Denied: Planners nix mall crossing
Ever since Seventh Street closed more than a year ago, businesses on the east end of the Downtown Mall have been clamoring for a replacement crossing. The Charlottesville Planning Commission voted 7-2 against the merchants' request January 10, and the decision to open a crossing at 4th or 5th streets is headed to City Council.
"We were disappointed at their lack of attention to the needs of the business community, reflected in our signed petition and in the support of our regional Chamber of Commerce," says Bob Stroh, co-chairman of the Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville, which spearheaded the request and presented 165 signatures in favor of a new crossing.
Stroh is perturbed that he was not allowed to speak at the Planning Commission meeting, and that the application was presented by city planning chief Jim Tolbert. "I should have been considered the applicant in this," says Stroh. "[City staff] had already made a decision they didn't support it. I was uncomfortable with that."
Tolbert had not returned phone calls from the Hook at press time.
Stroh also is bothered that some of the Planning Commission members did not attend a November 15 public hearing on the crossing. "Twenty-one people spoke, and 18 supported it," he says.
Cheri Lewis was one of the two commissioners to vote in favor of a new crossing. "It was hard to ignore the petition from Downtown Mall businesses and residents who overwhelmingly supported a safe crossing," says Lewis. "The Downtown Mall is not a public park. It only thrives if businesses thrive. If you ignore them, it may recede to what it was in the mid '80s."
Planning Commission Chairman Karen Firehock insists she takes the petition seriously, but voted not to recommend a crossing because "it's not in accordance with the city's comprehensive plan."
Firehock agrees that the mall can be difficult to find, but says, "We did not have the data to show that the lack of a crossing has caused the business decline that has been told to us."
She wants to see if improved signage and the end of transit center and Holsinger construction make the east end more accessible.
The commission approved a second resolution to review the impacts to businesses in 12 months, and it also wants to study whether reversing the traffic direction on Second Street would more readily direct people to the Water Street Garage.
"Downtown businesses are the lifeblood of the mall, and we need to make sure that they can function and thrive there," says Firehock.
"I'm still dealing with local people who just found us," says Sage Moon owner Morgan MacKenzie-Perkins, who says it's difficult to get deliveries to her gallery.
She calls the Planning Commission decision "arbitrary," and argues that the city needs to consider businesses as well as pedestrians. "People in Charlottesville say they want mom and pop stores. They have to support them."
"City Council has the right and responsibility to review this decision," declares Stroh. That will happen February 6, when the business owners' resolution to open an east-end crossing goes before the councilors.
A majority of councilors say they're ambivalent about the crossing. Mayor David Brown says he takes Planning Commission recommendations seriously, but hasn't made up his mind. Blake Caravati, who supported the Second Street crossing, and Kevin Lynch, who opposed it, are also now in the undecided camp. The Hook was unable to reach Rob Schilling by press time.
Only Kendra Hamilton ventured a hint of how she might vote. "I don't think crossing the mall represents the decline of western civilization," she says. "The crossing on the other end of the mall works fine."
Hamilton mentions a summer she once spent in Boulder, which has a downtown mall. She didn't find the car crossings at every intersection an impediment to her enjoyment of the pedestrian experience.
However, "I don't approve crossing the mall to the tune of $1 million," she warns. Consultants have estimated that the cost of a crossing at 5th street could range from $880,000 to $970,000.
To Stroh, the decision is simple. "We're back to the same mantra: We're asking them to restore a crossing we had at Sixth and Seventh streets. We're not asking for something new."
Lines are being drawn as the decision on a 4th or 5th street mall crossing heads to City Council.
FILE PHOTO BY COURTENEY STUART