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Charlottesville approves pedestrian footbridge over Emmet, near UVa

Charlottesville City Council has given up the air rights to allow for a new pedestrian bridge over Emmet Street, one that holds the promise of providing a more accessible and attractive gateway to the University of Virginia’s Central Grounds.

The council approved at an Oct. 3 allowing the new bridge, which would replace one built in the 1960s. The current bridge has the dual detriment of linking a blank brick wall to a blank stone wall, and also requiring everyone to navigate one hill and 27 steps. That, obviously, excludes wheelchair users.

By contrast, the new bridge will be flat and link Newcomb Plaza, one of the university’s more popular gathering spots, to a planned rooftop garden atop the highly anticipated, under-construction Contemplative Commons.

"It’s a seamless connection for pedestrians," said UVa Architect Alice Raucher. "It’s going to be an incredible artery."

She declines to put a price tag on the bridge, though she notes that an alumnus named Jeffrey C. Walker has donated $5 million toward its construction. She can’t break out the bridge cost, she explained, because it’s an integral part of a larger project: the under-construction Contemplative Commons, which will cost $67.1 million in total.

For about a year, the 57,000-square-foot building for this project has been forming on the former site of three basketball courts and a parking lot at the south edge of a pond area called the Dell.

This new bridge over Emmet is actually just one of at least three, maybe four, planned spans. After someone crosses Emmet Street from Central Grounds, they would find themselves on the third floor of the Contemplative Commons, in an open-air garden with trees reminiscent of a renowned bit of pedestrian parkway in New York City.

"It’s like a very small portion of the High Line," says Raucher.

From there, if a pedestrian chose, they could continue on towards the first-year residences via an additional trestle that will land near The Castle, a restaurant in the base of the Bonnycastle dormitory.

An ambler might also turn onto a new spur bridge, which terminates at a planned plaza between the two main education school structures, Bavaro and Ridley halls. Or, someone could detour to absorb waterfront views from the greenery-laden Contemplative Commons.

"It’s going to be a beautiful building," says Raucher, "and this is gonna be a game-changer for connectivity."

In addition to currently requiring negotiating stairs at both ends, the existing pedestrian bridge pushes walkers toward relatively drab locations. On the east side near a car-dominated road by Brown College, there’s a windowless stone retaining wall; the west side is an equally unfenestrated brick wall at Ridley (formerly Ruffner) Hall.

"It drops you into something that’s not a desire line," says project planner Connie Warnock.

The new bridge, by contrast, will emerge from an edge of Newcomb Plaza. That’s a popular pedestrian mixing bowl between UVA’s bookstore and its main dining and student center, Newcomb Hall.

"It’s not just a through-way," notes Warnock. "It’s a place to be."

She says the Contemplative Commons will likewise draw students and locals for sessions of yoga, meditation and mindfulness, as well as interdisciplinary classes sponsored by various departments.

"This is kind of a mixing ground where everybody can come and enjoy these facilities," says Warnock.

While rushing people through is clearly not the goal, a flat bridge will surely attract bicyclists, skateboarders, and other micro-mobility users to a bridge that’s two feet narrower than the current one.

That can create dangerous conflicts. In late September, a high-level administrator at Illinois State University died after getting stuck by a cyclist in a pedestrian plaza.

Warnock says signs will be posted urging riders to dismount, although she contends that the bridge’s 12-foot width is generous enough to handle scofflaws.

The bridge gets its flatness in part by starting slightly lower on the eastern hillside, where workers have already begun excavating the approach.

Standing there and looking down at Emmet Street, which will be 23 feet below the bridge at completion, the ancient geography is evident. Emmet is so much lower than the adjoining UVa Grounds because a natural waterway called Meadow Creek carved this terrain.

Although UVA has in recent years daylighted parts of the waterway, this stretch remains buried in culverts under Emmet Street. But the ancient carving is what makes this planned pedestrian bridge an outlier in efficiency.

Other pedestrian bridges force walkers up and out of their way for the benefit of passing motorists. This notion reached a deadly climax in March of 2018 when a pedestrian bridge designed for the flat terrain of Florida International University collapsed onto cars, killing six people during construction. Critics noted that reining in the underlying eight-lane road might have been a safer and more sustainable option.

Toward those ends, Charlottesville and UVa have recently been working together with a $12 million state grant to build a variety of improvements to the north of the Creative Commons, in the so-called Emmet Streetscape project. Utility relocation has already begun and, over the next two years, the stretch from Ivy Road to Arlington Boulevard will gain bicycle lanes, a shared-use path, bus shelters and handicapped-accessible crosswalks, plus the shade from dozens of newly-planted willow oaks and Allee Elms.

And, thankfully, unlike officials in Florida, UVa’s contractor plans to close Emmet Street for installation of the new pedestrian bridge.

"I walk everywhere, so anything that can help make it easier getting around is gonna be super nice," said first-year student Dade Miura as he paused on the existing pedestrian bridge on a recent morning. "And also I think going straight into a building is gonna be nice."

"We take this bridge almost every day," said his friend, fellow first-year Declan Morrill. "I think that any pedestrian access to new study spaces is perfect for the school, because we can take all we can get."

University project manager Sarita Herman says the old bridge has developed maintenance issues and will be demolished at some point after the new bridge opens. Additionally, she says, the new bridge will be kept clear in winter with an integrated snow-melt system, something the existing bridge does not have.

Herman estimates that the project will open slightly over a year from now, some time during the next fall semester.

She says that design of the Contemplative Commons is a collaboration among Charlottesville-based VMDO as the architect of record, along with San Francisco-based Aidlin Darling as the design architect, and Charlottesville-based Nelson Byrd Woltz as the Landscape Architect.

$40 million of the $67.1 million cost for the project comes from a gift by hedge-fund manager Paul Tudor Jones and his wife Sonia Klein.


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