ON ARCHITECTURE- Tripped up: Locust sidewalk curbed for now

Three years ago, the Locust Grove Neighborhood Association voted to use a big chunk of its federal block grant to extend Locust Avenue's sidewalk south down to Smith Street. According to the City's 2006 construction report, there are 19 new sidewalk projects under way, most of which are either completed or pending– except one. You guessed it. The Locust sidewalk project is identified as "on hold."

What's the deal? How hard is to build a sidewalk?

"It's an old project," says Locust Grove Neighborhood Association president Brynne Potter, "but some people who live on the street are not happy about it."

According to former Association co-president Sarah Peaslee, the sidewalk construction was scheduled to begin last October until a few neighbors– whom Peaslee affectionately refers to as the "abutters"– approached the association board and asked them to consider re-designing the sidewalk. That's because the orange survey flags marking the new path cut deep into elaborate landscaping, walkways, trees even a wooden fence that about half-a-dozen homeowners have built on city property.

According to Potter, some homeowners were under the impression that the City's right-of-way extended only six or seven feet past the asphalt edge of the road, an assumption that appears at odds with the obvious.

The existing sidewalk sits beside a 15- to 20-foot grass buffer from the road almost all the way down Locust until the sidewalk ends abruptly at the intersection with Calhoun. What's really at issue, Potter says, is that some people are upset about the way an extension of that sidewalk will churn through property they have treated as their own for so long.

Still, it is city property, and some residents are upset about how the "abutters" are seeking special consideration. Apparently, the abutters are asking the city to reroute the sidewalk around their plantings and landscaping, a request that seems self-serving and unfair to those who didn't complain or who have respected the property lines.

However, City Neighborhood Development director Jim Tolbert has been willing to listen. In fact, Tolbert met in the fall with neighbors on the front lawn of one of the abutters. He's put the project on hold and given the abutters and the neighborhood association until March 1 to hash things out and come up with some recommendations. After that, Tolbert says (not sounding too happy about it), "I guess it's up to me to make a decision."

The problem, Tolbert says, is the city's 20-foot right-of-way. If the right-of-way were 6 or 7 feet, there wouldn't be an issue, he says. There'd be no other place for the sidewalk to go. But since the city has 20 feet to work with, it is possible to re-route the sidewalk.

That being the case, Tolbert felt compelled to let neighbors have their say and make suggestions. "They've all been very cordial," he says. Indeed, maybe too cordial. Many of the neighbors we contacted did not return the Hook's phone calls by press time or requested their names and comments not be made public– an effort, it appears, not to get into a public squabble.

However, some neighbors are clearly upset about the way the abutters are holding up the project and dictating its design. In addition, they are upset with the City for catering to the abutters, for not thinking about a consistent design rule for the neighborhood as a whole, and for being so squeamish about building on its own right of way. While the debate has remained civil, some neighbors don't understand why the abutters are being rewarded for developing property they don't own.

On the other hand, the City does require local landowners to maintain property they don't own.

In February 2004, the City passed a new law requiring all homeowners to mow the City's land abutting their front yards. Like the City's long-standing shovel-the-sidewalks law, the edict drew intense criticism, including one rebuke likening it to "involuntary servitude." One could argue that this shared responsibly should give people a say about what gets built in front of their homes.

But it's the neighborhood association's position, says Potter, that a sidewalk should be built to benefit the entire community. And many neighbors believe this means following the existing design of Locust's sidewalk.

"That section of Locust has one of the most beloved sidewalks in town, and it's that large buffer between it and the road that makes the difference," says Katie Swenson. The director of an architectural group called the Charlottesville Community Design Center, Swenson considers last-minute design changes to the sidewalk a mistake.

"That seems pretty short-sighted to me," she says, adding that more forethought might have prevented the current impasse.

"For example," says Swenson," why not narrow the road? There's no need for the road to be that wide on that end of Locust."

Indeed, the south end of Locust resembles a boulevard where two tractor-trailers can easily pass. A sidewalk could gobble up the road's edge and still leave enough room for any traffic the low-density residential area is likely to see.

But a design approach like that could mean another three years before the south end of Locust gets a sidewalk.

In addition to the forced maintenance and forced-shoveling laws, many Charlottesville homeowners are complaining about hefty property taxes– assessments that rose 21 percent this year in the Locust neighborhood because of skyrocketing property values in that area.

All this, the abutters might argue, constitutes de facto "ownership" of city rights-of-way– or at least a shared ownership. Why shouldn't homeowners, then, ask that a sidewalk not be routed through their expensive landscaping if there's a way to avoid it, even if it's on city property?

Some people see such ad hoc decision making as a kind of civic anarchy. As Potter points out, "There really isn't any sidewalk policy in Charlottesville." Ideally, say Potter and others, the neighborhood wishes the city had a sidewalk policy that followed a consistent design rule, as opposed to a potential zigzag design arrived at after this genteel neighborhood dust-up.

Along Locust Avenue, a proposed sidewalk extension will cut through expensive landscaping that 'abutters' have developed on city property.