February 22, 2021: Charlottesville Council still wants more info on West Main

  
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What is 10 times 15? What about 1,200 divided by eight? 75 plus 75? The answer is 150, which is also the correct response to how many times now has there been an episode of Charlottesville Community Engagement. It is February 22, 2021 and I’m your host, Sean Tubbs. Thank you for reading, and please let me know what you think.

On today’s show:

  • Events could return to the Charlottesville Pavilion this summer if the pandemic recedes

  • Charlottesville City Council will wait to make final decisions on proposed capital improvement program projects, keeping West Main Streetscape project alive 

  • City Council hires local law firm to represent its interest in upcoming legal hearing on recreational uses at the Ragged Mountain Natural Area 


To begin today’s show, some news that came in as we got closer to production. Charlottesville’s Commonwealth Attorney has opted to not begin a criminal investigation into whether Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker’s use of a city-issued credit card to purchase gift cards for people who attended various meetings. In a letter to City Manager Chip Boyles, Joe Platania wrote that an investigation will not happen until after the city updates a policy that governs use of the cards. Read more about the story on NBC29, which first reported the letter. Council will discuss the policy at a future work session. (read the letter)

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The prospect of the West Main Streetscape being implemented is still alive as City Council still wants more information about how the project could be salvaged. The project was split into four phases in order to secure funding from the Virginia Department of Transportation, but staff has recommended not fully funding the project. 

Council has not made several final decisions about the proposed $160 million Capital Improvement Program for the next fiscal year and the four years that come after it. That amount also includes $8 million for a 300-space parking deck as well as a $50 million placeholder for reconfiguration of the city’s middle schools. 

“There certainly is a lot of unknowns when we think about going into the future of the CIP especially when we think about schools and not knowing the scope of what they’re going to be [doing],” said City Councilor Heather Hill. “And also thinking about the parking deck situation and what options we may have.” 

Councilor Lloyd Snook said he felt the city was at a point where it should proceed with West Main Street in a fashion similar to Council voting to proceed with the pedestrianization of East Main Street in 1974. 

“The more I have thought about it, the more I have thought the future of the city is going to be along the axis between downtown and the University and we ought to be spending our time, our energy, and our resources on that area,” Snook said. 

Snook said he was less inclined to support the parking garage. 

Mayor Walker said budget staff have been clear that the city is running into its debt capacity and the city should proceed cautiously. 

“I just don’t know how we are rating West Main Street and still thinking that is a must and that it must continue at this time when we’re talking about things like housing and schools,” Walker said. 

Snook said he has been persuaded by arguments that at least $3 million in maintenance improvements are needed on West Main Street. 

Councilor Hill said believed the city has made an investment in West Main and should see the project through. 

“The biggest thing is just the other dollars coming from other sources that are not the city, and there’s not a lot of projects where we find those opportunities,” Hill said. 

Those external sources include $5 million from the University of Virginia and the potential $10.8 million in VDOT Smart Scale funds for Phase 3 of the West Main Streetscape. Phases 1 and 2 require a local match in order for the city to draw down Smart Scale Funds and revenue-sharing funds already approved.

“I’m really struggling with just closing the door on this,” Hill said. 

The draft CIP contains a placeholder of $50 million in FY24 for the school reconfiguration.

Walker said would prefer to keep some of the debt capacity available for future needs. 

“If we okay West Main at this point, we are limiting schools to an amount because we are boxing ourselves in,” Walker said. “And then everything else that comes up as a result of this pandemic and how long we’re in it, then we are also restricting ourselves there.” 

Councilor Michael Payne said he supported the vision of the West Main project, but could not support prioritizing that over schools or affordable housing. He said he would support the city paying for the bare minimum and losing some of the Smart Scale funding due to the debt capacity issue. 

“We’re in the same situation where we could eliminate our city funding of West Main Street, and the parking garage, and we still even then wouldn’t be that close to getting our CIP budget on a sustainable level,” Payne said. He also said he would like to continue conversations with the School Board about the reconfiguration project due the large amount of money required to pay for the capital costs. 

A firm is working with the school board to further refine the cost estimates for school reconfiguration. There was also interest in getting more information about various scenarios for West Main, including incorporating some of the results of a recent value engineering study.  Councilor Snook had this idea.

“One of my thoughts is that we have a brand new city manager, and let’s let him put his creative thoughts to work and see if he’s got some ideas for us,” Snook said. 

City Manager Chip Boyles said he would have a conversation with VDOT about when Phase 1 and Phase 2 need to get underway to stay within the six-year deadline required of Smart Scale. Jack Dawson, the city engineer, said the right of way phase is expected to begin this July to keep the project on VDOT’s schedule. 

“There is some urgency about what direction we think we may need to go in, sooner or later, for sure,” Dawson said. 

Vice Mayor Sena Magill said she would support reducing the scope of the project.

“What can we do with just the revenue-sharing match?” Magill asked. “There’s a lot extra that is on top of what we need for our revenue-sharing match.”

Council agreed to wait on a final decision on West Main until they have more information on options. David Brown is the city’s public works director.

“We do have some time to where we can look and evaluate to make a determination,” Brown said. “For the project, we can evaluate and make an assessment, rescope the project that still meets the requirements of the funding sources so we still have that opportunity.” 

Boyles said he would prepare options for Council to consider. 

“We can get enough information to come back to you with some concepts and maybe even some recommendations and staff can continue to keep working forward,” Boyles said. “It won’t be that much wasted effort based on whatever your decision is in later March or April.”

The FY22 operating and capital budget will be presented to Council on March 1. The first public hearing is scheduled for March 15. Budget adoption will be roughly a month later. 

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Council had also discussed the future of capital funding for a 300-space parking structure, but took no action on whether $8 million in funding should be included for the project. The topic also came up at a meeting earlier on February 16 of the Charlottesville Parking Advisory Panel that featured an update on the city's Parking Action Plan. Rick Siebert was hired as the city's first parking manager in the fall of 2016 to implement a plan.  

"This was originally a five-year plan that expired in 2020 and we've been talking about how we might change some of the objectives for the next five years," Siebert said.

This plan was intended to "optimize existing resources," "enhance access alternatives", and "maintain and grow supply."  The plan called for a pilot program for parking meters on streets close to the Downtown Mall, but the project did not last for the initial six-month testing period. 

There wasn’t a lot of back and forth at this meeting about the plan, or what a future plan might look like. 

Kirby Hutto, general manager of the Charlottesville Pavilion and parking panel member, said tourism is a major part of economic development for downtown. 

“I can tell you that the majority of our patrons are not residents of Charlottesville,” Hutto said. “They’re coming in from the outlying counties and sometimes coming in from a hundred miles away. They’re going to drive. I’m sorry. There is nothing that is going to put them on public transportation but if we want their revenue, if we want those tax dollars, we have to be able to accommodate them.” 

Siebert said parking levels are beginning to rebound and are at about fifty percent of pre-COVID levels. The majority are people with monthly passes, but about a fifth are hourly parkers. 

“Events were major drivers in our transient revenue and the lack of events has been felt,” Siebert said. 

The Charlottesville Pavilion canceled its entire season last year, and planning is underway to at least think about scheduling something in the near future as community health targets are met. The idea would be to open up gradually with a percentage of total capacity. 

“We’re starting to see glimmers of light,” Hutto said. “There’s a group of venue managers from around the state including a lot of the big boys like Kings Dominion, Richmond Raceway, and Hampton Coliseum, JPJ, that have put together what I think is a really well-thought out reopening plan that is tied to milestones that you can actually track and see. You know, vaccination percentage of the general public. New infections reported. Those two numbers. As the first one climbs and the second one declines, they’ve got a proposal and my understanding this in front of the Governor’s task force right now. 

Hutto said that might mean events at the Pavilion as early as June, but agents with nationally touring acts are not planning until returning to tours until the fall. 

“No one is asking for dates in June and July,” Hutto said. “Everyone is asking for dates in September and October.” 

In a conversation I had with Siebert today, he said a draft of the Parking Action Plan will be ready by the end of the week for future discussion by the panel and other stakeholders slated for after that time. 

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Also at their meeting on February 16, Council was briefed on a plan to remedy the city’s noncompliance with a mandate from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to spend previously funding on a timely basis. Erin Atak is the city’s grants coordinator. 

“City staff had identified an immediate program for funding to solve the city’s timeliness concerns by May 2,” Atak said. “The city has unexpended 2019 [Community Development Block Grant] entitlement funds totaling $244,950.82 from the delayed Belmont /Franklin sidewalk activity.”

That project came about when Belmont was the city’s Priority Neighborhood but has not moved forward due to COVID as well as difficulty securing space for the project.

“Right now we’re having a lot of issues achieving right of way,” Atak said. “We have reached out ot the Belmont-Carlton Neighborhood Association and the Belmont CDBG Task Force with help on this and they are pretty motivated to help.”

Atak has recommended that the money instead be used for COVID-relief programs and the sidewalk project would be financed by the federal government again in the future.  A previously approved rental relief program for public housing residents will now get the additional funds in the short-term. 

This item will be included on the consent agenda for the March 1 Council meeting.

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Finally today, at the end of Council’s meeting on February 16, Councilor Heather Hill read from a motion to hire outside legal counsel to represent the city in an upcoming trial.

“I move to authorize the acting city attorney to authorize the law firm of Zunka, Milnor, and Carter to represent the city in connection with the courts hearing of all the pending motions scheduled for March 1, 2021 in the litigation with Albemarle County over recreational uses at Ragged Mountain Reservoir,” Hill said. 

For background, after the expansion of the Ragged Mountain Reservoir, the city’s parks and recreation assumed management of the trails from the Ivy Creek Foundation and moved forward with a plan to allow to bike trails. Albemarle County officials objected and cited a provision in the county’s ordinance that allowed them to block that use. The matter resulted in a lawsuit that will go to trial after previous attempts at mediation failed.