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Charlottesville street-closing proposal to fight virus has languished for a month

For more than a month, Charlottesville officials have been sitting on a plan to partially close streets to make social distancing easier for cyclists and pedestrians.

The city’s traffic engineer and bicycle and pedestrian coordinator presented a plan on May 5 to close or partially close five streets for a pilot program aimed at increasing recreational safety amid the coronavirus pandemic.

City Manager Tarron Richardson has been reviewing the plan ever since, according to city spokesman Brian Wheeler. Richardson declined to comment further on Friday about any concerns with the proposal or when it might be adopted.

“I have not heard anything back from them at all,” city traffic engineer Brennen Duncan said of the City Management Team. “We haven’t heard anything about this since we sent it to the city manager’s office.”

Planning Commissioner Rory Stolzenberg called the plan a “no-brainer thing to do during a global pandemic.”

The plan calls for a weeklong modification to portions of five streets to allow cyclists and pedestrians to safely social distance. The streets are Belmont Bridge/Ninth Street Southeast; Shamrock Road/Trailridge Road; Westwood Road; Franklin Street; and the John W. Warner Parkway.

The city would use existing materials and staff to implement the plan. Areas would be closed with cones and, assuming that 10% are damaged, cost about $600.

“What we were looking for was lower-volume streets that were close to parks or could be easily implemented,” Duncan said. “We were trying to work with what we’ve got.”

Some of the factors that led staff to choose these roads were their access to parks, residential density, equity, topography and traffic volume.

As traffic volumes have declined due to the pandemic, cities across the country have started partially or periodically closing streets to allow an increased number of cyclists and walkers to keep a safe distance.

Duncan said that the plan was proposed as a pilot program to see how well it worked and gather community input on if and where it could be expanded.

Keeping the streets closed for a week rather than a day or few hours would reduce the likelihood of a large number of people flocking to it.

“What we don’t want to have is all of town showing up to play on a personal roadway that’s suddenly open for a long hour,” said Peter Krebs, community organizer with the Piedmont Environmental Council, which has been lobbying the city and Albemarle County to implement such plans.

On Belmont Bridge/Ninth Street Southeast, the plan says that only one side of the road has a sidewalk and people have to step into the roadway to pass each other. The proposal calls for closing off a portion of the vehicle lane next to the bike lane to add five feet of extra space.

The second area would create the Shamrock/Trailridge Loop by closing a lane of travel and parking. The loop would be bordered by Shamrock Road, Trailbridge Road, Highland Avenue, Village Road and Antoinette Avenue and the closure would allow 17 feet of open area.

Closing parking would have “minimal impact” because most homeowners have driveways. The area is also easily accessible to Orangedale, Prospect Avenue and Bailey Road.

On Westwood Road, one lane would be closed to create a one-way street. Part of the road doesn’t have a sidewalk so the plan would create a safe walking area and connect to the McIntire Park trail network.

A similar proposal is presented for Franklin Street, which would close one lane and be open only to local traffic. The area connects to a mobile home neighborhood and the Carlton View Apartments.

On the John W. Warner Parkway, a half-mile section is proposed to close near the U.S. 250 Bypass.

The closures were proposed to start May 15, but Duncan said the plan would still work. He pointed out that social distancing measures are likely to continue through the fall as treatments are tested for the coronavirus.

“No one knows what the future holds but a lot of experts are saying we’ll be in the same spot in the fall,” he said.

It’s unclear when, or if, the plan will be approved.

Krebs said projects like the one proposed promote healthy living amid the pandemic.

“We’re doing this to create more space for social distance,” he said. “COVID has given a whole new meaning to what it means to be safe.”


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