginia Law, elected bodies cannot appropriate funding beyond one fiscal year. 

“You can budget for payment of your obligations from one fiscal year to the next but you can’t enter into binding obligations over a long term that aren’t subject to what we call a non-appropriations clause,” said interim City Attorney Lisa Robertson. 

Robertson said there was no legal way for the city to waive the property taxes CCDC has to pay on the buildings. The CRHA will still own the land. 

One solution would be for the city to pay the next fifteen years of property taxes in one lump payment that could be put into an escrow fund that the CCDC could draw down from. 

Council chose to not go with that option. 

“Our budget picture is pretty brutal and there’s still substantial uncertainty about what the impact of COVID will be this budget cycle,” said Councilor Payne. 

Mayor Nikuyah Walker asked Meyer if the project would be halted if Council could not cover the cost of paying the next fifteen years of property taxes in advance. 

“I think we’ll make every effort to go forward the with project but I can’t say something won’t come up once the language in the ordinance becomes something that our other partners and the others funders are going to read, and everyone who is going to review all of the documents,” Meyer said. 

Walker pointed out that three current Councilors will serve until 2023. Payne said he would continue to support the city’s annual subsidization of property taxes for CCDC. 

“It’s not difficult fiscally for us to fund that each year and maintain that but to put it all up front in one year, especially at this time, is a challenge,” Payne said. “I certainly get the uncertainty but I think the community and the Council has a 100 percent commitment to this.”

As this was only the first reading of the resolution, staff will take a look at potential ways to address Meyer’s and Sales’ concern. One option is a line item in the capital improvement program.

“It would set forth the idea that there is a plan and the intent is that you are going to fund this over the five years,” said Krissy Hammil, Senior Budget and Management Analyst for the city of Charlottesville.

Speaking broadly about public investments in housing, Walker said it was important to understand what these complex arrangements will mean for future Councils.  Later in the meeting they took action on $5.545 million request for Piedmont Housing Alliance for the first phase of the Friendship Court redevelopment. 

“It’s important for us to understand what we’re setting future councilors up for and when you talk about commitment to housing, then we have to say that this is our commitment to housing,” Walker said. Walker is a member of the CRHA and CCDC Boards. 

Walker said Council also had to remember there would be future requests from CRHA and PHA for future phases.

“I just think if there’s a vote in favor of this, and I think both of these projects are very important, and I think the other Councilors agree, then we need to understand our limitation on doing other major projects while we figure out these two projects,” Walker said. 

Regional Transit Partnership discuss fare-free, lessons from the pandemic

The pandemic has affected much of how the community functions, and has drastically affected how transit agencies get people around the region. 

On October 22, 2020 the members of a working group of Albemarle and Charlottesville officials talked about lessons learned as buses have been running at reduced capacity due to the need for physical distancing. 

Take a listen to an audio version of this story!

Albemarle Supervisor Diantha McKeel is the chair of the Regional Transit Partnership. 

“The thought was today to have a work session for our group to discuss transit in light of the pandemic,” McKeel said. “Is our strategic plan still relevant? Do we need to articulate a new direction in some areas? What is absolutely the most important thing about transit today, which may not have been true when we were looking at our strategic plan?” 

The Regional Transportation Partnership has been meeting since October 2017 and is a forum to talk about ways to increase coordination between multiple transit agencies in our area. 

Brad Sheffield is the executive director of Jaunt, which is a regional transportation system that serves the city and surrounding counties. He said the pandemic has led to increased communications between his agency, Charlottesville Area Transit and the University Transit Service.

“Going forward there’s going to be a need for more and more communication and more positive communication about what safety measures are being taken and so forth,” Sheffield said. “We can’t just assume that something we put out today is going to be remembered two months from now.” 

But what if there are fewer potential passengers in the future? 

Albemarle Deputy Executive Trevor Henry said the county is putting together its budget for next year, and wanted to know what financial changes can be identified now. He said many companies may allow their employees to continue to work from home after the pandemic. 

“We didn’t have a work from home policy and we created one in three days whenever we forced everyone out of the office, and we’ve been able to keep county operations hit,” Henry said. He added that the county will expect to keep a virtual option open going forward. 

“We’ve upgraded all of our conference rooms and we’ve made the assumption that we’ll never have a meeting that everyone is in the room together,” Henry said. 

Sheffield said Jaunt has switched its dispatchers so they can work at home. That means they may not need to expand their administrative building. . 

“It’s really challenged the fact that we’ve been shoehorning our staff in the current facility that we have, and this has really shown that we can’t do that anymore,” Sheffield said. “We see that this is part of that future issue where we need better space planning now to just be ready for how we come out of this.”

And then there’s the cost of cleaning and disinfecting all of the buses. CAT Director Garland Williams said his agency is using money from the CARES Act to cover the high cost.

“There needs to continue to be that level of cleaning to make sure the public feels safe when riding public transportation,” Williams said. “Our cleaning bill is fairly high. We’re at half a million dollars already and growing.”    

Another topic is whether transit agencies will resume collecting fares after the pandemic. On CAT buses, passengers now enter through the side door bypassing the farebox as a safety precaution. McKeel said she wanted to know if that could be continued in the future as a way to boost ridership.  

Chip Boyles, the director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission, said he supported such a study but said the term “fare-free” can be misleading from a budgetary standpoint.

“A lot of people think fare-free and it’s not,” Boyles said. “Somebody’s paying. It just may not be the end consumer handing a dollar bill over to the driver. Somebody’s paying, but I have seen it directly experienced where there are a lot of benefits.”

During the pandemic, that means contactless transit. It also would mean not having to pay someone to account for collecting the fares, or installing expensive fareboxes. He said fare free transit usually works in college towns where the school picks up the tab. 

“Somebody writes one check instead of a million people handing over 75 cents,” Boyles said.

Williams said he believes CAT could go fare-free in the future and he is working on a pilot project.

Neal Sherman with the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation said his agency was in the process of developing a grant program for this purpose before the pandemic, but they want to use a different phrase.

“We are changing the terminology to zero fares,” Sherman said. 

Fares make up about ten percent of CAT’s budget, for instance. The University Transit Service is fare-free. UVA Parking and Transportation Director Becca White said the University pays about a quarter of million dollars to CAT for its employees to ride CAT buses fare-free. 

“We consider our program with CAT to be a reciprocal ridership program such that UTS provides service on Grady, Rugby Street, 14th Street, JPA, we just open the doors and anyone boards,” White said. “CAT used to run on Massie Road and Arlington Boulevard and Rugby Road and because of our coordination with our routes, CAT was able to reallocate resources to other routes and UTS became the public provider on some roads.” 

As the meeting was a work session, there were no decisions made. The TJPDC is awaiting news about whether it will get a planning grant from the DRPT to come up with a way to improve the regional vision as well as enhanced transit service in Albemarle. The Commonwealth Transportation Board did not make a decision at their meeting on Tuesday. 

Supervisor McKeel said her interest in transit leans toward finding ways to serve a growing urban population in the county. Albemarle pays for service by CAT, but the process to get new routes is a long and uncertain one. The county is working with Jaunt on potential on-demand service to augment CAT and UTS. 

“Fixed routes are not going to serve our population by themselves,” McKeel said. “We hardly have a proposal that comes to us now that doesn’t talk about the need for some sort of transit or on-demand, and we’re talking about transit stops that also offer opportunities for on-demand and looking at them as multimodal stops with bike racks, shelters, charging stations.”

The Regional Transit Partnership is next scheduled to meet in late January 2021.

Where will be in the pandemic by then? Stay tuned.

Two Pandemics, Two Centuries, One Town 1918 vs. 2020

The pandemic we’re in now is a historical echo of the so-called Spanish Flu outbreak of a hundred years ago. On October 21, the Albemarle County Historical Society invited Addeane Caelleigh to discuss her work “The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919 in Albemarle County and Charlottesville” from the 2017 Magazine of Albemarle County History.

Audio courtesy of the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society

Caelleigh is a retired UVA School of Medicine curriculum developer, and former editor of Academic Medicine, the Journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Addeane is interviewed by Dr. Michael Dickens — an honors graduate of Princeton University, M.D from Columbia University with residency training at UVA, and a practicing pediatric physician in Charlottesville for 35 years. In retirement, Mike volunteers for the Society, and is an author, researcher and interpreter of history.

Council to seek lower costs for West Main Streetscape through value engineering

An audio and written summary of Council’s September 30 work session on the $49 million project

The current Charlottesville City Council has directed staff to proceed with a study to find ways to bring down the costs of the West Main Streetscape, a long-planned project that has a current cost estimate of $49 million and a construction start time of 2024. 

They also told staff to proceed with removing the Lewis, Clark and Sacagewea statue by using local funds as a separate project that would happen sooner. 

Take a listen to the audio of this story!

The origins of the plan date back to 2012 when Council followed a recommendation from the PLACE Design Task Force to hire a consultant to develop an overall design for the three-quarter mile stretch between the University of Virginia and the Charlottesville Downtown Mall. The Alexandria-based firm Rhodeside and Harwell was hired to do the work. They have been paid $2,854,389.18 to date according to city communications director Brian Wheeler. 

At the beginning of their September 30 work session dedicated to the topic, Council was reminded up front that the overall West Main Study was more than just the development of construction documents for sidewalks, bike lanes and street trees.

“This was not just a streetscape project,” said Jeanette Janiczek, the city’s urban construction initiative manager. “This was an overall look of West Main.”

That overall look at West Main Street included a 2014 parking study from the firm Nelson Nygard. There was a land use review which resulted in a rewrite of the zoning rules for West Main Street. 

For background on why West Main has been the subject of so much study over the years, read my last story on this topic

Janiczek is the city’s liaison to the Virginia Department of Transportation. She became manager for the overall project a couple of years ago, taking over from a person who had been hired by the city to be the urban design planner. 

Local funding has been used to cover the costs of turning the concept approved by a previous Council into construction documents, and those are currently at what engineers refer to as the 60 percent phase. 

The Rhodeside & Harwell process was overseen by a steering committee that met seven times between the fall of 2013 and March 2016. 

“There were also stakeholder group meetings where we grouped people by interest or by relationships,” Janiczek said. “So, independent foundations, and landholders, developers, businesses and restaurants, community groups, that was over a two-day period.” 

There were four large public meetings with the last one in December 2016.

“We are planning to continue with our public involvement depending on our direction forward,” Janiczek said. “Then we’ve also been meeting the City Council and updating you.

When Council opted to move forward in March 2016 with a conceptual design, Janiczek said they disbanded the steering committee. At that time, they became the steering committee.

(link to resolution

Since then, Council took over oversight directly. 

Since then, there have been two elections and all of Council has been replaced.

Councilor Heather Hill was elected in November 2017. To begin the meeting, she asked for an update on what’s happened since. 

“I know that a couple of times, things have been put in front of me through two-two-ones, or some things to Council,” Hill said. “What do we say is what’s the current status, apart from us obviously keeping moving forward. What has been the gap that we’ve been seeing in these timelines when it was a lot of movement going on, and know there’s been kind of lull?”

Janiczek said one reason for the delay is that staff oversight of the project moved to her department. 

“We have been working with the consultants in adapting what was developed as a local project into now a state-funded project,” Janiczek said. “Revisiting the contract, making sure all of the requirements are met.” 

Project’s budget history

The West Main Streetscape has been in the city’s Capital Improvement Program since FY2009, when a total of $1.75 million was anticipated to be allocated over five years at $350,000 a year. 

“This initiative will allow the City to address design and construction of improvements to West Main Street by partnering with private developers,” reads the narrative for the project at that time. “Over the next few years the City will have opportunities to partner with several development projects which will allow for continued streetscaping projects, similar to what the City has done in previous years in partnership with UVA. This project is being phased in accordance with potential coordination with private development efforts.” 

Like many major infrastructure projects, the funding source was anticipated to be through the sale of bonds which the city would pay off through debt service. Interest is low due to the city’s AAA bond rating. 

In 2008, none of the anticipated multistory buildings talked about on West Main were even close to production. An economic downturn also put a freeze on many construction projects. At the time, Gary O’Connell was city manager. 

Due to the lack of a design for construction, allocation of $350,000 in each adopted budget was theoretical and actual appropriations were deferred for several years. That means it was not actually put into a virtual bank account to accrue money for eventual use. 

The project local cost increased sharply in FY2014, when the five-year program suddenly anticipated $750,000 a year for three years for a total of $2.25 million in local funding. By this point, Maurice Jones had been city manager for three years, and the Flats at West Village and the Battle Building were under construction. 

Fiscal year 2015 began on July 1, 2014. That was the first year in which Council voted to program funding for West Main, which means that $750,000 was set aside and began collecting a balance. By that point, Rhodeside & Harwell was under contract for the streetscape project and the community process was underway. 

In January 2015, then-Mayor Satyendra Huja announced he would not support the plan. At this point, the project had a working total cost estimate of $30 million, which included undergrounding utilities. Former Councilors Bob Fenwick and Dede Smith also opposed the project.

Nevertheless, the project continued accumulating money.  

Fiscal year 2016 saw another $500,000 allocated to the project. The other four years anticipated setting aside $1.5 million each year as the Rhodeside & Harwell process envisioned many urban amenities. 

The election of November 2015 saw Councilor Kathy Galvin re-elected, but both Fenwick and Smith were defeated in the Democratic primary that year. Mike Signer and Wes Bellamy joined Galvin on Council. They would lend their support to the project and voted to select a design concept in March 2016. As noted above, they became the steering committee. 

The city made their first application to VDOT’s Smart Scale process that year, and asked for $18.3 million in state funding with a match of $11.7 million in local funds. 

The adopted budget for FY2017 programmed another $3.25 million in local funds for the project. 

“Utility betterment costs will be funded by the City (a local contribution at $1,670,500) and CIP funding ($10 million over the next five years),” reads the application. 

However, the project was not funded. In October 2017, Council agreed to split the project into four phases in order to leverage multiple sources of revenue including millions of dollars in capital funds. 

The FY2018 capital budget programmed another $3.25 million, as did the FY2019 budget. Another $4 million was programmed in the FY20, and another $4 million for the current fiscal year. 

Janiczek said that local funds have been used to develop the master plan for all four phases of the concept. 

“Each of these phases can be done independently,” Janiczek said. “That’s a requirement that there is a logical termini, that they serve a transportation use, that they do not require you to complete another phase and do not preclude you from doing something else. We could do one, or two, or none, or what have you of these phases.” 

The expenses listed for Phase 1 total $16.7 million. Funding sources include $3.276 million from VDOT’s revenue sharing program, which requires a local match. In all, the city is placing $13.4 million in local funds towards this phase.

The expenses listed for Phase 2 total $11.1 million. Funding sources include $2 million from VDOT revenue sharing, $2 million from a successful Smart Scale application, and $7.1 million in local funding. There is another $2.4 million that has not yet been identified. 

The total cost to acquire right of way for all four phases of the project is listed as $12.58 million.

“A lot of the right of way on this corridor is for temporary construction easements,” Janiczek said. “The other is permanent easements for the utility undergrounding. We’re not looking to acquire any parcels, displace any businesses, or anything of that nature.” 

No bonds have been sold yet for the project, but subsequent decisions by Council in each budget cycle has authorized millions of dollars to be spent on the West Main Streetscape project. 

“We have about $18.2 million that have been approved in terms of approved CIPs to sell bonds for for this project,” said Kristy Hammil in the city’s budget office. “There’s an additional $4 million contemplated in the FY22 CIP.”

The city has applied for $10.4 million in additional Smart Scale funds for Phase 3. In all, there is likely only about $20 million in the pool of money for which the city qualifies. 

“We will hear about the outcome of that in early 2021, and we would expect funding to be available at the latest July 1, 2025, with the possibility of escalating if we actually got funded and we can move these phases along faster,” Janiczek said, adding that the costs have been increased to anticipate rises in construction costs. 

There is currently no identified source of funding for Phase 4. The packet for the work session included a March 2018 letter from a former top official at the University of Virginia committing as much as $5 million toward the project.

Other projects on West Main

Another cost facing the city is replacement of water and gas lines on West Main Street.

“We’re at the end of our useful life for the waterline,” Janiczek said. “We also need to increase capacity for all of the things that are being built on West Main. So we’re looking at 3,700 linear feet of 10 inch water line that will need to be installed and its being upsized to 12 inch. The gas line that is 10 inch is also at the end of its useful life, or if you’re digging up the water line you may as well dig up the gas because it wouldn’t be far behind. That was installed in 1930 and we’re looking at 5,000 linear feet of low-pressure 10 inch gas line that will be replaced with a high-pressure four inch gas line.” 

These utilities will be replaced before the streetscape is built, but Janiczek said doing so will create room for where overground electric and communications cable wires will go when they are undergrounded. 

The cost of these utilities are not included in the West Main Streetscape. They are paid for from the capital improvement program for the Department of Public Utilities.

Let’s hear from Janiczek about how this process would work out. This gets us closer to some idea of when this project would get underway. 

“The soonest we could get things going would be the water and gas line design mid 2021 with construction and bidding ending mid 2022,” Janiczek said. “That gives us time to design not only the rest of the streetscape but also the undergrounding of the public utilities and completing the right of way acquisition for both of those activities. That would allow construction of undergrounding to start at the end of 2022 and ending at 2024, and then the streetscape project itself would be for a year. We’re only looking at phase one and phase two hopefully, and that would be through 2024.” 

Dominion will not pay for the cost of undergrounding power lines. Neither will VDOT.

Statue

Council discussed the matter of the Lewis, Clark and Sacagewea statue at a work session on November 15, 2019. Their message was clear. (minutes)

BE IT RESOLVED by the Council of the City of Charlottesville, Virginia that staff is directed to present the Council with a plan for the removal of the statue from West Main Street and such plan shall include a cost estimate for the removal of the statue as well as options for the disposal of the statue; 

and BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED by the Council of the City of Charlottesville that staff is directed to present a plan to the Council of a new statue of Sacajawea and other memorializations of Virginia native people with primary consultation from indigenous people on the design of the statue and other memorializations of Virginia native people.”

Janiczek said staff is assuming the cost to relocate the statue is $125,000 as part of the West Main project, or it could be relocated before that project gets underway.

“This will impact how the coordination with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources takes place and I need to know what the eventual direction is because we don’t want to relocate something with state funds only then to take local dollars and completely remove it,” Janiczek said. 

Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker said the intention had been to remove the statue as quickly as possible. She reiterated she wanted it moved as soon as possible but she wanted to hear from the three new Councilors. 

“I thought it was already decided that the statue was being moved,” said Vice Mayor Sena Magill. “I honestly thought that was already a done deal and we were just waiting on it to double check if it was going to Darden-Towe and the Lewis and Clark Center there.”

Janiczek said a plan needed to be developed before the statue was relocated. 

“What I would like to do is that if that plan does not come to fruition before West Main that the city would use local dollars and move the statue before West Main began and give assurances to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources that that is our intent and that what is planned to do,” Janiczek said.

Snook said the November 15 resolution clearly states that the plan had been for staff to prepare a plan. 

“Are you waiting for additional guidance from Council before developing the plan or who is waiting for whom?” Snook asked. 

“I think there’s a question as to where the money will come from in the CIP to move the statue,” Janiczek said. “I think it also creating a plan of where that will eventually be housed appears to be a long process.”

“A long process for us, or a long process for other people?” Snook asked. 

“I think we know we want to get rid of it but I don’t know if there is agreement for where it’s going to go,” Janiczek said.

Walker said she had expected to have been presented with that information as well as what a replacement might be for the existing space. Phase 1 calls for a pocket park at that location. 

“And then there were some concerns about where it sits currently what would happen at that space and I thought we would be presented with what those options were,” Walker said. 

Janiczek said she was not sure if those options were.

“I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be doing that,” Janiczek said, but added the area was being reserved for a future public art area but the West Main project did not anticipate a specific replacement statue. 

Janiczek said the plans for Phase 1 currently anticipate the statue being moved 25 feet away anyway in order to remove the right-hand turn lane from West Main Street onto southbound Ridge Street. That is a core element of the project.

“We’re trying to remove that and create a little pedestrian area,” Janiczek said. 

Snook asked how much Albemarle County spent to remove the Confederate statue from Court Square. In response to a question from city staff, Albemarle officials said they had spent $106,000 to do so. About two-thirds of that was construction related to remove the concrete pedestal. 

If local funds are used to pay for removal, the work might not trigger review required by the Virginia Department of Historical Resources. That would come into play if state funds were used. 

“VHDR does not want to dictate what the locality does with their resources but if we do use state funds then yes, they do have a say,” Janiczek said.

Magill said she wanted to see an estimate of using local money. Walker suggested putting out an request for proposals to see if any entity would pay for its removal. 

Value engineering

Value engineering will seek to find efficiencies in the project that has been designed to the 60 percent stage and to see if there can be alternatives.

“We always consider the project’s purpose and need when evaluating these alternatives, the previous public input, other city department’s responses, public commitments to other boards, and if we’re going to change something we’re probably going to have to redesign it and incur those costs as well,” Janiczek said.

Value engineering saved $1 million on the Belmont Bridge.

The firm RK&K will be paid to do the work. They were the firm in charge of designing the Meadowcreek Parkway Interchange and are currently working on the Fontaine Avenue Streetscape

Janicezk said the hope is to coordinate Phase 1 and Phase 2 at the same time. There will need to be a design public hearing under VDOT’s process. The value engineering work could be revealed at that meeting.

Hill supported the value engineering. 

“I certainly want us to stretch ourselves to try to value engineer this as much as possible but also have the option to evaluate like, ‘Oh does that even make sense? Or is that going to diminish the objective of the project is,” Hill said.

Janiczek said possible variables could include the kind of light fixtures used, what kind of transit stops are built, and mechanisms to place new street trees in a way that would allow them to grow without infiltrating nearby utilities. 

In this latter point, the Charlottesville Board of Architectural Review was shown in April 2018 how the new trees would be installed in something called a “silva cell” as part of an intricate stormwater management network. They are manufactured by a company called Deep Root.

“There are ways to save money but I’m not sure,” Janiczek said. “With this project more than any other project this has a lot to do with design.” 

Councilor Michael Payne said he could see the need for a value engineering study to question some of the fundamentals of the project and to acquaint the new Council with the project. 

“The intent of the project from the design perspective and some of the bigger picture visions of the project, what of those things get lost or sacrificed in bringing down the cost and some of the questions that brings up,” Payne said. “It’s so expensive because there’s this much larger vision of it being a unique streetscape from a design perspective way beyond the most necessary infrastructure needs.” 

Janiczek said the University of Virginia’s contribution of $5 million could go to Phase 3 or Phase 4. 

“They came up with that figure based on a letter from the city where we took all of the pedestrian improvements from each of the phases and tallied them up and that’s how the $5 million figure kind of got established,” Janiczek said. “I would imagine they would be most interested in applying it to as close to Grounds as possible.”

Bridge Builders

The conversation also touched upon how the streetscape would change the Drewary Brown Bridge. The group Preservation Piedmont has called for signage and a greater awareness of the names enshrined upon the bridge, including the late John Conover. 

“It had to do with adding some additional signage on the bridge, that’s certainly doable,” Janiczek said. “Adding banners to the light poles. We’ll just have to make sure that can be accommodated on the light pole that we choose.”

Janiczek said a third option was to put artwork on the bridge itself, but she said the West Main Streetscape had not intended any work on the actual structure due to the additional cost as well as coordination with Norfolk Southern. 

“It sounds like it may make more sense for that to be done, something done the city does as a separate process but sort of timed in conjunction with the West Main Streetscape,” said City Councilor Michael Payne. 

“Please let’s not have the engineering division do that, yes,” Janiczek said. 

Mayor Walker said the project has to be balanced against other city priorities. She said she would support cutting the project’s price tag in half. 

“If we start comparing, for me and my one fifth vote, projects like this up against where we are now with schools, reconfiguration project and things like that then it takes a very different turn for me than it has been for me because we’re in a different climate,” Walker said. 

The firm RK&K will be paid to do the value engineering. They were the firm in charge of designing the Meadowcreek Parkway Interchange and are currently working on the Fontaine Avenue Streetscape

“It’s good to communicate to them that we might be open to something that we wouldn’t necessarily have been open to on previous projects,” Janiczek said, adding it would take about two months for the work to be done. 

Possible cost savings could come through changing the selected light fixtures, the type of materials used in the sidewalk, and more alterations to the design the city has already paid for. 

Councilor Payne said one of the questions he will have when the report comes back is whether the original intent of the streetscape project matches where the community’s values are now in the midst of a pandemic and a need for other capital costs. 

“If cuts are reached to the point where we are sacrificing the original intent and vision of the entire streetscape project, the question of what is really the purpose or intent of what we’re doing if we’ve made cuts to that extent, which I think is tied into other conversations, thinking about other competing CIP needs with school reconfiguration and housing.” 

Payne also supported efforts to emphasize the city’s history on West Main Street, and not just at the Drewary Brown Bridge. 

“Part of what I want this project to do is to connect the university to downtown at a bike pedestrian level in a way that is inviting, that causes people to say, ‘oh that’s an easy walk,’ or ‘that’s an easy bike ride,” said Councilor Lloyd Snook. “Right now it’s not a very pedestrian friendly place. For one half of it is under construction of various sorts. Hopefully by the time that 2024 rolls around we will have gotten through all of this construction. I would like to see it be almost a kind of boulevard sensibility that causes to like it as a bike and pedestrian way and hopefully we get away from some of the cars along there.” 

Walker said this is one item that coucome up at Council’s joint work session on October 28 with the Albemarle Board of Supervisors and UVA officials.

“If the goal is to connect UVA to the downtown, then UVa needs to participate at a higher level if they are going to be the primary users of this service and with the cost,” Walker said. “If they are the primary consumer, then their $5 million is not sufficient.” 

Since September 30 

It’s been three weeks since the work session. I asked Brian Wheeler to tell me what’s happened since that time. 

  • Conducted coordination meeting with the VDOT.
  • Conducted coordination meeting with Rhodeside & Harwell.
  • Responded to and posed questions to Bridge Builders regarding banners & signage requests.
  • Verified estimate and gave notice to proceed for the VDOT to conduct historical review and coordination with the VDHR.
  • Executed scope and gave notice to proceed to RK&K to conduct Value Engineering Study.