Cross to bear: Heated debate over Mall access

Citing slumping sales and sagging fortunes at the east end of the Downtown Mall, downtown business owners asked City Council on Monday, May 16, to consider a second permanent vehicle crossing.

"We're not adding anything new," says Bob Stroh, president of the Downtown Business Association. "We're basically asking for what the city took away."

There's no doubt that east end business owners have been feeling the pinch since construction began on the new amphitheater/transit center project last fall, closing Sixth and Seventh streets in the process.

In mid-December, Council approved a temporary vehicle crossing at Fifth Street to facilitate deliveries to east end shops, but it's not enough, business owners claim.

A second permanent crossing is needed, says Joan Fenton, owner of Quilts Unlimited, who was among a group of business owners presenting Council with a petition requesting a southbound crossing at either Fourth Street or Fifth Street.

A study by engineering consulting firm Rummel, Klepper & Kahl LLP found that a crossing at Fourth Street would be less expensive than one at Fifth Street, in part because of the cost of undergrounding utilities.

But critics say the real expense of a crossing on either street won't be measured in dollars.

"It's inviting disaster," says downtown resident Richard Berman. "It's doubling your chances of somebody getting hurt."

He's referring to the crossing at Second Street, which opened in 1995 following fiery public debate. Opponents of the crossing feared it would destroy the pedestrian nature of the Mall, while proponents– most notably developer Lee Danielson– argued that the visibility and convenience the crossing provided for businesses (including his new Regal Cinema and the Charlottesville Ice Park) were invaluable.

Stroh cites the success of that crossing, and believes the fears of its initial critics have not materialized.

"You know what that's done for the west end of the Mall," he says. "We'd like to have those benefits" at the east end as well.

Berman, however, says he'd like to see the Second Street crossing closed down.

"I'm waiting for the first person to be killed," he says. "I've had to jump a couple of times with cars or motorcycles that don't even stop and want you to get out of the way."

Marilyn Berard (wife of Hook cartoonist Don Berard) is also concerned about the safety the Second Street crossing, and sees the potential for disaster in the addition of an east end crossing near the Discovery Museum.

"If people are relaxed and strolling the Mall, they have the liberty to let their kids run wild," she says. With a new crossing, "They have to be on guard. I know people are careful, but it's still a concern."

But one pedestrian activist says the trade-off for a second Mall crossing is well worth it.

"I think it's a tempest in a teapot," says Kevin Cox. "I don't think it's going to matter a whole lot, and if it improves traffic flow and makes the Mall more accessible, it will be better."

Mayor David Brown and Councilor Kevin Cox both say there will be plenty of opportunity for public input before a final decision is reached.

"I'm still gathering information and waiting to hear from constituents," says Lynch. "We've just put the report out... so I certainly haven't made up my mind."

Brown says he's "open minded" about a second crossing and is "very sympathetic to the stresses that the businesses have been under." The Planning Commission will consider the issue at its June or July meeting and will hold at least one public meeting before returning the issue to Council for a vote.

"To some degree, putting it on our agenda last night was a way of bringing this to people's attention," says Brown. "There will be ample opportunity to be heard."

Delivery trucks already cross Fifth Street; is a permanent crossing next?