Charlottesville city councilors are hesitant to walk away from the West Main Streetscape project and want to give the new city manager a crack at balancing the city’s different capital priorities.
With several costly projects on the horizon and limited funds available, city officials have told the council that they need concrete guidance about which ones to focus on. A decision about whether to shelve the West Main project, which has been in the works since 2013, was expected Tuesday, given previous discussions.
Although no clear decision was reached on West Main following Tuesday’s discussion, councilors supported delaying the contentious Seventh Street Parking Garage.
Tuesday’s meeting was the third in the last month in which councilors have weighed the different capital projects. Councilors started discussing how to prioritize those projects in November.
“Let’s let [City Manager Chip Boyles] put his creative thoughts to work, and see if he’s got some ideas for us that we can come back and either you can incorporate into a budget or he can tell us, ‘here’s your choices’ or ‘no, you’re talking crazy talk’ or something,” Councilor Lloyd Snook said of West Main. “But I’d like to see Mr. Boyles practicing and if there’s any way to make sense out of what we’ve been saying.”
Councilor Heather Hill also supported that plan.
The proposed five-year capital improvement program does not include additional funding for the West Main project. The four phases are expected to cost about $52 million — $33 million of which would need to come from the city — and redesign the corridor from Jefferson Park Avenue to Ridge-McIntire Road.
About $18 million already has been allocated, and $3.2 million has been spent on the project thus far, according to presentations at previous meetings. City staff have said that about $3 million is needed for necessary maintenance and utility improvements, regardless if the overall project moves forward.
The proposed $160.5 million CIP includes $35.4 million for fiscal 2022, which starts July 1. The council approves a five-year capital spending plan each year, but only dedicates funding for one year at a time. Further years are included as projections.
“Our staff will keep working, but we’ll take a look and come back to you then by April 1 with some type of recommendation or at least the opportunities and ideas to help you make your decision,” Boyles said of the capital spending plan.
Boyles added that continuing to work on the different projects wouldn’t be a wasted effort.
Any changes to the CIP would be included in the city manager’s proposed budget, which will be presented March 1. The council will approve a budget in mid-April.
The proposed CIP also includes a placeholder $50 million for the school reconfiguration project, $15.89 million for the Friendship Court renovation, $13.5 million to redevelop Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority properties and $8 million for the proposed Seventh Street Parking Garage.
The city Planning Commission supported the draft CIP after a public hearing last week and made several amendments, including more funding for the West Main project.
During Tuesday’s discussion, councilors were supportive of pushing back the timeline for the Seventh Street Parking Garage, which the city is planning to build as part of an agreement with Albemarle County to keep its courts downtown.
City staffers have proposed building a 300-space structure on the lot currently home to the Lucky 7 convenience store and a Guadalajara Mexican restaurant. The agreement with the county requires 90 spaces, and Boyles said the county is “indifferent” about the construction of the garage.
If the garage isn’t built, the city would have to provide 100 parking spots in the Market Street Parking Garage.
“They expressed that they’re really just wanting the 90 to 100 spaces, whether it’s on the Seventh Street site or whether it’s in the Market Street garage,” Boyles said.
Delaying the project, which was set to be completed in November 2023, would give city staff time to consider other options for the Seventh Street parcel and do an assessment of how the pandemic has affected parking needs downtown.
City budget officials have said that the proposed CIP is not affordable without “significant revenue enhancements” such as a 10-cent real estate tax rate increase phased in over five years.
Councilor Michael Payne said eliminating funding for West Main and the parking garage doesn’t move the CIP to a more sustainable level.
“So, there’s a lot more to do beyond even just these,” he said. “... I see the value of the West Main Streetscape. I think it’d be positive and it could happen. I just can’t really justify putting it ahead of schools, housing, other basic infrastructure needs.”
The costliest project in the draft plan is the reconfiguration of Walker Upper Elementary and Buford Middle schools. The $50 million in the plan is a placeholder until the initial design phase yields more clarity about the cost and scope of the project.
The city’s request for proposals regarding that phase closed Jan. 31, 2020. The architecture firm has since been selected, but the contract has not been finalized. City spokesman Brian Wheeler said that the goal is to have the contract ready in early March.
In November, after contract negotiations resumed, city officials said an initial cost estimate could be presented to councilors in June.
Mayor Nikuyah Walker said she’s interested to see what’s possible with the project.
Walker said she doesn’t think the city can continue to financially support the school division at current levels and pay for the reconfiguration project.
But those conversations can’t start in earnest until the initial design work is completed to determine the scope and cost of the project.
“I’ve said in the meetings that [schools Superintendent Rosa] Atkins and School Board members, that until we know, we’re just circling what-ifs,” she said. “And we spent a considerable amount of time last year, and in 2019, too, having hypothetical conversations, which are very hard to have.”
Echoing comments made at previous meetings, Payne said the council and the School Board need to have more conversations about the long-term plans and finances.
“Because, really, I think it’s the reconfiguration process that’s driving the huge CIP budget crunch,” he said. “And we’re going to have to deal with that reality, while also acknowledging there’s a huge amount of deferred maintenance in our schools that we know needs to happen no matter what.”
Although Snook said it would be a mistake to build the parking garage right now, he framed the West Main project as this council’s “1974 moment.”
“1974, as you may remember, was the time that council decided after great agony to just go ahead with the Downtown Mall project,” Snook said. “... 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 money, our energy, our resources on that area, and I would like to try to put the main streetscape back in the budget.”
Snook added that he wanted to ask Boyles to get together with city staff to figure out a way to “reprogram things and move things around” to make the project work.
Walker disagreed with the comparison of the West Main project to building the mall and that the city still doesn’t have enough money for everything. Doing the West Main and reconfiguration projects also would make it more difficult for the city to fund other new projects that arise in the next several years.
Under the current funding scenario for the capital projects, the city could max out its credit limit as early as 2028 even if council implements the 10-cent tax rate increase.
“I just don’t know how we’re 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.
Councilor Sena Magill, who would have been the deciding vote if one had been taken, said she was interested in hearing more about different funding sources for the project and how the council’s decisions would affect the other pieces of the West Main puzzle.
“I know we need to get a lot of work done on West Main Street,” she said. “It’s been deferred and deferred and deferred. But I don’t know if we need to be investing this much into it, especially over other things that I find a higher priority.”
Hill said she wants to get the first two phases done. The third phase is set to be fully funded by the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Smart Scale process.
“I understand that some people are referring to it as a ‘streetscape,’” Hill said. “I just think it’s so much more than that in the amount of engagement and also just the investment that’s happened.”
She added that given the amount of investment of time and energy in the project, she struggled with closing the door on it.
Later on, Hill said she was interested in seeing how Boyles looks at all of the projects and capital investments holistically, and then reviewing the CIP one more time as part of the budget process.
“So, we really appreciate it and I recognize that we’re driving y’all nuts,” Hill said at the end of the discussion, in thanking staff for their time. “These are really big decisions and that’s why we keep going around and around.”