Slow crossing: City delay irks merchants

Back in May, the Downtown Business Association asked the city to open an east-end Downtown Mall crossing to replace the 6th and 7th Street crossings closed a year ago when amphitheater and transit center construction began.

Merchants are still waiting, and the city is in no hurry to grant their wishes.

Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville co-chair Bob Stroh wrote a letter November 26 urging City Councilors to "take immediate action" to approve the 5th Street crossing that his organization wants, that city consultants recommended, and that a majority of speakers at a November 15 public hearing supported.

"We believe the reopening of an east-end crossing is vital to the continued economic health of this area of the Mall," wrote Stroh. "We hoped and expected a speedy hearing."

Any hopes of a crossing for the holiday season were dashed when the Planning Commission postponed a decision to allow for more study. It will take the issue up again at a work session in January.

"We have not received official information from the city so we can make an informed decision," says Planning Commission Chair Karen Firehock. And while she does not offer an opinion on the DBAC's request, "In the past, I have not been a fan of Mall crossings," she says.

The city hired consultants Rummel, Klepper and Kahl last spring to study a Mall crossing. Its October report is on the city's website, and it was in the package that went out to the Planning Commission, says city planning chief Jim Tolbert. "There are some engineering questions they wanted answered," he says.

Vice Mayor Kevin Lynch has attended work sessions on the Mall and agrees there are concerns about visitors being able to find and circulate around the area– but he's "ambivalent" about whether a Mall crossing will achieve those goals.

"I think [the merchants'] concerns are valid, but I'm not sure their solutions are the right solution," he says.

While the consultants peg the cost of new pavement stripes and signs for 5th Street at $5,000, their engineering report calls for an ambitious makeover that includes utility under-grounding, drainage improvements, new curbs and sidewalks– a smorgasbord of upgrades that would run the cost into the $880,000-$970,000 range.

Lynch advocates smaller steps, such as better signage and parking, and visual clues on side streets, such as banners, so people can tell they're at the edge of a pedestrian paradise.

"I would caution against plunking down $800,000," he says. "If the purpose is so visitors can find parking, I think we should spend a few tens of thousands on signage. If it's so visitors can find the Mall, it's more prudent to spend tens of thousands for consistent banners or consistent light fixtures or visual clues like brick crosswalks."

He adds, "There's a lot we can do besides spending $800,000."

City staff has added $500,000 as a line item to a draft of the capital improvement budget "so if they decide to do it, the money is there," explains Tolbert.

Lynch warns that upcoming repairs on the Belmont Bridge could clog a Mall crossing with bumper-to-bumper traffic and adversely affect the pedestrian ambience.

While delivery trucks already have limited access at 5th Street for loading and unloading, a pedestrian claims she was nearly run down by a car crossing the Mall there last week, and wonders if a second crossing has unofficially opened.

No, says Tolbert, "but there are people who've done it illegally."

Indeed, Antics proprietor Amy Lemley says, "We see 10 to 15 cars a day drive up 5th Street. They're confused. They back up onto Water or they drive on through across the Mall– and some are going pretty fast."

As confused motorists will no doubt continue to drive illegally across the bricks, merchants are eager for the Planning Commission to make a decision.

Stroh, whose office is in the Market Street Parking Garage, points out that the two previous crossings have been closed for a year without a replacement plan. "Not a day goes by but someone comes to the garage and asks how you're supposed to get around the Mall.

"The business community has a responsibility to customers," Stroh says. "We feel an urgency. I'm not sure City Council and the Planning Commission feel that urgency."

$880,000 to let cars cross here? They're already crossing.