Parking congestion and storm water problems in The Square, along with the traffic implications of developing the former Barnes lumberyard beyond it, are forcing a resolution of longstanding issues that appear likely to result in the heart of town being turned into a one-way street headed eastward. That will allow angled parking in front of the stores and along the track fence as well as curbing and wider sidewalks.
Business and property owners on The Square joined county lawyers and planners at King Family Vineyards August 23 at a meeting convened by White Hall District Supervisor Ann Mallek to gauge businesses’ willingness to accept a new traffic pattern.
Constrained and frustrated by present conditions, business leaders showed little reluctance over the concept. Its implication is that traffic will be allowed to enter The Square from Crozet Avenue, but could only get back to it by exiting through Library Avenue, where, at some point, a traffic light will be needed.
Joel DiNunzio, Virginia Department of Transportation’s chief for the Charlottesville residency, said that he would leave the present light in place to serve pedestrians needing to cross, but that the light would not otherwise regulate traffic once the intersection of Library Avenue and Crozet Avenue is controlled, probably initially by a 4-way stop sign set-up. He said that he is confident that a signal system will ultimately be required there.
DiNunzio said the problem at The Square now is that cars backing out of parking places are tripping the signal.
The meeting began with surprising news for the business owners. W.C. Winkler of Fardowners started off by asking who has responsibility for the sidewalk. The answer was that Albemarle County actually owns a 15-foot wide strip in front of the stores, beginning at their very walls, that has the sidewalk and the front half of parking spaces on it. The prevailing understanding had been that the 15-foot strip was created to ensure access to the lumberyard and that it belonged to the lumberyard. But assistant county attorney Andy Herrick announced that an investigation of deeds found that the strip was created in 1947 and belongs to the county. Combined with the quit claim deed negotiated with CSX railroad in 2011, the county now acknowledges ownership of all The Square up to the fence erected by the railroad, and thus fixing it is the county’s problem.
The Square also has VDOT right-of-way and railroad access easements governing it, and Mallek’s next step is to approach Buckingham Branch Railroad to see if the proposed change is agreeable to them, too.
Mallek turned to county transportation engineer Jack Kelsey, who had prepared a drawing showing the various interests at play in the street and where their access corridors lie, and asked him to undertake preliminary studies for how The Square should be redesigned. The county has no plan or budget for such a project, but the first step will be to learn what would be entailed.
DiNunzio said that ordinarily when an older easement is replaced by a more modern one, the older one is vacated and thus persistence of the 15-foot strip is “an unusual situation.”
“Why are we paying to [snow] plow county property?” asked Scott Stinson owner of the corner building that is the home of The Mudhouse coffee shop. He said he agreed with the “right-in” change and did not think that “right-out” was feasible. Winkler and Rick Ruscher of Crozet Hardware also agreed to the “right-in” solution.
The staggered layout of the intersections of Tabor Street, Jarmans Gap road and Library Avenue with Crozet Avenue was raised and Di Nunzio said, “It’s very difficult to get intersections so close to work together.”
Stinson suggested coordinated signals at Library Avenue and Jarmans Gap Road.
DiNunzio said that studies predicted that such signals would not be necessary until 2028 and that meanwhile it would be better to direct traffic coming from the Park Road neighborhoods to travel up High Street to its proposed connection with Library Avenue. He said another option would be to make Tabor Street “right-in, right out,” which would end left turns from it onto Crozet Avenue.
Lumberyard developer Frank Stoner asked about a 4-way stop at the library.
“It’s possible it could work,” said DiNunzio. “A signal is not necessarily the right thing to do. A signal there would also create gaps at Jarmans Gap Road to allow its traffic to move.”
He said that angled parking in The Square would be safer and not change the number of available spaces. A one-way street would also allow for a wider sidewalk.
Brenda Plantz of Parkway Pharmacy called the sidewalk “the issue” because it typically puddles up in front of business’s entrances during rains.
DiNunzio said VDOT will accept responsibility for10-foot-wide sidewalks if they are required by county rules (which they are in the downtown district) but that the sidewalk must be entirely within the right of way.
Planning Commissioner Jennie More said she thought that a one–way traffic solution was good but that it would put traffic pressure on Oak Street (a 40-foot right of way that’s now a gravel road), which would be drivers’ first opportunity to connect with Library Avenue. Current plans for the development show Oak Street being turned into a parking lot.
Winkler also raised the problem of where dumpsters could go. Stinson said, “The county owns everything up to my building. I have no place where I can put a trash can.” A communal location in the rear alleys seems necessary.
Mallek wanted to know if there was agreement about what message to take to the BBRR. Business owners complained about the railroad’s access gate, which takes up six parking spaces. “Why do they need that entrance?’ said Plantz. “They have never used it.” Winkler said that was his experience, too, and Ruscher nodded agreement.
Stinson raised the possibility of chopping down the town’s traditional Christmas tree, which occupies two spaces, and establishing it in a new location such as the proposed plaza.
Charlotte Dammon, who owns two vacant lots next to the pharmacy that are commonly parked on, asked about a timeline for improvements.
Mallek said first arrangements with Buckingham Branch must be made and second a road plan into the lumberyard has to be finalized.
County attorney Greg Kampner raised the possibility of transferring the county’s ownership to some other entity, perhaps a nonprofit such as Claudius Crozet Park or the Crozet Board of Trade, that would become responsible for maintenance. “Should the county invest if it’s going to be conveyed?” he asked. “That would raise the price.”
“It’s like we would need a condominium owners association that has maintenance responsibility,” said Stinson.
“Why can’t the county maintain The Square?” asked Stoner.
“Because the business owners have not demanded it,” offered Stinson.
Plantz noted, “This is the first time the county has said it owns the sidewalk.”
“This is brand new for us also,” said assistant county executive Greg Walker.
Stoner said that downtown needs a long-term plan for parking, “including structured parking.”
Stinson agreed that The Square needs more parking, too.
Mallek said that new buildings on the lumberyard should include underground spaces where possible.
Stoner said business owners on the Square should take an interest in how it will connect with the proposed plaza, which is now in the early stages of design.