Park beech: Sidewalk threatens tree

Constitutional expert A.E. "Dick" Howard has been invited to weigh in on disputes all over the world. Now, he's found a little civic contretemps in his own neighborhood.

Howard and his wife, Mary, have lived at the corner of Park Street and Northwood Avenue since the 1960s. There's no sidewalk along the 200-foot Northwood side of their property, and their neighborhood association wants one to enhance the area's walkability.

However, the Howards, owners of many specimen plantings– including a beech tree that Mary Howard calls "probably the finest" in Charlottesville– question whether a sidewalk is necessary, and they worry it will threaten the shallow-rooted beech that shades that corner.

But among some neighbors, there's a perception it's a little late in the game for the Howards to try to debate the merits of a sidewalk that has been in the works for over a year.

Before a March 25 meeting of the North Downtown Residents Association, one neighbor wrote the city requesting confirmation that "the issue of whether or not to build a sidewalk is moot, and that Dr. Howard will be so informed before the NDRA meeting."

The issue pits two cherished images of Charlottesville: a pedestrian friendly urban center versus an ecologically correct green space.

"A sidewalk needs to be balanced with other considerations," says Howard, a law professor, "such as the impact on trees and the retention of groundwater."

If a sidewalk must be built on the already narrow Northwood and the city says it will be– the Howards would like to see some permeable material used, for instance, a curb with a green walkway.

"I think it's a wonderful opportunity for the city to look at alternatives to concrete," says avid gardener Mary Howard. "All over Europe they use permeable pavers."

The timing may be right for that. As a result of the Clean Air Act, the city has a task force to study whether storm water can be captured on site rather than whisked away via storm drains.

"We're looking at a potential ordinance change to protect the city's streams," says task force chair and planning commissioner Karen Firehock.

Charlottesville's comprehensive plan, updated in 2000, calls for interconnected sidewalks, but Firehock says she's intrigued by Dick Howard's suggestions to consider alternatives to concrete. At a North Downtown Residents Association meeting March 25, some proposed the term "pedestrian way" rather than "sidewalk" for more flexibility.

"The neighborhood association supports the idea of walkability and pedestrian access and connectivity," says North Downtown Residents Association president Chad Freckman. "What form it takes– I don't think people are too hung up on that."

Construction of any walk would come from the city's capital improvement program, which allocates block grants to projects that neighborhoods feel are de rigeur.

"It's the number-one priority of the North Downtown Residents Association, and we're moving forward with it," says city planning boss Jim Tolbert, who notes that the strip along the Howards' property lies entirely in the public right of way.

"We were told the sidewalk would be four-foot-wide concrete," says Mary Howard. "Some are worried if it's different from concrete, it would set a precedent and cost the city money. I don't think it's a bad thing to set a precedent if it's something better."

"We're open to anything," says Tolbert. "It depends on if they have a plan that's acceptable to our engineers."

The planning commission will look at alternatives May 11.

"The trick is, we do have standards, and we do have to maintain city sidewalks," says Firehock, "but we can still be creative and that doesn't mean it can't be done."

The sidewalk issue has some citizens wondering why a street in one of the city's priciest neighborhoods with one sidewalk already– is in line to get another, when streets elsewhere in the city have no sidewalks

Pedestrian activist Kevin Cox favors building as many sidewalks as possible, but he questions the city's allocation of resources.

"There are places in town with no sidewalks at all, and pedestrians use the street," he says, citing Chesapeake Street in his Woolen Mills neighborhood. "Why not get at least one sidewalk on streets like Chesapeake?"

Individual neighborhoods decide how they want to spend the $60,000 the city allocates for capital improvements.

"Sidewalks are expensive," says city planner Mary Joy Scala. "The $60,000 may not go as far as you think." Big sidewalk projects have to queue up to get on a city list that's funded every three years, according to Scala.

Back on Park Street, Freckman calls an environmentally sensitive approach that greens up the neighborhood a "win-win situation."

"Our interest is not parochial," says Howard. "It could inspire other streets."

And save a few more trees.

Save the beech: A proposed sidewalk off Park Street has residents exploring alternatives to concrete.