NEWS- Mall crossing: Lewis demands recuse, crossing opponents lose

After a year and a half, and a mountain of studies, City officials are still squabbling over wether or not to make the 4th street Mall crossing permanent.

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 on Tuesday, December 12, a noticeably punchy Commission agreed in a 4-3 vote that a second 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 fellow Commissioners who had publicly "lobbied"  against the crossing and had "openly criticized" Council's 3-2 approval earlier this year, recuse themselves.

The Commission originally nixed the crossing in January 2006, but was overruled by City Council that same year with a vote for an experimental crossing, and again when Council voted to make a crossing permanent in June 2007. However, recent changes in the Comprehensive Plan required the Commission to revisit the issue. 

"If some commissioners are prejudging the issue," asked Lewis, citing specific emails between Commissioners, "how can they be impartial?"

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

"I believe Ms. Lewis is misinterpreting this," said Pearson, explaining what he had written in his emails. "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."

Prior to the meeting, Commissioner Farruggio had sent a letter to Council and his fellow Commissioners saying he thought the Mall crossing was a "mistake." A better way to improve access to the Mall, he suggested, was to route traffic around the Mall and presenting "teasing glimpses of the mall " by bricking the side streets from Market to Water.

"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 Lewis' accusations.

"I don't see a problem with Commissioners expressing opinions," said Mayor David Brown.

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. 

City staff and Commissioners 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 better methods.

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."

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.

"I have lived here for 26 years and have never driven across the Mall," said frequent Mall user Peter Kleeman.

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.

Stroh 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," he added, "said it impacted them negatively."

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 their midnight vote. When the matter finally hits City Council again, Lynch will be gone and new councilors Satyendra Huja and Holly Edwards will be weighing in.