Council seeks additional information on West Main Streetscape

The prospect of the West Main Streetscape being implemented is still alive as City Council still wants more information about how the project could be salvaged. The project was split into four phases in order to secure funding from the Virginia Department of Transportation, but staff has recommended not fully funding the project. 

Council has not made several final decisions about the proposed $160 million Capital Improvement Program for the next fiscal year and the four years that come after it. That amount also includes $8 million for a 300-space parking deck as well as a $50 million placeholder for reconfiguration of the city’s middle schools. 

“There certainly is a lot of unknowns when we think about going into the future of the CIP especially when we think about schools and not knowing the scope of what they’re going to be [doing],” said City Councilor Heather Hill. “And also thinking about the parking deck situation and what options we may have.” 

Councilor Lloyd Snook said he felt the city was at a point where it should proceed with West Main Street in a fashion similar to Council voting to proceed with the pedestrianization of East Main Street in 1974. 

“The more I have thought about it, the more I have thought the future of the city is going to be along the axis between downtown and the University and we ought to be spending our time, our energy, and our resources on that area,” Snook said. 

Snook said he was less inclined to support the parking garage. 

Mayor Walker said budget staff have been clear that the city is running into its debt capacity and the city should proceed cautiously. 

“I just don’t know how we are rating West Main Street and still thinking that is a must and that it must continue at this time when we’re talking about things like housing and schools,” Walker said. 

Snook said he has been persuaded by arguments that at least $3 million in maintenance improvements are needed on West Main Street. 

Councilor Hill said believed the city has made an investment in West Main and should see the project through. 

“The biggest thing is just the other dollars coming from other sources that are not the city, and there’s not a lot of projects where we find those opportunities,” Hill said. 

Those external sources include $5 million from the University of Virginia and the potential $10.8 million in VDOT Smart Scale funds for Phase 3 of the West Main Streetscape. Phases 1 and 2 require a local match in order for the city to draw down Smart Scale Funds and revenue-sharing funds already approved.

“I’m really struggling with just closing the door on this,” Hill said. 

The draft CIP contains a placeholder of $50 million in FY24 for the school reconfiguration.

Walker said would prefer to keep some of the debt capacity available for future needs. 

“If we okay West Main at this point, we are limiting schools to an amount because we are boxing ourselves in,” Walker said. “And then everything else that comes up as a result of this pandemic and how long we’re in it, then we are also restricting ourselves there.” 

Councilor Michael Payne said he supported the vision of the West Main project, but could not support prioritizing that over schools or affordable housing. He said he would support the city paying for the bare minimum and losing some of the Smart Scale funding due to the debt capacity issue. 

“We’re in the same situation where we could eliminate our city funding of West Main Street, and the parking garage, and we still even then wouldn’t be that close to getting our CIP budget on a sustainable level,” Payne said. He also said he would like to continue conversations with the School Board about the reconfiguration project due the large amount of money required to pay for the capital costs. 

A firm is working with the school board to further refine the cost estimates for school reconfiguration. There was also interest in getting more information about various scenarios for West Main, including incorporating some of the results of a recent value engineering study.  Councilor Snook had this idea.

“One of my thoughts is that we have a brand new city manager, and let’s let him put his creative thoughts to work and see if he’s got some ideas for us,” Snook said. 

City Manager Chip Boyles said he would have a conversation with VDOT about when Phase 1 and Phase 2 need to get underway to stay within the six-year deadline required of Smart Scale. Jack Dawson, the city engineer, said the right of way phase is expected to begin this July to keep the project on VDOT’s schedule. 

“There is some urgency about what direction we think we may need to go in, sooner or later, for sure,” Dawson said. 

Vice Mayor Sena Magill said she would support reducing the scope of the project.

“What can we do with just the revenue-sharing match?” Magill asked. “There’s a lot extra that is on top of what we need for our revenue-sharing match.”

Council agreed to wait on a final decision on West Main until they have more information on options. David Brown is the city’s public works director.

“We do have some time to where we can look and evaluate to make a determination,” Brown said. “For the project, we can evaluate and make an assessment, rescope the project that still meets the requirements of the funding sources so we still have that opportunity.” 

Boyles said he would prepare options for Council to consider. 

“We can get enough information to come back to you with some concepts and maybe even some recommendations and staff can continue to keep working forward,” Boyles said. “It won’t be that much wasted effort based on whatever your decision is in later March or April.”

The FY22 operating and capital budget will be presented to Council on March 1. The first public hearing is scheduled for March 15. Budget adoption will be roughly a month later. 

(This article was first posted in the February 22, 2021 installment of Charlottesville Community Engagement)

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