Streetcar desire: Road rail our next big thing?

In Tennessee Williams' play A Streetcar Named Desire, the vehicle, like all good literary metaphors, is both real and a symbol. It brings the brutish Stanley Kowalski home with his slab of meat and delivers the fragile Blanche Dubois to her sister, Stella, but it's also an image of urban progress and of the movement away from dying agrarian societies like the one Blanche is forced to abandon.

Likewise, the streetcar that local urban visionaries are imagining for Charlottesville is both real and a symbol. It would be a cool way to get around and it would connect the Corner and the Downtown Mall, but it also represents a vision of the future.

"The streetcar is going to shape West Main," says local architect Gary Okerlund, who along with fellow planner Maurice Cox first came up with the streetcar idea about five years ago.

"Yeah, we like streetcars, they're cool," says Okerlund. "But this is really about coming up with a good way to develop West Main. It's about what the future of Charlottesville will be."

"The streetcar will structure Charlottesville's growth for the next 25 years," declares Cox, who believes that realizing the streetcar is for his generation of urban planners what realizing the Downtown Mall as a pedestrian area was in the seventies. Will the streetcar usher in a new era of urban development? "Without question," says Cox.

In case you haven't noticed, there's a strong desire among our urban planners to build streetcar tracks down West Main Street. Last year, the Alliance for Community Choice in Transportation (ACCT), a local alternative transportation advocacy group, commissioned a study to access the feasibility of a streetcar down West Main and flew a group of local architects, developers, politicians, and city planners to Portland, Oregon for three days to check out that city's new streetcar system. The group also visited the streetcar system in Tacoma, Washington.

Among those who went along for the ride, 23 in all, were Okerlund and Cox, Mayor David Brown, city councilors Kevin Lynch and Rob Shilling, former councilor Meredith Richards, architect Todd Gordon, and C-ville newshound John Borgmeyer.

The expensive field trip was paid for by ACCT with a $100,000 grant from the Blue Moon Fund, a locally based alternative energy foundation (one of the spin-offs from the former W. Alton Jones mega-foundation).

Spearheaded by Cox, who helped secure the grant, the trip was an attempt to seduce some of Charlottesville's movers and shakers into supporting the streetcar idea. In addition, Cox helped lay the groundwork for denser, vertical development along West Main (i.e. high-rise condos, baby!), which Okerlund says is key to making a streetcar system work. In September 2003, during Cox's mayorship, the Charlottesville City Council rewrote the city's zoning laws to allow for such pedestrian-oriented development.

Of course, Portland, a city of nearly three million, would seem a curious model for Charlottesville, whose entire population wouldn't even fill Scott Stadium. "We would be the smallest city in America to have a streetcar," admits ACCT executive director Alia Anderson. "But the experts we've worked with say it's not about population, it's density that matters."

Indeed, the trend toward "density" here has already turned Charlottesville into a kind of pretend-city– all the great city-type stuff without all the people. What was once a quaint outdoor music venue at the east end of the Downtown Mall has become a kind of miniature Sydney Opera House in terms of design ambition. What was once a struggling community theater, LiveArts, now anchors an avant garde art center with an ambitious schedule.

ACAC is building a wellness oasis to rival those in any metropolitan mecca. And then there's the new $10 million Transit Center, the new Paramount Theater, another huge stadium at UVA, and talk of building another hotel on the Downtown Mall, and you have yourself a... well, let's call it a dencity.

A year after the Portland excursion, Charlottesville is no closer to having a streetcar, but our urban visionaries are still at it. Recently, their ambitions went on display in the form of an exhibit at the Charlottesville Community Design Center that imagined Charlottesville 20 years in the future. Again, ACCT was behind the effort, sponsoring Okerlund, Cox, and a group of UVA architecture students to create a design scheme for the streetcar project.

Although ACCT's Anderson says that everyone found the streetcar idea interesting, another issue dominated the discussion during the series of presentations of the exhibit. "Parking is a big issue," says Anderson. "Parking, transit, and transportation– you can't have one without consideration for the other. Right now, we have a parking 'plan' for the West Main corridor, but no real strategy."

Still, such obstacles haven't deterred streetcar aficionados. In a recent story in the Cavalier Daily, Cox declared that the city could be just five years away from operating streetcars.

Okerlund– who puts the cost at $10 to $12 million per mile– admits that the practical realities of funding and building a streetcar system will be tough to overcome, but he emphasizes the need for long-term thinking. "The city needs to understand that it's not an expenditure, it's an investment," he says.

But what about the free CTS trolley? Wouldn't a few more trolleys like that, running between the Corner and the Downtown Mall, work just as well?

"Buses don't work," says Okerlund. "People don't use them, and they get stuck in traffic."

That may be true of city buses, but the trolley (technically a bus) has been a hit with many riders. According to Charlottesville's new Transit Improvement Study, more people ride the trolley route than any other city route, nearly 1,080 riders a day. At night, the trolley accounts for 40 percent of all CTS ridership. In addition, people like Lynch, an alterative transportation advocate, think the trolley system could be further improved with more frequent routes and a system allowing them to travel in sync with traffic lights.

Again, Okerlund cites improved access and economic stimulus as potential streetcar benefits, but he also points out something that Tennessee Williams would probably agree with. "It's also, very frankly, image," he says. "It's about their design impact. A streetcar becomes a piece of architecture itself."

Indeed, it's undoubtedly true that half the reason Williams chose the streetcar to serve as his primary metaphor was that it was so romantic and cool.

Call it Desire, and have it come clanking into the opening scene carrying the play's tormented heroine, and you have a literary classic on your hands. Unfortunately, metaphors are not as well behaved in real life.

Call it a "piece of architecture itself" and have it come clanking down West Main Street carrying a few dreams for Charlottesville's urban future, and there's no telling what you'll get.

"The people in Portland we spoke to were so proud of their street car," says Okerlund, elaborating on the power of its image. That may be so, but before Charlottesvillians can be proud of theirs, they're going to have to desire one first.

Can you imagine it? This photo simulation shows an imagined streetcar pulling up in front of the LiveArts building on Water Street.