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

Underpass or Bad Bridge: a False Choice

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.

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