Mall crossing: Lewis demands recuse, crossing opponents lose

It appears the second Downtown Mall crossing is a done deal, though what it will look like, what it will cost, and where it will be appears open for discussion. In a drama that has been playing itself out for over a year and a half, ever since City Council overturned the wishes of its Planning Commission with an experimental crossing at 4th street, Commission members provided a closing act that did not disappoint.

At close to midnight last night, a noticeably punchy Commission agreed in a 4-3 vote that a second Mall crossing was consistent with the goals of the Comprehensive Plan. But not before Commissioner Cheri Lewis, her voice quavering with emotion, began the proceedings with a demand that her fellow Commissioners who had "lobbied against the crossing publicly" and had "openly criticized" Council's 3-2 approval decision earlier this year, recuse themselves.

The Commission originally nixed the crossing in January 2006, but was overruled by City Council when they voted for the experimental crossing that same year, and again when they voted to make a crossing permanent in June 2007. According to deputy City Attorney Richard Harris, recent changes in the Comprehensive Plan legally required the Commission to revisit the issue.

"If some commissioners are prejudging the issue," said Lewis. "How can they be impartial? " Lewis then cited specific emails between Commissioners that indicated they had prejudged the issue, and were actively lobbying against a second Mall crossing.

Almost immediately, Commission chair Mike Farruggio, as well as his colleagues Jason Pearson and Bill Lucy revealed themselves as those Lewis was calling out.

"I believe Ms. Lewis is misinterpreting this," said Pearson. "I was not expressing an opinion that Council made a mistake, I was acknowledging that they may have, based on information that I had received."

"As to whether City Council could ever make a mistake, it seems unlikely," said Lucy, as the room erupted in laughter. From the start, it was clear that Lucy viewed yet another vote on this somewhat farcical, and appeared unfazed by accusations from Lewis.

"I don't see a problem with Commissioners expressing opinions," added Mayor David Brown. "I don't see that that's an issue."

Later, Union Bank & Trust president Robert Gentry prefaced his words of support for the crossing with a scolding for Lucy. "The statements you made before the meeting would have qualified as a "conflict of interest" in the business world," Gentry said. But after the accused Commissioners declined to recuse themselves, the issue was dropped.

Oddly enough, Commissioners and City staff seemed to agree that there wasn't enough conclusive data, despite a crossing survey conducted by RK & K Consulting and other more informal surveys by City staff and the Downtown Business Association, to determine if the crossing improved the bottom line for businesses, or if it improved access to the Mall. They also seemed to agree that deciding whether or not the crossing was consistent with the Comprehensive Plan was a subjective exercise at best. Lucy finally suggested that the question they were being asked was pointless.

"It's unfortunate that the question was posed to us in this way, in the context of the Comprehensive plan, because it can't be judged that way," Lucy said. "Design does matter here, and there's been no hint at a design, no discussion about improving the side streets," he continued. "That's what needs to be discussed."

Neighborhood Development director Jim Tolbert confirmed that no designs for a permanent crossing have been developed, and that a proposed $950,000 price tag was merely an educated guess. "There's no science here," said Tolbert, responding to concerns about what the studies and surveys had and had not revealed. "It just is what it is. There's been so much paper produced on this that you can support both sides of the argument with it."

Developer Oliver Kuttner called the crossings "crucial" to the tourist trade, citing the 4th Street crossing as a more attractive choice than 5th, and saying that the crossing acted as a "shingle" that drew people to the Mall. Others suggested that improving signage and bricking the side streets were a better way to attract people to the Mall.

Outgoing City Councilor Kevin Lynch, in his last joint hearing with the Commission, recalled being stopped recently by a passing motorist in front of the Market Street Wine Shop who asked him where the Downtown Mall was. "If we bricked the side streets," said Farruggio, "we'd have 20 chances to attract people to the Mall."

Bob Stroh, president of the Downtown Business Association, admitted that data on improved sales as a result of the crossing were only anecdotal, but pointed out that 25 businesses surveyed felt the crossing helped their businesses. "Not a single business said it impacted them negatively," he added.

Zachary Shahan, executive director of the Alliance for Community Choice in Transportation, said that car crossings were a step in the wrong direction, and that the city needed to work on creating disincentives to driving around the Mall and expanding its walkability across Water Street.

Several people argued that 5th Street was a better location for a crossing, including Lynch, as people would be tempted to use the 4th Street crossing as a cut-through, and because a longer stretch of the Mall would remain pedestrian.

Peter Kleeman, a frequent Mall user, wondered why we needed a crossing at all. "I have lived here for 26 years and have never driven across the Mall," he said.

Commissioner Michael Osteen observed that good design could solve all these problems by creating a situation where people essentially "walk" their cars across the Mall. "Cars should become the fish out of water when they cross the Mall," he said. "Not pedestrians."

Speaking of design, Lewis encouraged people to consider the two successful crossings on Colonial Williamsburg's pedestrian mall, where as many as 40,000 cars a year cross, she said. In addition, she cited the Mall's long-standing 2nd Street crossing, which she supported, as proof enough that crossings benefit the Mall.

However, Farruggio called the 1996 opening of the 2nd Street crossing a "sacrifice of our beliefs" and claimed that the Mall had been successful without it.

Longtime downtown resident Collete Hall recalled a past City Council promising her a crossing would never be built on the Mall. "At the time, my husband called me naive to believe that," she said. Hall, who has become somewhat of a citizen watchdog since then, wanted more conclusive data on whether the crossings really improved business sales.

In the end, Commissioners motioned to discuss design and placement issues at a January work session, but paved the way for the Mall's second crossing with last night's vote.

32 comments

In Charlottesville we have so called "leaders" who will invest heavily in projects that are remarkably unnecessary but they may enhance local property values. So if you live downtown or just north of downtown (like Charlottesville Planning Commissioner Lewis) then you will enjoy several new projects (to name a few): the new McGuffey Park; plans to build more access and more roads through McIntire Park via the Meadowcreek parkway & interchange; you'll also have easier automobile access through the mall via the newly approved mall crossing; I think there are also plans for a renovation of the brick walkway throughout the entire downtown mall.

Most if not all of these projects will enhance downtown property values, including the Park Street neighborhood property values. Don't those properties advertise themselves as "within easy walking distance to the downtown mall!" So I'm waiting for planning commissioners to one day, after they suddenly realize that they've enriched themselves, to recuse themselves from a vote or two due to conflict of interest. ("Oh, the thought never crossed my mind" says Commissioner Lewis).

Meanwhile other parts of town appear to be blighted, crime-ridden, and unrepresented, except in a remedial and punitive fashion.

Where are the town leaders who represent all of Charlottesville?

GLO-- I'm no fan of Ms Lewis and the "wheee, I'm an insider and it's all about me!" attitude she sometimes displays towards the individuals that appear before her, but you're just way off base here with your ranting regarding conflict of interest. If you're going to put together an argument, please employ some reasoning. There's absolutely nothing that suggests that Ms Lewis will benefit financially from the crossing or the Parkway.

Ms Lewis, your gratuitous mention of Gerry Mitchell in your responses made my stomach turn. Friend or no, in using Mr Mitchell's recent tragedy and subsequent media attention to bolster your own argument for a mall crossing, you are behaving in an extraordinarily crass fashion. You certainly do him no favor, and you've merely made yourself appear desperate for attention. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.

Surely you must have sound arguments for the mall crossing that have nothing whatsoever to do with YOU and YOUR travels about the city?

GLO: Yer funny! I'd like to deserve some credit for Ms. Lewis' thoughtful role on the PC but I'm afraid I haven't even spoken to her in a long time. How about you Cville Eye? Are you the power behind Cheri's throne?

GLO-

So, let me summarize your thinking: because I want to be able to safely access McIntire park to hike along Schenk's Branch, and because I admit that taking my wheel-chair incapacitated friend home is a bit quicker with the crossing, those statements make me conflicted?!

I say then we are all conflicted for wanting better parks and easier ways to take care of people we care about!

I am certainly no real estate mogul; you made me laugh at that one as well as on your definition of conflicted. I think to you, caring more than a little bit might render one "conflicted."

What do you care about?

All the best -
Cheri Lewis

Best to you

Crossing the street in front of the Charlottesville Police Department is much more dangerous than crossing at the Mall crossings? Probably so, because police cars have been known to run over people, almost run over people, and arrest anybody who gets in their way! :)

The 3rd Street sinkhole is still under construction. It takes time and plenty of money to build a World Class City. Look at how much moncy it took to build London, Paris, Rome and New York.

Cheri,
That is a beautiful reply! I read it and wanted to jump up and applaud.

GLO,
Well? Are you just into anonymous libel or do you have the courage to admit your errors and identify yourself?

Cordially,
Kevin Cox

The tactic recently deployed by Cheri Lewis in demanding that other planning commissioners recuse themselves from the mall crossing vote, well it is a good question to ask whether or not she and other road proponents have a conflict of interest in the public roles they serve as planning commissioners.

Since she played the recusal card in the meeting, Cheri Lewis should now recuse herself from all votes affecting the downtown, especially those projects north of the downtown mall, as she stands to financially benefit from seeing those projects approved.

It's certainly bogus of Commissioner Lewis to maintain that the Meadowcreek parkway interchange will not increase the Lewis property values around Park St. Of course it will and she knows it! Lewis and others in her camp like to argue for the Meadowcreek parkway interchange because it will supposedly alleviate traffic on Park St. and increase quality of life for the few who live there. Often they complain about the Park Street traffic, as if it were some kind of surprise. How is it that a measure theoretically designed to route traffic away from Park Street is not going increase property values in that neighborhood!? Isn't Commissioner Lewis some kind of real estate mogul? Seems like she knows what's going on with property values and such.

Now there are Park street neighborhood residents who oppose the parkway and other automobile driven plans for the downtown. I think they believe that there is a certain fallacy involved in the idea that building more roads leads to less traffic. Whatever the case may be I do know that Lewis and others who like to make plans for roads and automobiles see the mall crossing as well as the parkway/interchange as steps towards quality of life for their own neighborhood and its property values.

For example, in the letter above Cheri Lewis readily admits something that could easily be seen as a conflict of interest ¢Ã¢â??‰â?¬Å? she says that the Meadowcreek parkway interchange will increase her and her neighbor's access to the park. Won't that increase that neighborhood's property values? The same self-interested rationales are used to justify the automobile mall crossing that Lewis supports. It's about increasing customer access for a few businesses, never mind the tens of thousands of pedestrians who now must be wary of the traffic. The mall crossing is also justified by saying it will be nicer to have another transportation route south for those with property north of the mall, like Cheri Lewis.

I vote we put pavement back down there. Two lanes one way, with parking on both sides of the street. But of course my vote doesn't mean anything. I'm just the little guy who pays $4,000 a year taxes on my home now so we can build stupid stuff like the downtown mall. And oh yeah, the oversized beer tent also. Don't want to forget it! :)

I miss the old downtown with cars traveling up and down Main Street. I get a little nostalgic when I see the wonderful pictures at the rear of the downtown CVS depicting the robust downtown. Little Johnny, we can forget that. The plan is to copy State Street in Madison Wisconsin, no matter what the cost. Just watch that $4,000 bill continue to climb, regardless of your home's assessment. Brick is being put down beside the Paramount as we write. How they wise ones can think that business will improve downtown with constant construction projects is beyond me, but we must in order to not "sacrifice of our beliefs."

"Lewis has had no qualms about fighting for the Meadowcreek parkway even though her property in and around Park Street stands to gain in value if she succeeds." If that was the case, why are several property owners in the Park Street area critical of the project? A Mr. Bluestone and a MRs. Hall have spoken publicly on this issue. I have seen no evidence anywhere that running a road through basically non-developable land in a town or City has raised any property values on adjacent land. GLO, you're going to have to supply some kind of verification on this assertion for it to pass the smell test. Just simply stating it does not make it so.
heironsuperfly, were you a Mall dweller or a downtown area resident? It would be interesting to me to know the reasons you left. We only hear how wonderfully urban it is to live downtown.

GLO you lack of understanding about Ms. Lewis is breathtaking. Ms. Lewis can't vote on the meadowcreek parkway, that is now a matter for the city counci. One can even have a conflict as long as it's disclosed and passes certain conditions.

If the meadowcreek comes before the planning comission then you might have a point.

Folks like Cville Eye and pseudo-pedestrian activist Kevin Cox are the reasons why people like Cheri Lewis gets away with what she does on the city planning commission. I hope there are other folks out there who will keep a watchful eye on Ms. Lewis and encourage her to "recuse or resign."

I don't believe Cheri Lewis has summarized my thinking accurately. Let me be of assistance: Of course we all would want better parks and park access. But if we are on the public planning commission that is making decisions about parks and roads in our own neighborhood then we ought to recuse ourselves from those decisions for therein lies a conflict of interest -- Cheri Lewis' role as a planning commissioner obliges her to act in the interests of the city as a whole, not the property values of her neighborhood. Her claim above that property values never entered her mind is rather disingenuous.

Ever wonder how the rich get richer and the poor get poorer? It is because the rich are members of the planning commission.

How a bound-to-be-ugly bridge will increase the property values of surrounding neighborhoods is beyond me. GLO is probably in the real estate business and knows better than me. As Mrs. Lewis states, the State Code defines and regulates Conflict of Interest and if Kevin Lynch and Blake Caravati can state that they have financial interests in the Venable Neighborhood and then vote to re-zone it historic then I wonder what this stink is about.I think the Meadowcreek Parkway's connecting to 29N is a total waste of money; however, that is no reason to attack known proponents of that road personally with a lot of irrational crap.

Throw in a few donuts and I will go.

GLO - I take very seriously your words that: 1) I would personally benefit from the mall crossing we discussed Tuesday night; 2) that I own property in and around Park that would directly benefit from an increase in value if the Meadowcreek Parkway were built; and 3) that I have a "conflict of interest and that is what predetermines [my] opinion about much of [my] work of the Charlottesville Planning Commission." This is a public forum and, much as I would like to think you might be ill-informed, I also sense from your words an intention to call into question my integrity. I hope you'll consider my response and answer my questions and respond, since you've taken the time to try to slander me publicly.

On 1), I don't know how I would personally benefit from the mall crossing in a way that would present a conflict or be any different from any other citizen. I don't own any real property around the mall, I don't own any businesses on or around the mall or have an investment in them, and right now I can't think of a single client of mine that I've represented in my law practice regarding a business or property on the mall. I used to own a business on 7th Street between Jefferson and Market that was sold 4 years ago this coming April; I never owned the real estate there, and I don't think it particularly benefitted from teh crossing. Could you tell me what you hand in mind when you stated this? If I did have a conflict under the Va. Conflict of Interest Act (COIA), I definitely would have not been able to participate. The biggest personal benefit I can see getting from the vehicular crossing is being able to drive Gerry Mitchell home if he comes to my house to visit; I live north of the mall and he lives south, and it's a lot quicker to use a crossing than go down to 10th to get him home to Crescent Halls. Other than that, I have no idea what conflict you are accusing me of.

On 2), I own a home on 2nd Street, a residential house on 8th, and an office condominium on High. Each year I am required by Va. law to disclose my real estate holdings because I'm on the pc. I have no idea how the ownership of my house would make me conflicted on the Meadowcreek Parkway any more than my neighbors Colette Hall and Peter Kleeman, who are quite opposed to the parkway, would be conflicted. I wanted to serve on the Rt. 250 Interchange because I live close to the interchange and want to make sure that McIntire doesn't become a juggernaut. From a personal view, I also wanted to serve because I'm hoping that the improved access to the park will allow me and a whole lot of other people to actually get to the park and use it more. It is a completely underutilized gem in our City and it's because anyone in my neighborhood would have to take their life into their hands to get across 250 on foot or bike. Does hoping to create something better give me a conflict? It has never occurred to me before you mentioned it that the parkway would increase anyone's property values! News to me, and maybe true, but I just never thought about it.

As for 3), in six years on the pc, I have had to remove myself from a matter only once: I represented older clients who owned property in a district that was being designated historic. Otherwise, I don't know what conflicts you are accusing me of, but would be willing to respond to situations or facts that you perceive. I am probably more familiar with COIA than any member of the PC (it was revised a few years ago and was made much less easy to understand, frankly). If you are unwilling to identify yourself on this forum and/or back up your assertions (if you are serious about them, and not just interested in slandering me anonymously), maybe you'll stop me some time and we can grab coffee and discuss.

Thanks-
Cheri Lewis

GLO: So I take it that anonymous, libelous cowardice is your choice.

I walk the length of the Downtown Mall twice a day, five days a week. The crossings are safe and drivers are always cautious. I wish that drivers behaved at the rest of Charlottesville's intersections the way they behave at the Mall crossings. Crossing the street in front of the Charlottesville Police Department is much more dangerous than crossing at the Mall crossings.

Cordially,
Kevin Cox

GLO, thanks for your last post. You've made your point eloquently. But this is where we'd probably disagree: I think that some folks do get into politics and/or leadership positions for all the right reasons, but they are certainly far and few between. Dave Norris and Peter Kleeman come to mind-- albeit one was elected, while the other continues to serve the city in a voluntary way.

For many, it's a kind of club to join, a chance to be a big frog in a little pond. Politics is indeed an ugly business, and in Charlottesville it's incredibly incestuous too.

The city leaders frequently act as the lap dogs of the developers, but I don't necessarily think that most of them will profit financially (at least directly) from these alliances. I think it's more that they're over-eager to gain the approval of those they think are more successful (i.e. "better") than themselves. Most C'ville politicians and high-level staffers really can't be bothered to imagine what the citizens think about them. They really don't care because they're so entirely wrapped up in themselves.

All it takes is attending some of the meetings regularly to suss out who does this to make C'ville a better place for EVERYONE, and who does this so they can sit on the dais and titter over inside jokes, while the uncomfortably squirming audience sighs and waits patiently for them to get down to the business of selling the City to a bunch of developers for a sack of magic beans. The planning commission in recent years has contained some particularly smug and self-congratulatory specimens. Worse than Council even, and that's really saying something.

Road or no road. Does it make any difference? Perhaps the locals could be taught the rules of the road. From what I learned around here the entire goal of driving is to run down pedestrians or shoot people standing at crosswalks (rants from that other weekly paper).

Now...hurry up and put in the one million dollar 50 foot long chunk of road. Speaking of which, how goes 3rd street construction that was supposed to end a few months ago? Will the new mall crossing take two years to complete?

Hello All,

I just wanted to thank everyone for contributing to one of the best discussion threads we're had--passionate, interesting, sufficiently feisty and funny, but it stays on subject and ends up being far more interesting than my post!

yours,

Dave McNair

One of the nice things about our quasi-Jeffersonian democracy here in Charlottesville is that there are those who really believe in democracy, you know, the spirit of it. They want to see the benefits of our civic community equitably provided to all. Let's call them the "civic community." A person with this philosophy would see that every part of town has the amenities and comforts that every other part of town has, so as not to privilege one class and race of folks over another.

But then we have the other side which really doesn't care for democracy except for what it can provide to them. These folks utilize the democratic structure only in so far as they must. The rest is a free for all, and whoever is the most ruthless and cutthroat ends up with more than their share. We'll call these folks the "vicious community" and with them we must be extra vigilant because they will exploit every angle to take the advantage and the goods for themselves and then turn around and say "I followed all the rules."

So getting back to our city and county planning commissions -- well somehow or the other their work has enriched one part of our community far more than the other parts. These folks will say, oh you can't prove that I have a conflict of interest." Perhaps the letter of the law is on their side but not the spirit of it.

It's really quite vicious the way some of our city leaders behave. They already have several properties, great jobs, and plenty of investments, yet they want more power and control over public resources so that they can have even more.

I'm just waiting for a true leader who cares about all of the people and not just the trendy or wealthy elites and their insatiable appetites.

Well, GLO, don't wait for a savior, be one. I'm sure there are a lot of people that will follow you or vote for you, which ever road you take.

I just don't get all this hype about the mall crossing.

Don't we have bigger issues like senior citizens getting forced out of lifelong homes because they can't afford the taxes?

And a police department that is coming unwound?

So what about this mall crossing. If you don't like it, don't use it. And we need to quit wasting money on consultants who say the utilities need to be underground and blah blah blah.

3 blahs to the mall crossing issue.

Well, Mr. Cox, if I say anything then I'll be accused, like you and Mrs. Lewis, of having a conflict of interest. Obviously, if a person does not agree with GLO, then he's part of a conspiracy and is breaking the law.
"...why people like Cheri Lewis gets away with what she does on the city planning commission." GLO's problems with Mrs. Lewis obviously go far beyond this Tuesday night's meeting and stretches over other yet-unnanmed issues. Whether I or rabid, pseudo-pedestrian you are the people getting away with something on the planning commission or some other as-yet-unnamed commissioner is, I have no idea and will not be continuing in this substrand. Personally, I find Vic Wilson's comments much more interesting.

In Charlottesville we are dealing with an extraordinarily self-absorbed town, so full of itself, yet in all of its grandeur, the disparities in quality of life continue to grow. How and why is this so? I have pointed out an obvious but somehow overlooked reason -- that our city planning commissioners often act with no regard for the public interest. Our commissioner Cheri Lewis asks that others recuse themselves from voting while she feigns ignorance that her votes on the planning commission are enriching her property values. Where is the true leadership in our city?

GLO: Actually I agree with you I am a "pseudo-pedestrian advocate". The Hook labeled me a pedestrian advocate and well, I guess I do kind of like that label. Really though, I think a real pedestrian advocate in Charlottesville would do much more than I have the time for. Why don't you do it? I'll be at City Council's next meeting. You can meet me there and I'll dub you "Pedestrian Advocate"!

If a couple of positive and factual comments about the Mall crossing make me a "rabid cheerleader" for the Mall crossing I need to look up the meaning of "rabid". While I do that why don't you take a look at "paranoid"?

As for my hidden agenda, well I do like to drive my car and I even like to drive it up to the Mall where I frequently pick up and drop off my daughter at the crossings. I'm guilty!

Kev,
I'm still wondering how you call you yourself an advocate for pedestrians and yet you also act as a rabid cheerleader for the automobile mall crossing plan. I think you must have a conflict of interest or two that needs exposing. Please tell us what your hidden agenda is all about because at this point you seem rather compromised.

Bob Stroh is a fool for supporting this crap. becuase of people like him is the reason why i moved

"Cheri" Lewis ought to have asked all the planning commissioners who stood to benefit financially from the mall crossing to recuse themselves from the vote.
Then she should have recused herself.
Lewis has had no qualms about fighting for the Meadowcreek parkway even though her property in and around Park Street stands to gain in value if she succeeds. The same calculated front guides many of her votes. Lewis often has a conflict of interest and that is what predetermines her opinion about much of the work of the Charlottesville Planning Commission.

I don't understand why this is such a big issue. Everyone has agreed that there is going to be a crossing from North to South, and there should be. Why does anyone have a problem with that? The 2nd street crossing hasn't caused any problems. Why would another one? I think there are way bigger issues to discuss

It's not the street crossings that draw people downtown, it's the quality of the shops, restaurants, galleries, etc. What keeps people from going down there is the fact that its a pain in the butt to park down there. Come up with a good parking solution, and you'll see more visitors to the downtown mall.

GLO- your smug rant is remarkable fact free. Who are you to know the "public will". Your assertion that Ms. Lewis is doing this to enhance her property values is one of the dumbest things written on this blog. If she does her job well won't that make Charlottesville a better place to live, won't that increase property values.

GLO- doesn't want a mall crossing and will smear Ms. Lewis to get their wish. What bothers GLO the most is we don't have their "noble" social consciousness.