ONARCHITECTURE- Primping Preston: Is a roundabouted boulevard the answer?

Could this be Preston Avenue one day?

In European cities like London, Paris, and Rome, the grand boulevards with their ample sidewalks for pedestrians stand out for American travelers accustomed to thoroughfares so dominated by traffic that pedestrians won't use them even when they have sidewalks. 

However, according to Charlottesville's 2004 Corridor Study– commissioned in the wake of the 2003 zoning changes that envisioned a more dense, urban environment downtown– such elegant pathways are an important part of the mix in "mixed use." For example, the study recommends that Preston Avenue become one of those "great urban boulevards," complete with a European roundabout at the Preston/McIntire intersection to connect the Downtown Mall with other pedestrian-friendly urban centers. It's a vision that calls for a radical change to Preston. 

"Preston Avenue has been badly designed," says City planning commissioner Bill Lucy. "All those attractive trees that shade the generous median for drivers and passengers to enjoy, but no shade for walkers on either side of Preston. Moreover, the narrow sidewalk is not buffered from the street by either a planting strip or parked cars. It is very inadequate as a pedestrian street." 

Having just returned from England, UVA architecture professor John Quale says he's been thinking about this idea a lot.

"I think Charlottesville absolutely should move towards more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly urbanism," he says. "The boulevard urban road type represents an appropriate solution for Preston. It's not West Main street or the Downtown Mall. The scale of Preston can allow for real bike lanes, wider sidewalks, and crosswalks."

"Preston Avenue is definitely in need of a major facelift," says UVA architecture professor Elizabeth Meyer, an expert in landscape design theory, "but the problem is not a cosmetic one that can be solved cheaply."

Indeed, for Meyer, Preston's current layout is the result of something far more troubling and complicated than bad design.

"It's the result of an urban renewal program that demolished numerous homes owned by African Americans in the area," she says. "Through its width and topographic changes, Preston disconnected the Rose Hill and Tenth and Page neighborhoods. The problem there is social and aesthetic. Like so many 1960s-70s 'urban renewal' conditions in Charlottesville, topographic changes made for roads and buildings created or reinforced racial differences."

Meyer believes that a redesign should create street cross-sections where streets meet Preston that contribute to social interaction. For example, she suggests replacing the highway median strip with a narrower one, maintaining good bike lanes, and adding wider sidewalks lined with taller more closely spaced canopy trees. 

"Walking on Preston now is hot and uncomfortable in the summer," she says. "Taller trees would alter the climate dramatically and make the boulevard more comfortable, not just more beautiful." 

In addition, Meyer thinks "Preston Boulevard" would need to have new "tentacles" (sidewalks, terraces, ramps, stairs) to create better social connections from north and south.

"What I am getting at here is that boulevards can be amazing social spaces full of urban life, or they can be desolate planted spaces that control more than enable urban sociability," says Meyer. "Any proposal for changing Preston needs to examine the project from more than a 'streetscape' planting perspective."

As Lucy notes, the future development of Preston will also include condominiums and apartments, as well as a diverse array of offices and shops, with a major retail location at Preston Plaza on 10th Street.

 "This will lead to many more pedestrians who should have a better environment," he says. "A better pedestrian environment also would enhance development in locations along Preston that would get more people out of their cars."

While Quale welcomes those kind of changes, he worries about the dirty word: gentrification.

"Any serious consideration of this idea must include a serious commitment to affordable housing, for both the low-income and 'work-force' population," he says. "The surrounding neighborhoods are some of the last affordable neighborhoods left in the city– and to succeed at this, we should make sure the local residents don't get priced out of the neighborhood. It's already starting to happen, and if this isn't done right, it could make the situation worse."

As for the roundabouts so popular in England and France– which are also planned for the West Main/McIntire/Ridge intersection– Quale sees them as legitimate solutions to keep traffic moving in the area, although he expects a period of transition for drivers.     

However, planner Lucy isn't so firmly in the roundabout camp. 

"With a roundabout likely at Meadowcreek/Route 250 bypass, I think drivers will have enough roundabouts before they reach Preston and McIntire," he says. Lucy also has a difficult time envisioning whether a roundabout would further complicate traveling east on Preston and turning north up the High Street hill.

"I'm also skeptical about roundabouts being pedestrian friendly," he says, "but I'm willing to be educated."

"I confess to liking roundabouts," says Meyer. "My parents lived in England when I was in college, and I lived in Boston and Cambridge before moving to Charlottesville. Rotaries or roundabouts work better than traffic lights in many contexts."

Meyer thinks the roundabout proposed for Preston/McIntire, while complex to engineer, is a better idea than the one proposed for the intersection of Tenth, Grady, and Preston. 

"In front of the Albemarle County Office building, it would function as a distributor of traffic and would slow traffic coming off the Meadowcreek parkway," she explains. "At the other end of Preston, a roundabout would simply reinforce the separation between the north and south sides of the street."

Meyer says she is especially worried about people trying to walk to Washington Park across a roundabout. 

"While I understand there was no interest in developing buildings on that awful tangle of existing streets when city officials proposed it several years ago," she says, "it's a much better solution than a roundabout."

In fact, Meyer wonders if a boulevard or urban design is the answer at all. Like Quale, she worries that people could be priced out of the neighborhood.

 "Affordable housing in that location, and along Preston, would do more than a boulevard to connect Preston to its adjoining neighborhoods," she says.