Cedar doomed: Election keeps 7th Street open

The final notes of the Fridays After 5 concert series had barely faded when contractors began the massive overhaul of the east end of the Downtown Mall.


The last Fridays was October 1, the concert shell disappeared a few days later, and chainsaws dispatched a ring of nearly 20 Bradford pear trees around the perimeter of the amphitheater on October 13.


The first obstacle: the 2004 presidential elections.


Seventh Street was supposed to close the following day, but planners didn't fully take into account Election Day. Charlottesville Registrar Sheri Iachetta was worried about voters being able to get to her office to turn in absentee ballots– not to mention access to the city's Recreation Center.


Recreation is Charlottesville's largest precinct. On November 2, election officials will bring voting machines outside for people who are 65 or older, but the machines can't go farther than 150 feet from the polls. "Market Street Garage clearly wasn't going to work," for parking, says Iachetta.


Too many obstacles to get to the polls? "That's all the Justice Department needs to hear," says Iachetta. "The city was very proactive in keeping access open until after the election."


The amphitheater is already on a tight schedule to open by next spring. Hearing that Seventh Street wasn't going to close as planned was "a bit of a surprise," says Ken McDonald, who's in charge of the project for developer/DMB manager Coran Capshaw.


"It changes the start date a little, but right now we don't see it as an impact," McDonald says. "We know you can't do anything to hinder a national election."


The inevitable closing of Seventh Street has prompted some interest in opening another mall crossing at Fifth Street. In 1996, the city opened Second Street.


Bob Stroh has informally surveyed members of the Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville.


"Speaking personally, I think it's important to have some access from the north side of the mall to the south," he says. Once Seventh Street closes, Ridge-McIntire and 10th streets will be the only ways to head south.


"Thirteen blocks is a huge difference to get around the mall," says Stroh. "People don't see it yet, but they will after the election."


The city looked at a Fifth Street crossing during mall master plan discussions two years ago, says planning chief Jim Tolbert. And a temporary Fifth Street crossing will open by permit only for deliveries to businesses once the Holsinger condo construction begins at Fifth and Water.


Any plans for a permanent crossing? "Not at this time," says Tolbert.


The crossing at Second Street could play in favor of opening Fifth Street, Stroh believes. "Now we know that's a success, not a disaster," says Stroh.


North-south access isn't the only casualty of east mall construction. For Delegate Mitch Van Yahres, there's a personal loss: a huge Cedar of Lebanon.


Van Yahres planted it in the late 1950s or early '60s– after the Belmont Bridge and before the mall were built. The Cedar of Lebanon was to be the city's permanent Christmas tree.


He'd like to see the approximately 50-year-old tree moved– or at least a process in place before removing trees.


"It's going to come down," Bill Letteri, Charlottesville's facilities chief who's in charge of the project, says bluntly. He estimates it would cost $50,000 to move the tree and says there's a high degree of risk it wouldn't survive.


"I don't think it's a practical or prudent use of taxpayer dollars," says Letteri, who suggests private funding as the only way to save the cedar.


"Landscape architects don't have any sentimentality," arborist Van Yahres complains. "They can always replant.


"It's a pity it couldn't be designed into the project," laments Van Yahres, who thinks the decision to chop should be made by City Council.


So what will the man who cast the deciding vote to build the Downtown Mall do the day his beloved Cedar of Lebanon dies?


"I'll cry," he replies.


Last tree standing: Other trees around the amphitheater got chopped last week. Designed to be Charlottesville's Christmas tree, the half-century old Cedar of Lebanon's days are numbered.