The Plan to Avoid a 'Canyon' on Charlottesville's Growing West Main

Nov 16, 2017

The center of Charlottesville hosts a major university, student housing, residential areas and of course, businesses large and small serving all of them – and suffering from growing pains.  WMRA’s Peter Jump looks at this juggling act of development along West Main Street -  the corridor between the university and the city’s downtown.

In the Oscar-winning documentary March of the Penguins adult penguins travel hundreds of miles in unison enduring extreme cold to reach breeding grounds and then feed and protect their young.  The university end of Charlottesville’s West Main Street is less than a half-mile long. But, it’s a bustling half-mile as construction cranes march along erecting shiny medical buildings, upscale hotels and luxury apartments that promise undergraduates quote “lavish living featuring poolside cabanas.”

Charlottesville’s march of the cranes -- expanding the university’s footprint -- has not gone unnoticed by local officials and residents, including many who want to see a more balanced approach to development at the other end of West Main - the half-mile of the street closest to downtown.

In 2012 the city created a panel of stakeholders to advise on urban design. Out of that grew a Streetscape Improvement Plan for the twelve blocks at the downtown end of the street.

Blue Wheel Bicycles owner Scott Paisley was a frequent participant in the process. While he laments the large-scale construction near the university he praises City Councilor Kathy Galvin and others for recognizing the need for the city’s oversight to catch up with the changes on West Main.

SCOTT PAISLEY: The streetscape of West Main is sort of a secondary consideration. The process began with a lot of input from the Place Design Task Force and Kathy Galvin with the recognition that with all the permits being put in for these large structures like The Flats, The Standard, etc., that West Main Street was going to change radically and the code for the city of Charlottesville was not up to the scale of what was being proposed, and we see developing now a series of structures that can create a terrible canyon effect for West Main Street.

The portion of West Main covered by the plan is in the Starr Hill neighborhood. Brad Worrall is a 13-year resident.  While concerned about large-scale development, he praises efforts to repurpose buildings, such as the Classical Revival style railroad station built in the 1880s and the Main Street Market, formerly a car dealership.

BRAD WORRALL: Some of the smaller buildings, even some that I don’t particularly like aesthetically are contributory to the visual landscape and I think that some of the development of the last 15 years that has really incorporated existing buildings - repurposing buildings - that have some unusual elements has been a real positive.  Razing buildings to put up six-story hotels is to our architectural and cultural detriment.

Charlottesville City Council approved the streetscape improvement plan in March 2016 and approved a design plan in May of this year. The $31M project covers a 12-block long section of the street and includes storm water improvements, the burying of utility lines, more trees, and better bike lanes. And a new road configuration at the east end of the street- the end closest to downtown - will create a public plaza, at the center of which will be the existing Lewis and Clark statue.

One of the long-established businesses toward the east end of West Main is the Albemarle Baking Company. Owner Gerry Newman wants the street to be more open and businesses to be more visible, although he’s already noticed many changes in the last few years including the use of the street by people working at the university and its hospital.

GERRY NEWMAN: Incrementally, there’s been change. The change that’s come, there’s a lot more foot traffic on the street and that’s really nice, and there’s a lot of people that move back and forth from the east side of town that come to work over here. So the awareness of Main street as a thoroughfare and a main artery are really alive, but it’s started to go through a lot of changes architecturally and developmentally that promise to be good for business.

The goal of the streetscape design is to create – in the words of the plan’s consultants – a more equitable approach to development for pedestrians, cyclists and motor vehicles. Meanwhile, large-scale projects – including a six-story apartment building that will wrap around an existing diner, and across the street an upscale hotel with a rooftop bar similar to those at the hospital end of street -- are now coming to the downtown end.  Nearby business owners and residents are hoping these and other large projects will not endanger the pedestrian and cyclist-friendly neighborhood the streetscape plan calls for.  Time will tell.