Several years ago, the Belmont Bridge, in the heart of Charlottesville (and the terminus of Monticello Road), was deemed structurally deficient. That analysis was performed by the firm, MMM Design, that would be tasked to design a replacement. That's an apparent conflict of interest but it's true that the eye-ball test confirms that the structure is in terrible shape and is a Robert-Moses-era eyesore in the heart of a beautiful small city.
The community widely rejected a an MMM proposal to replace the structure with a carbon copy and a citizens group, called Project Gait-Way, initiated a process that yielded an alternative that included an auto underpass and a foot bridge. City Council was to vote on one of the two directions; I spoke in their chambers and was misquoted in the C-Ville Weekly as endorsing the underpass. I was offered an op-ed to clarify my thoughts. Note: the vote was tabled, changing the session into a hearing.
I was misquoted in the lede of last week’s brief, “Underpass gets public support as Council delays Belmont Bridge vote.” I appreciate the opportunity to clarify my thoughts.
The Gaitway team has done a tremendous service. They’ve shown that we can have better design that is imaginative, bold, forward-looking and—yes—iconic. What a refreshing change from the lameness MMM had proposed! The citizenry has seen a new standard and we now know that is what we deserve. No going back.
But that does not necessarily mean that we should build the underpass, even if it contains those traits. Along with advantages, the plan contains some fundamental flaws. The team does a terrific job of mitigating most of them, but those solutions often make the vision even more difficult to execute.
Take the chief work-around: the pedestrian bridge. No one would even consider the design without it, yet it is not budgeted. I’m all for bike/pedestrian mobility but if we’re going to employ serious financial wizardry, this is not even the most strategic connection we could go for. For example, Monticello and the Rivanna are higher-impact, currently broken, links in the same price range; while an appealing multi-modal crossing would render the Belmont pedestrian bridge redundant. Or what about the middle school renovation that’s perpetually on hold for want of capital? Talk about a gateway!
I would have loved to see what the team could have done with an enhanced bridge. They were tasked with that and worked on it for about five minutes then dropped it (or were dropped) to focus exclusively on the underpass. I've heard stories from both sides about why but it doesn’t matter. This is a rare opportunity and we need our best minds on the whole project.
Based on what we’ve seen, that might not include MMM for this phase. They may be fine engineers but they’re clearly not imagineers or even urban planners. Gaitway or a team like them should seriously explore bridge concepts that embody the new standard of excellence that we now expect. An independent group, free from conflict of interest, should audit both schemes using transparent, matching, criteria.
This should not be a false choice between creativity and a pothole-ridden bridge. It’s about getting the best outcome that approaches consensus by being ambitious yet really smart with our limited resources. That is the genius that we deserve.
Monticello Road is a community arts project in Charlottesville, Virginia. Through photography and a series of public events and conversations, we explore how an art can be an essential, integral and everyday part of a healthy community.
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Thursday, June 26, 2014
Thursday, June 5, 2014
The 4th Grade Photo Club documented the school and its neighborhood. The School has been the core of Sebastian's realm and he has thrived in that arrangement. (Photo: Sebastian Krebs)
“I am both happy and sad,” said Sebastian at bedtime, four days before the end of fourth grade and of his tenure at Clark Elementary School. I told him that sounded about right. The neighborhood school is a sweet little nest that he is now ready to leave—as he should be.
Meantime, it’s been a victory lap of celebrations of what the kids have accomplished together—field day, talent show, concert, dance performance, art exhibition, basketball game versus the teachers, awards, trip to DC and a step-up ceremony. It’s a cheerful gauntlet worthy of a Superbowl champ but there will be tears because these youngsters are coming to understand that life only flows in one direction.
We bought the house specifically because it sits across the street from the beautiful historic school and its community playground. We enrolled him in kindergarten at the first opportunity and every morning since Sebastian has sprinted out the door so he could be waiting when the doors open. We actually have to restrain him at times so he won’t be a nuisance. Fortunately the librarian caught on and managed to harness his enthusiasm for some help shelving books or catching up at the circulation desk; it just encouraged him to try to go even earlier.
The school and its grounds are the center of his life; after spending all day there he dashes home, drops his enormous backpack (full of important primary school things), hits the bathroom and goes roaring back to the playground. We have a New Years Eve party horn that we blow real loud when it’s time for dinner. He runs back like a mystical wild horse, then back afterward until darkness hides the basketball rim. He has a defined realm.
Wonderful as it has been, Clark is not a fake fantasy world. Sebastian has certainly heard more stories of struggle and woe than I had at his age. There were some tragedies that were completely random and others of the harder reality that you can see coming a mile away. Healing is a shared endeavor and the there are enduring signs of it in the gardens, on the walls and all around.
And yet. It’s a joyful, loving community full of singers, fabulous dancers, little brothers and sisters plus a few amateur rhetoricians: a place where the kindergarten teacher (star among stars) would make an excellent President. The staff is enthusiastic and well motivated, always very focused on the kids. They give and give and treat each student according to their needs.
It definitely feels like a family and the best knowledge Sebastian will take away is that ours is a world where everyone is different but with love and patience and listening we can all learn and grow together. He has succeeded academically too. Although testing has its drawbacks it’s a truly gratifying to have data that affirms that all is as good as it seems—sometimes even better.
Belmont is so great in large part because it has this huge energetically beating heart contained in a jewel box right in its geographic core. I’ve worked hard to know the community and this blog flailingly attempts to sketch it out but that school is where the most actual community engagement is happening.
I could spend hours (more than I have) talking about the amazing teachers, field trips, gifted program, afterschool clubs or the surprising fellowship around the breakfast table (we allow him an occasional “second breakfast” at school). The impression that I think will always last is of three kids walking down Monticello Road one evening with their mother. They were siblings ranging from Sebastian’s size to a toddler and all piped in unison “Hey Sebastian!” Smiles followed with an understanding of what a neighborhood school is all about.
Sebastian has learned to be a part of the human family: loving, decent, striving for something better together. And we have been blessed to walk along with him.