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.
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.
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.
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 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.”
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.