Mall double-cross: Merchants want easier access

Ten years ago, developer Lee Danielson's demand for a Downtown Mall auto crossing beside his Regal Cinema ignited controversy and fears that Charlottesville's vaunted pedestrian mall– the longest in the country– would be ruined.

Today more people than ever flood the mall– and another crossing to circulate traffic may be looming. A group of downtown merchants are doing some circulating of their own: petitions in support of opening either Fourth or Fifth streets.

"We don't see it as a new mall crossing," says Quilts Unlimited/April's Corner owner Joan Fenton. "There was always one at Sixth and Seventh. This is replacing that."

Plans for the new amphitheater and transit center on the east end of the pedestrian walkway permanently closed Seventh Street in November, eliminating access from Market Street to Water Street across the mall proper.

"People from Richmond or Louisa go to the Market Street garage and find it full," says Fenton, who co-chairs the board of the Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville. "They can't figure out how to get to the Water Street garage."

Fenton is not impressed by Charlottesville's boast of the longest pedestrian mall in the country. "There's a reason," she says. "The others have figured out why crossings are needed."

"Basically what the city's done is block access from the north side to the south side from Ridge to 10th Street," says fellow co-chair Bob Stroh. "That's not worked for customers coming downtown."

Stroh and Fenton have approached city councilors and staff, and hope to present signed petitions to the council after budget work is done in mid April. The auto idea seems to have some traction with City Council– even with Kevin Lynch, the man who shot to fame in 1994 by leading the anti-crossing effort.

"It's an idea that probably warrants a closer look," says Lynch, now a councilor and vice-mayor. Lynch says he initially opposed the city's east end amphitheater and transportation center plans because they closed Seventh Street. "I wanted to preserve the Seventh Street crossing and access to the post office and City Hall," says Lynch.

"The Second Street crossing has worked better than I would have expected," he acknowledges. Still, he says he hasn't really changed his position on letting cars traverse the Downtown Mall (and he credits that to Second Street's shortness). "I certainly wouldn't support opening a street because one person demands it," he says.

If another street is to open, Lynch wants community discussion.

And he has a suggestion: "If we open one, it makes more sense for it to be Fourth Street, because that opens the Warehouse District so you can get better traffic flow."

City planning has already engaged the services of a traffic consultant, says planning chief Jim Tolbert. Having been contacted by the Downtown Business Association, "I thought we'd go ahead and take a look at it," he adds.

But City Council makes the final decision.

Not everyone among the Downtown Business Association's 77 members is convinced a new crossing will end their financial woes.

"I'm not sure what it would do," says Elizabeth Hurka, owner of a shop called the Cat House on Fifth Street. "I could get exposure from someone who'd say, 'There's the Cat House.' But they can't stop or park in front of the shop." And she worries about exhaust fumes from vehicles idling in front of her shop.

Businesses on the east end of the mall have lost 300 customers a day, according to Hurka, and she puts the loss of the Fifth Street parking lot as the culprit, even more so than the closure of Seventh Street.

"We lost a ton of business on this end of the mall," she says. "We don't have any walk-by traffic. And no one can park on our end of the mall."

The Water Street garage has plenty of capacity, and Bob Stroh, head of the Charlottesville Parking Center, wants people to know, "If you want to park downtown, you'll find a space."

"A huge number of people refuse to park in garages for whatever reason," counters Hurka. "The more inconvenient the city makes it, the less people are willing to come downtown."

Some pedestrian mall purists object to any new crossing. If Fifth or Fourth streets are opened, "Then they'll want one for the Paramount so their high-priced ticket payers can be dropped off," predicts Marilyn Berard. "You may as well revert to the old way and have parking on the mall."

Even 10 years later, Berard doesn't think the Second Street crossing was necessary. "It's wrong that was opened in the first place," she says.

She wants the east end of the mall to go back to the way it was with the Seventh Street crossing. "Get the street by the Post Office open," she instructs. "That's the way it should be."

But Fenton is convinced a new crossing is needed for both a safety and visibility standpoint. "To me, it's more of a hazard watching trucks and cars back up on those half streets than using a mall crossing."

So far, merchants clamoring for a new Downtown Mall crossing haven't brought the howls of protest Lee Danielson drew 10 years ago with a similar plan to open Second Street.