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Planners back proposed Emmet-Barracks improvements

Charlottesville planners on Tuesday backed an initial proposal to improve the intersection of Barracks Road and Emmet Street.

The Planning Commission voted 6-1 to recommend that the City Council support moving forward with the final design of the project during its meeting. Commissioner Jody Lahendro cast the dissenting vote.

The in 2019 city received $8.6 million from the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Smart Scale program to perform updates to the intersection. The state funding does not require a local match.

An average of 23,000 vehicles travel north on Emmet Street and 13,000 go west on Barracks through the intersection each day, according to Brennan Duncan, the city’s traffic engineer.

“This corridor has serious problems and we should improve it,” said Commissioner Lyle Solla-Yates.

The project will include a pedestrian refuge island, a small section of concrete allowing walkers to stop halfway through a crossing, in the medians of Emmet and Barracks on each side of the roads. The existing Charlottesville Area Transit stop would be upgraded with a bus shelter.

It would include right-turn lanes from northbound Emmet Street onto eastbound Barracks Road.

Westbound Barracks would have four lanes at the intersection, of which two would be dedicated left-turn lanes.

The road would include a 10-foot multiuse path with a 3-foot grass buffer between the road and a retaining wall. It would stretch from Hessian Road to Hilltop Road.

The project isn’t expected to reach final design until summer 2021 and construction would begin in spring 2023.

Several people spoke against the project, mostly saying they are worried about the impact on the tree canopy in the area, while some were concerned about traffic on Barracks. A few people supported the proposal and said it would improve cyclist safety.

The Planning Commission received a letter in opposition to the project on Monday from the law firm Flora Pettit, which is representing a group of nearby property owners including Tim Heaphy, counsel for the University of Virginia and author of a city-commissioned report on the white nationalist violence in 2017.

On Tuesday, city staff sent a response memo to the commission that said the letter had “several inaccuracies” and picked each of them apart.

A main point of contention in the letter was the retaining wall along the shared-use path. Opponents said it would cause significant damage to the tree canopy by taking out roots. The letter also contended it would reach 10 feet in places with an average height of 3 feet.

However, the city memo points out that the maximum height will be 7 feet with an average of 3 feet. The memo also says that the retaining wall does less damage to the canopy than moving forward without a retaining wall. The latter option would require “significant excavation” on nearby properties, the memo says.

The letter also claims that Timmons Group, which helped design the proposal, doesn’t support the grass strip between the shared-use path and the road, which the city memo says is false.

Finally, the letter says that a shared-use path would lead to collisions between bicycles traveling in opposite directions and between bicycles and pedestrians.

The city memo says that cyclists traveling downhill will be encouraged to stay on the road and points out that the 10-foot path meets federal guidelines for a two-directional shared-use path.

Heaphy said during a joint public hearing with the City Council on Tuesday that the project would take out an important part of the neighborhood.

“There’s been a proposal that there would be replanted trees, but we’re concerned that it wouldn’t be able to replace the tree canopy that’s unique to that corridor,” he said. “This kills trees for the benefit of a very small, 3-foot buffer strip.”

Joseph Kett, who is also represented by Flora Pettit, called the proposal a “near-holocaust of the trees” in the area.

Jay Hightman, who said his daughter was killed while biking in New York City and his other daughter has been hit twice by cars in Charlottesville, said the proposal would be “a great improvement.”

He said trees can be replaced, but biker safety shouldn’t be sacrificed.

“A lost life cannot be replaced,” he said.

City resident Jake Mooney said the area is “one of the most dangerous places to bike in the city.”

“It’s a corridor that’s inhospitable to anybody who doesn’t live there,” he said. “Without a bike path, it’s a beautifully wooded road that nobody can traverse without a car.”

Commission Chairman Hosea Mitchell stressed to the crowd and panel that its job was only to review if the general character of the proposal fit within the city’s Comprehensive Plan.

Commissioner Gary Heaton said the proposal was a step in the right direction for improving safety in the area. His only problem with the plan was a lack of “creativity in traffic calming.”

Lahendro said the shared-use path stops at Hilltop Road and called that “irresponsible.”

He said Timmons needs to provide more information about the impact on the trees if the buffer wasn’t included on the shared-use path. He felt the proposal fell short of some of the goals in the Comprehensive Plan.

“I’m very disappointed with what I see here,” he said.

Kyle King, Charlottesville’s transportation program manager, said the city is planning to improve bicycle use in the area beyond Hilltop Road.

Harris Street Apartments

In other business, the commission supported a planned development on Harris Street.

Cville Business Park LLC, which is owned by developer Keith Woodard, is seeking a special-use permit for the mixed-use development.

The proposed six-story building would sit on 2.4 acres across three parcels at a sharp turn near Allied Street and McIntire Road.

The permit is required because Chris Virgilio, a development project manager for Woodard Properties who is handling the development, wants a density of 43 units and two more stories than allowed under the industrial corridor zoning.

By-right regulations allow four stories and 51 units on the property.

The building would have retail space, up to 105 residential units and underground parking. Access to the parking area would come from both Harris and Allied streets. The access off Allied Street would be at the end of the dead-end cul-de-sac.

The preliminary site plan calls for the developer to widen the sharp turn on Harris Street.

The property is adjacent to McIntire Plaza, which Woodard primarily owns.

City staff recommended approval with conditions on parking, building height and a traffic study of the area.

The plan doesn’t indicate how the developer will comply with affordable housing requirements. Virgilio said the company is interested in either option of providing units on site or contributing to the affordable housing fund.


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