The Belmont Bridge replacement project designed in part to boost foot traffic and benefit businesses in the neighborhood may end up killing one instead.
Quality Pie on the corner of Avon and Graves street in Charlottesville opened in 2018. For nearly five years, it’s been serving an assortment of pastries, pies, sandwiches and the tapas that owner Tomas Rahal became known for at Mas, another Belmont restaurant he opened in 2003.
Rahal, who left Mas and has focused his efforts on Quality Pie, doesn’t know how much longer his new operation will stay in business.
“I just don’t see how we make it through,” Rahal told The Daily Progress.
The city says it has offered assistance to businesses such as Rahal’s.
“The City focuses its efforts to ensure access is maintained to businesses throughout construction,” Jeanette Janiczek, the project manager for the Belmont Bridge construction, told The Daily Progress via email.
As part of that assistance, the city has offered grants for signage. In Rahal’s case, he said the city offered a sign that would be erected near the Monticello Avenue exit off Interstate 64 more than a mile away.
“Marketing isn’t the answer,” said Rahal, who suggested the city should consider compensating for lost business.
Quality Pie has remained open for business throughout construction on the new Belmont Bridge, but it doesn’t always look like it. Several regular customers told The Daily Progress they had assumed the restaurant had closed, either temporarily or for good.
Some days, Rahal said, trucks with the construction crews working on the bridge completely block the entrance to his parking lot, keeping customers out.
On a recent Friday morning, there were only a couple of customers at the restaurant. Mary Evans, a server, greeted them by name. Rahal said the place should have been packed.
Rahal’s neighbors in Belmont don’t appear to be struggling nearly as much.
Even after a Jan. 8 shooting in so-called downtown Belmont left one person dead and another injured, other restaurants – including the Local, Mockingbird, Southern Crescent and Tavola – have been booking reservations and filling their dining rooms.
Those restaurants, however, are insulated within Belmont and do not front construction as Quality Pie does.
And that makes all the difference, according to Rahal, who said construction is not just hurting his business but may kill it entirely.
That construction started roughly a year ago.
Built in 1962, the Belmont Bridge was initially given a lifespan of about 50 years. A little over 60 years later, the bridge is now nearly demolished, and one of two main replacement spans is already carrying pedestrian and vehicle traffic.
But there is still at least one more year to go before construction is completed, according to the city.
In the meantime, Rahal said he’s lost 40% of the business he had before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the construction on the bridge. His staff has shrunk from 15 people to three, and he hasn’t paid himself in four years.
Trying to make ends meet, Quality Pie has expanded its to-go offerings and started serving dinner on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. Still, it’s not enough to catch up, Rahal said. He said he’s just been trying to pay down the restaurant’s debts. He said he hasn’t been able to think about expanding the business.
Rahal and his regular customers have inquired about the city providing compensation for lost business, citing similar discussions that were had between businesses and nearby Albemarle County during the construction of the grade-separated interchange at U.S. 29 and Rio Road.
According to the county, that compensation never came to be.
“We looked at the sales data and there just wasn’t much of an impact,” Emily Kilroy, assistant to the county executive, told The Daily Progress.
There was little effect on businesses because the construction happened at night, with only some small machines moving in and out of the area during the day, Kilroy said.
It should be noted, construction on the Belmont Bridge happens largely during the day.
There’s a disconnect between the city’s decision-making and the businesses it affects, Rahal said.
“Their design and execution process doesn’t include the human component,” he said. “As this project staggers forward, we’re not part of the planning process.”
City Council required that the new bridge be built with a list of criteria, including making the bridge “innovative and entertaining,” according to the project’s website. It also specified that the bridge have one lane of traffic in each direction, a speed limit of 25 mph and improved pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure.
The city created a steering committee to guide the design process for the Belmont Bridge replacement project. That committee included residents from neighborhoods affected by the construction and one person designated as a “business representative,” according to the bridge project’s website.
The city’s economic development office also offered money to help businesses advertise during the construction. But much like the signage near the interstate, Rahal said that marketing is not what his business needs; it’s compensation.
According to Janiczek, the bridge’s construction will ultimately benefit Quality Pie and other Belmont businesses.
“The design and execution of the project was driven by the need to maintain access during construction and improve access after construction for both the traveling public and the current/future businesses within the project area,” she said.
But Rahal said Quality Pie needs support now.
“We were just kind of gobsmacked that they didn’t have any money in their budget to help the businesses survive this experience,” Rahal said. “We recognize the need for a new bridge. But we didn’t ever consider the fact that we’d have to sacrifice our investment in our business.”
He’s also had additional costs. He said Caton Construction Group, the company the city hired for the bridge project, crushed a storm drain near Quality Pie. July and August saw heavy rainfall, and since the water had nowhere to go, the restaurant flooded three times.
“We had customers bailing us out,” Rahal said.
Janiczek denies that Caton crushed a storm drain.
“An old structure was replaced – a change in plans – to ensure a proper connection could be established with the new stormwater piping near Quality Pie,” Janiczek said.
Rahal said he spoke to the building’s previous owners, the proprietors of the long-gone Spudnuts coffee and doughnut shop, to see if the place had ever flooded during the roughly 50 years they owned it. They told him no, Rahal said.
For Rahal, all of this is indicative of a city that neglects its small businesses, even as it earns revenue from them.
“This could easily have become a Starbucks,” Rahal said. “They really just don’t care.”
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