Mall crossing: Not a done deal
Vehicle crossings on Charlottesville's downtown pedestrian mall are always contentious issues, and even though autos have been crossing 4th Street since May 1, 2006, opponents still hope to get it closed, starting with another nay vote by the Planning Commission at a joint public hearing with City Council tonight.
The Planning Commission nixed the crossing in January 2006, and was overruled by City Council, which okayed a business-pushed one-year trial crossing at 4th Street. A year and a half later, the Planning Commission is being asked to decide if the 4th Street crossing meets the Comprehensive Plan, and if so, whether the crossing should be on 4th or 5th streets, and which direction it should go.
Commissioner Mike Farruggio believes the mall crossing is a "mistake," he says in a letter to City Council and his fellow Commissioners, and he'd like to see the million dollars that a consultant recommends spending on hardscapes and utility undergrounding go toward a plan to have vehicles "motor around the mall" in a clockwise, right-hand pattern with coordinated signals that, along with improved signage, would send them circling from Market to 10th to Water streets to McIntire Road and back to Market in less than 10 minutes, while passing three parking areas and getting "teasing glimpses of the mall over 20 times" by bricking the side streets from Market to Water.
"Having more crossings are not good for the mall in the long run," says Farruggio.
Consultants RK&K conducted surveys after 4th Street was opened and PC Chair Bill Lucy says the results don't support the arguments that were used to open the mall to traffic in the first place: to make it easier for visitors to find the mall and parking and to increase parking at the Water Street Garage, while having no impact on pedestrian traffic on the mall.
Lucy points out that while the "methodology was inadequate," the number of pedestrians east of 4th Street declined 17 percent from April 2006 to April-May 2007, that of nearly 1,900 drivers surveyed on 4th Street, only two were tourists, and that the number of parkers in the Water Street Garage has declined.
He finds it "surprising" that 6 to 10 percent of cars crossing 4th Street also cross the original controversial 2nd Street crossing. "One might conclude that's good or bad," he says. "It could be shoppers– or employees looking for the next two-hour parking."
The RK&K survey indicates that one-third of drivers cutting across the mall got in their cars from within three blocks away. "I'm suspicious," says Lucy. "It seems unlikely it's accurate, but if it is accurate, it suggests people are using the crossing to leave downtown."
Bob Stroh, co-chair of the Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville and head of the Charlottesville Parking Center, interprets the same information in a different way in his own letter to the Planning Commission. He's not sure what to make of the one-third drivers who originate their mall crossing from three blocks away, but doesn't have a problem with that because it indicates circulation. "That was one of the goals of this initiative," he writes.
Stroh sees the glass half full in the observation that 6 to 10 percent of cars use both crossings: "While these numbers may dismay [Lucy], we suggest we should feel pretty good that 90 to 94 percent of the vehicles observed actually used the crossing as designed. We wish all our efforts were as successful."
He calls the alleged reduction in the number of pedestrians on the east end of the mall "suspect," and contends that parking in the Water Street Garage increased over 20 percent in 2006, mostly after the crossing opened. The declines Lucy cites, says Stroh, were the result of ACAC moving and the Hardware Store closing– and parking rate increases in August 2006.
Since 7th Street closed to make way for the Pavilion and Transit Center, Stroh and downtown merchants have long pushed for an east-end crossing to replace 7th Street, and he thinks the odds that it will remain are good.
"City Council supported it and approved it," he says. "I've heard nothing that they're withdrawing from that position. I know the Planning Commission doesn't support it and is trying to overturn the view of their own City Council that appointed them."
City Council voted 3-2 June 18 to make the east end crossing permanent, with Kevin Lynch and Dave Norris the nay votes. When the matter finally hits City Council again, Lynch will be gone and new councilors Satyendra Huja and Holly Edwards will be weighing in.
Lucy says he hasn't decided and though he voted against the 4th Street crossing, "I didn't say there should never be a crossing anywhere," he clarifies.
And he suggests that with a $950K price tag for a permanent crossing, "Some who may be in favor of the crossing may not be in favor of spending $950,000."
The mall crossing hearing comes at the end of a packed Planning Commission agenda, and Lucy is dubious that anything will be settled tonight. "The crossing is already there," he says. "Our action won't change that. I don't think there's a rush."
Meanwhile, Sage Moon gallery owner Morgan Mackenzie-Perkins is loving the 4th Street crossing, and she urges that its success be measured by the number of people saying, "It's so much easier to get around and find parking."
Mackenzie-Perkins says the crossing has made a big difference for her. "We've gotten a lot of feedback from locals who said they were against it, but see that it hasn't seemed like it's been a negative impact."
She adds, "We're trying to encourage people to go to the mall and we don't want to make it difficult. Reality has nothing to do with perception. If locals perceive it's difficult to come downtown, they won't."