Sunday, April 22, 2012

Charlottesville VA: Public Property for the Privileged

When we moved to Charlottesville in 1998, the famed Downtown Mall was a pleasant place to visit.  You could sit on a bench, enjoy the view and not spend any money unless you wanted to.  Then suddenly there was nowhere to sit.  Where there had once been benches for public use, there were outdoor restaurant tables, roped off, for the use of patrons only.  I'm not talking about sidewalk tables, although there are those too.  I'm talking about the entire central space of the pedestrian mall--public property--taken up by restaurants.

There is a tiny cluster of chairs for the public in front of Timberlake's drugstore. If you can't find a seat there, but want to rest your legs, you must be a paying customer in a restaurant. Or you can just sit on the ground like the panhandlers.

Source: via Danielle on Pinterest

There's also the issue of access to public sidewalks on and around the Belmont bridge.  Belmont, for readers who don't know Charlottesville, is the neighborhood immediately south of downtown.  For many years it was a poor neighborhood, literally the wrong side of the tracks.  Then young professionals--Jon and myself included--started buying and restoring the old houses there and Belmont became the darling of the real estate agents.  It was charming, it was hip, it was walking distance to the Downtown Mall.  Belmont is actually cut off from downtown by the railroad tracks.  The only way to walk from Belmont to downtown is to cross the Belmont Bridge.

The Belmont Bridge is a concrete behemoth that skirts the east end of the Downtown mall.  It's out of scale for a small town like Cville, and it has been allowed to deteriorate to the point that we need a new bridge, barely fifty years after this one was built.  I've seen waffle irons that lasted longer than that.

My running route crosses the Belmont Bridge.  One day I noticed a hole through the full thickness of the sidewalk.  It was mildly amusing to see the train tracks through the hole as I jumped over it. In other spots, the concrete was crumbled, but easily traversed.  Soon a flimsy makeshift barrier was erected to keep pedestrians off the sidewalk on the east side of the bridge.  This was annoying, but any reasonably agile person could get around the barriers and continue to use the east sidewalk, which is what I did for the next several months until the city spent $15,000 to build a permanent fence that irrevocably keeps pedestrians off the eastern sidewalk of the bridge.  We will not have access to a sidewalk on that side of the bridge until the new bridge is built, which could be as much as ten years from now.  The fence has been up for nearly a year and the city is no closer to picking a design for the new bridge.  Indeed, they are possibly further from picking a design than they were last year because the winning design of the A school's contest is to eliminate the bridge altogether, which has generated even more debate and controversy.

The only people who need this sidewalk are the residents of Belmont.  Can you imagine the outcry if the affluent neighborhood north of downtown lost 50% of its sidewalk access?  If it's unthinkable for North Downtown, why is it acceptable for Belmont?

Yes, the Downtown Mall is on the west side of the bridge, so many of us would be crossing Avon St. anyway, but there are reasons why we might want to stay on the east side.  My bank, for example, is on the east side, so is a popular car repair place, and numerous doctor's offices.  And my running route.  Now I am forced to cross busy Avon St. four times.  Not only that, whenever there's a concert at the Pavilion, I have to dodge around the pedestrians who are clogging up the west sidewalk, whereas before, I could happily run on the east side, unmolested.  This weekend, running during Fridays after Five, I was forced out into the street because of people who wanted to walk three abreast and refused to make room for me.  I was out for a run after the Doobie Brothers concert last year and two drunk concert goers on the sidewalk put out their arms to prevent me from getting by and grabbed at me as I ran past.

It's not easy to cross Avon St. either.  It's difficult to cross at the Garret St. traffic light, for reasons too lengthy to explain in this already wordy post.  The city installed those HERE COMES A PEDESTRIAN MOTHERFUCKER embedded lights in the crosswalk a little further on, but many drivers ignore them.   When I press the button to activate the lights, someone blows through them about 40% of the time, and I don't count drivers who are already so close to the crosswalk they don't have time to stop.

But what about the sidewalk on the west side of the bridge? It too is crumbled and dangerous and I noticed the other day that the concrete had been patched.  Why couldn't the city have patched the east side?  Anyway, from the top of the bridge, on the west side, is a nice little sidewalk that pedestrians can take to the Downtown Mall.  It runs past the Charlottesville Pavilion.  Whenever there is an event at the Pavilion this public sidewalk is blocked by a security guard and pedestrians (mostly Belmont residents) are forced into a long detour down to Market St. and then over several blocks.  Why is a private venue is allowed to restrict access to a public sidewalk?  My search for laws regarding sidewalk access brought only results about access for people with disabilities.

I know this is a very long, complaining post, but I think it's important to point out that public property is for the use of the public, not for the exclusive use of the privileged.  In this context, I use "privileged" to mean people who are inclined to get an outdoor table at a restaurant or pay the entrance fee to whatever event the pavilion is hosting.  It's not that I can't afford to eat in restaurants or attend festivals. It's just that I shouldn't have to if all I want to do is sit down in a public space or use a public sidewalk.

Don't think I am irrationally opposed to outdoor tables at restaurants.  I like getting an outdoor table as much as anybody but other cities I've lived in and visited manage to provide true public spaces instead of roped-in playpens and outdoor tables.  The Downtown Mall feels more and more like it's for customers only, and depriving Belmont residents of their sidewalk for the next ten years is an outrage.


  1. This sounds SO frustrating--and connects to the bigger issue I wish people and their elected officials would consider: What do you want your community to BE like? Do you value green spaces? A thriving downtown? Libraries? Parks? Schools? Public transportation? Garbage pick up? Without a clear vision and a hodgepodge of laws that get passed without rhyme, reason or CLUE about a big picture, we continue to lose connections and deteriorate our standard of living.

    Think I could rant on this much? You betcha!

  2. Rant away.

    The Pavilion gets away with blocking the sidewalk because CC owns so freaking much of downtown and shows at not just that venue, but his other venue, The Jefferson, pull in so much traffic to all the restaurants downtown. It's money, pure and simple.

    And what is with the A-school students jumping in the mess? Their design is a great idea, but no way is anyone going to go for moving the Pavilion over to Ix, first and foremost, all the downtown businesses that make so much money off the shows there.

    There are some benches down by the ice rink, for what it's worth.

  3. The whole Downtown Mall enrages me: the parking, the twee stores, the lack of anywhere to sit, and the general feeling I get that people without lots of money to burn aren't wanted.

  4. better out than in......maybe you could rally the locals??!!

  5. A few counter points...

    1. The Downtown Mall has always been a commercial district, is far busier that it used to be, and there are now more successful businesses there. I disagree that this is a problem. It was different 10 years ago, and even more so 20. But things change, and in this case for the better.

    2. A lot of the people sitting on the Mall are people enjoying the Mall for free just like the people strolling about, and the people using the available benches. They are not all panhandlers.

    3. If you go to a commercial district with no money, you are left to people watch, stroll, and enjoy the free music and art. Hell, you can even get laid for free. I don’t even know what you’re complaining about. Drop a few bucks on a margarita once in a while. Are you saying a drink on Miller's patio is out of your league?

    4. Yes there are bad drivers here...on earth.

    5. It is unfortunate it may take 10 years to replace the bridge but that is what happens in a town where everyone's interests and desires are weighed. But this is also why we enjoy the quality of life we have.

    The only complaint you have that I agree with is the bridge situation.

    If I had my way I would tear the bridge down and replace it with a simple RR crossing. That could be done quickly, cheaply. and it would encourage walking and cycling. It would also remove the architectural barrier (and difficult incline for some) to the downtown mall.

    Yes, the traffic would be stopped occasionally, but there are many RR crossing in Cville that are just fine. Also, think of the delays during the years of replacement bridge construction and tell me there's a real difference if you amortize over the decades.

    Then, since we are a generally progressive lot, I hope you agree with me that in 10 years we should not still be destroying mountaintops in WV and moving the coal through town every day. If we eventually take our environment seriously, the coal traffic will cease or be so severely diminished that making a bridge will have been a waste of time and money.

  6. Becky, thanks for the tip about the benches near the ice rink. It seems I'm mostly on the eastern half of the mall and don't see them.

    Anonymous, I agree with you that thriving businesses are a good thing. And of course, a place that is called a "mall" is expected to be commercial. I can easily afford to eat out on the downtown mall and often do so, but I also go downtown for regular errands. If I just want to sit for a minute before my walk home, I should be able to do so without having to consuming calories I don't want. I've been to other cities that have thriving restaurants and public spaces. Rome, for example. You can sit on the steps of the fountain in a piazza, enjoy constant free entertainment, relax, and pop into a bar for a coffee or a snack if you want one. Maybe what we really need is to reevaluate our open container laws and not put people into playpens just because they happen to be drinking a beer.

    I would be thrilled if coal were no longer used as a fuel and the mining stopped. I was intrigued by the idea of taking the bridge away, but I've decided it's hopelessly impractical.

  7. I was down on the mall with my daughters. I got icecream for my kids from chaps and sat in the "open area" only to have people smoking at each table. I took my daughters over to empty tables (all of them empty) at a restuarant close by to finish our cones. The restuarant hostess actually came out to tell us we couldn't sit there. Pretty sad if you ask me...... I'd say we might just need some more benches..

  8. We sort of like staring at the people at the expensive outdoor tables in our town and checking out their food. It's like a people zoo.

    And, as for the rest of the piece, let's just sum it up: MONEY TALKS.

  9. You aren't really comparing Charlottesville to Rome, are you?! :)

    And I'm interested - why you think removing the bridge entirely is hopelessly impractical?