COVER- Egads! The road Greens like: Which way will it go?
Everybody does it– even cops and elected officials. The Kmart parking lot is a notorious shortcut through private property that lots of locals take to avoid a long line of cars at the intersection of Hydraulic Road and U.S. 29.
On a recent Thursday morning, The Hook counted vehicles using the Kmart cut-through. It wasn't a particularly busy time, not like 5pm, say, when cars back up from the home of the Blue-Light Special all the way down to Brandywine Drive. Of the 50 cars that passed over the pot-holed private road during our five-minute count, only 12 actually stopped at Kmart.
Seventy-five percent did not. These users of the so-called "Kmart bypass" will probably welcome the Hillsdale Avenue Extension. They're not alone.
This proposed road, that will ultimately make it possible to travel all the way from Hydraulic to Fashion Square Mall without getting tangled up on U.S. 29, has attracted some unlikely bedfellows.
Getting a road built in this area isn't easy. Witness the proposed U.S. 29 western bypass, which drew so many protests and a lawsuit that its death was declared earlier this year. How about the Meadowcreek Parkway? Although its path– on the books since 1968– wouldn't claim a single house or business, it is still mired in delays.
And yet, dreams of the Hillsdale Connector, as well as UVA's North Grounds Connector [see sidebar] are moving close to reality with support from groups traditionally considered enemies of new swaths of asphalt.
Moreover Albemarle County and the City of Charlottesville, long opposing each other over the Meadowcreek Parkway– and even a proposed stoplight in front of the new Best Buy– strongly support the Hillsdale project.
The Hillsdale Avenue Extension has been in the concept stage since the late 1980s, according to Ron Higgins in Charlottesville's neighborhood development. The connector will carry traffic between Greenbrier Drive and Hydraulic Road. While the precise route is still under review, the early favorite of four proposals (the fifth, a "no build" option, is considered dead) is a corridor running smack through Seminole Square shopping center.
Green groups such as the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) and the lawsuit-wielding Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) are lining up to support the Hillsdale Connector– as long as it stays away from Meadow Creek.
"Yes, yes, yes! Build it soon!" says the PEC's Jeff Werner, who's rarely heard extolling any road-building project.
Kay Slaughter, senior attorney at SELC, sees the Hillsdale Connector as "essential for a more balanced transportation system," one that considers buses, bicycles, and pedestrians, as well as cars. "We definitely have supported more of these parallel roads to take traffic off 29," she says.
She must love what happened to Berkmar Drive. Using land donated by adjacent property owners, a Berkmar extension opened in the summer of 1995, giving drivers the opportunity to navigate all the way from Barracks Road to Rio Hill without putting a tire on Route 29. While the road keeps changing its name along the way– Georgetown to Hydraulic to Rio to Berkmar– it does provide a real alternative to 29.
On September 25, a steering committee that includes county Supervisor Sally Thomas, City Councilor Kevin Lynch, a VDOT official, and nearly a dozen others heard public comment about what's happening to Hillsdale.
It's the seniors and neighbors who prefer the no-build option. (All routes can be seen on the website at hillsdaledrive.org.)
"It will bring too much traffic and noise to where people live," says Brookmill neighborhood resident Carl Brackett. "You're still going to have a bottleneck when you get to Hydraulic. It's not really going to relieve congestion."
Brackett questions why, if the Connector has been in the works for years, the Pepsi plant was built in its path.
Supervisor Thomas, an admitted user of the Kmart bypass, asks the same thing.
"We're amazed the City allowed the Pepsi plant to go in the middle of what was assumed to be the parallel road," Thomas says.
"When it's private property, you can't stop people from building on their property unless you acquire it," responds Satyendra Huja, Charlottesville director of strategic planning.
Thomas isn't alone in condemning city traffic planning. Seminole Square shopping center may be popular with shoppers, but its official entrances all come from one direction: Route 29.
Seminole Square broke ground in 1982, the last developable tract bigger than 10 acres in the city. In 1976, the site was eagerly eyed by Fashion Square Mall developers, until its rezoning from residential to commercial fell through. "City Council wouldn't approve it," says Huja. "Some people thought if they ignored it, it would go away."
Fashion Square did go away– up the road and into the county, a mistake on the city's part, believes Huja.
"It's unfortunate the city did not have the foresight for regional planning 25 years ago with Seminole Square," says Frank Cox, planner for future across-the-road neighbor Albemarle Place, which has a cut-through road planned and paid for by the developer [see sidebar]. "The Hillsdale project is on the public dole," says Cox. "Poor planning leads to sufferance by the taxpayer."
A Seminole Square shopper is even harsher. "I've lived in a lot of cities, and this is the worst laid out city I've been in," said a woman heading into MacGregor's Antiques who declined to give her name.
"I don't want to be that harsh on the city," says Albemarle senior planner Michael Barnes. "When that project was built, putting in a grid network wasn't in vogue with planners."
Peter Thompson, executive director of the Senior Center, sits on the Hillsdale steering committee and has become the voice for the seniors. He considers safety and the street parking the Senior Center will lose if Pepsi Place becomes part of the connector to be the two biggest issues.
"There's a serious critical mass of seniors who live here or use this neighborhood," Thompson says. "While many of our seniors could outrun me, many will need more time in the crosswalk."
"Part of the challenge of having these meetings at the Senior Center is that it's very convenient for the neighborhoods concerned with traffic to come in and voice their displeasure," says Lynch, who didn't expect as much opposition from the nearby Branchlands neighborhood.
Lynch says the project has the highest priority from the city. "I can't say it's a done deal," he says, "but it has a lot of momentum."
Although relations between city and county have turned contentious over a stoplight Charlottesville has agreed to install at the new Best Buy superstore near Angus Road, the two governing bodies agree the Hillsdale Connector is needed. Almost $5.7 million has been earmarked for the road, which could break ground as early as March 2005, according to Lynch.
He favors Option C, which goes through the beige heart of Seminole Square, the shopping center that many people believe "created" the Kmart cut-through.
"When you see cars queuing up to drive through Kmart," says admitted cut-through user Lynch, "to me that's a pretty good sign they could use better access."
Option C's pluses are that it avoids Meadow Creek and it uses existing roads like Pepsi Place, Zan Road, and Line Drive, scooting traffic around the vacant Terrace Theater to end at Hydraulic across from Dominion Power.
The downside? It takes out part of the north wing at Seminole Square. The north wing includes such businesses as MacGregor's Antiques, Enterprise Rent-a-Car, Sprint, and Mutt's Pub.
"I didn't know anything about it," says Suzanne O'Leary, an owner of Pet Forum, one of the businesses in that strip. "Our location is a huge part of our business because the shopping center does really well, and people going to Giant stop here while they're doing their errands. We wouldn't be happy if we had to move."
"Obviously, if we had our preference, we wouldn't want to disturb existing buildings," says Chuck Rotgin, spokesperson for the shopping center. "But this is an extremely important road for the community, and we will be prepared to do what's necessary to accomplish it."
Rotgin's firm, Great Eastern Management, was one of the developers of Seminole Square and now manages it. A steering committee member, Rotgin doesn't think it's appropriate to speculate which stores would face demolition under Option C.
"We don't know which option will be chosen," says Rotgin. "That's hypothetical at this point. There are too many variables– rights of way, the creek issue."
However, Option C seems to be getting an "A" in a lot of camps. And while the steering committee is required to consider all options, two of the others pose environmental concerns. Option A makes two crosses over already-troubled waterway Meadow Creek.
Option B– which runs behind the shopping center– crawls close to the Meadow Creek flood plain. Lynch would oppose A and B. And both of those options would force relocation of portions of the Rivanna Trail.
Lynch thinks Option D, which runs behind the Pepsi plant, is "doable," but putting the connector closer to 29 is the better plan. And even though Option C will also affect the Regal Seminole parking lot, the theater gains visibility. "That's a real plus," notes Lynch.
And how do the folks at Kmart feel about losing the steady traffic flow in front of their store?
"We need traffic," says store manager Steven Belcher, "whether they're going to Kroger or the gas station. The only time I have a problem with it is rush hour– from about 4 to 5:30. The rest of the time it's not bad, and on weekends it's no problem."
What input has Kmart had on the Hillsdale Connector? "You're the first to ask," replies Belcher. "I know they're putting it in, but I don't know the details. They've got so many projects. I don't have any comment."
Rotgin approves of the fact that the extension will allow someone to travel all the way from Albemarle Square to Kmart and Kroger without having to get on U.S. 29. And he notes a similar parallel road network is planned on the west side of 29 at Albemarle Place.
How did it happen that a developer like Rotgin and an environmental guy like the PEC's Werner, who opposes Rotgin's North Pointe development, ended up on the same side, advocating a new road?
Parallel roads seem to draw unlikely supporters. Lynch, too, says, "People have made that accusation against me– that I'm against roads." But he lists the virtues of Hillsdale: "It doesn't affect green fields, it doesn't encourage growth, and it helps traffic," arguments, he says, that can't be made for the Meadowcreek Parkway.
He envisions a two-lane road with a roundabout that could knock five to ten minutes off Charlottesville Transit's Route 7 bus trip. And if you throw in sidewalks and medians, the extension "will have a slower feel than the existing Hillsdale."
The Senior Center and neighborhoods will be keeping a close eye on the project. "If the road is designed well, we'll be thrilled," says the Senior Center's Thompson. "If it's designed poorly, we won't be– to put it mildly."
The north wing at Seminole Square: May one day be drive-thru service? PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO