The Belmont Bridge Paradox: is the best solution … no solution?

An Op Ed Piece by Brian Wimer
– reprinted from C-Ville Weekly 2/23/2012

Is it Opposite Day? One entry in the Belmont Bridge Design Competition took all the top awards. But, it designed no bridge. Here’s why.

The Belmont Bridge was falling down. We needed a solution. MMM Design (of $7.5 million bricklaying fame) was paid $800,000 and they drew up: The Belmont Bridge, rebuilt, with flags. We held our own competition. Thirty-six entries later, we found a huge mistake had been made – in 1961.

Then, the same civic forces that buried Vinegar Hill also bulldozed Belmont, and left us with another ugly legacy: The Belmont Bridge, a hyphen of highway, fit for Eisenhower. Four lanes of liberty from the city’s perils to the cul-de-sac’s promise, ready to ramp to a highway to tomorrow … which never quite materialized.

So, Belmont’s viaduct-junction, what’s your function? What are you bypassing now, besides the heart of the city? The trains? Not so fast.

A word on choo-choos and coal. Our neighborhood’s Buckingham Branch Railroad hauls mostly freight, primarily coal from West Virginia mines out to Newport News for export. OK, it’s not all coal. Most of the150-car freights are empties. An omen of trains to come.

Coal is running out. The Appalachian Basin passed peak coal in 1990. The DOE’s 2012 Overview predicts a huge decline in Appalachian coal by 2020. CNN Money reports that the feds predict coal from Central Appalachia “will decline 40% in the next five years.” It’s what the Charleston Gazette calls: “The Coming Coalfield Crisis.”

So, let’s back-track logically: No coal … no trains … no bridge … no 1961 mistake repeated. And we get? Belmont (Un)Abridged, the winning entry. Retrospectful. Radical. Our ideal could be our inverse.

Inspired by the Downtown Mall’s original “Halprin Plan,” UVA students removed the bridge, in favor of an at-grade crossing, allowing acreage for a permanent Farmer’s Market, public orchards and a shade park, while recouping old bridge easements for low-profile mixed-use.

“Rather than leaving large areas of urban potential to languish beneath and around a highway viaduct that bypasses the city,” wrote one juror, “this scheme uses Avon St to integrate underutilized publicly and privately owned blocks into the city fabric.” Another juror noted, “The discussion of the bridge site is no longer the by-pass end of the Downtown Mall but the cross roads of an extended city center.”

Taxpayers save millions on a bridge. And the City gains revenue on valuable parcels at their best use. Idealistic and pragmatic. A bargain on both sides of the tracks.

Impossible? That’s up to you. And what you foresee. City planners predict problems. That’s their job. Yours is to envision opportunities. Picture our city without the coal trains, the bridge or the bureaucrats asking you to live according to their ledger sheet. It looks like a farmer’s market, with a trellised path where you walk with your kids and tell them about how you wrote a letter to the Mayor one day about a bridge.

Fig 1: Appalachian Coal Production – Based on Reserves.

Fig 2: Appalachian Coal Production – Current Trends. (note: red line = our coal trains)

BELMONT unABRIDGED

Winner: Jury Award Best Urban Design, Jury Award Best Bridge, People’s Choice Best Urban Design, People’s Choice Best Bridge.

TEAM STATEMENT:

Our idea is to connect the Downtown Mall with Belmont and views beyond of Jefferson’s Monticello Mountain and the Southwest Mountains. In order to do this we have created a civic plaza with broad terraces leading to a vibrant new farmers’ market located on the Belmont side of the railroad tracks. On the plaza is the 12th bosque of willow oak trees, extending Lawrence Halprin’s beautiful pedestrian mall groves, while completing his unrealized vision for an east end plaza. The new farmers’ market incorporates the iconic flourmill (Beck-Cohen) where local farmers historically brought their harvest.

We seek an optimistic act of urban place-making, gateway, connection, and recovery. The design drops the Belmont Bridge roadway to a narrower grade-level railroad crossing. It moves the Pavilion tent to a more historically and environmentally appropriate place. At the former Ix factory, where thousands of Charlottesville workers produced silk parachutes that helped win World War II, we propose a new billowing performance tent.

Located in a low-lying valley the tent is bounded by earthen protectors and Oakwood Cemetery to dampen concert noise. This location aligns on axis with the Downtown Mall’s Central Place and extends recent urban developments along South Second Street.

We do not need the proposed $14.5 million bridge; historically over 100 trains moved daily through this area. Now the number is often only 5 trains a day, taking less than 7 minutes to pass. We propose widening the nearby 4th Street underpass to two lanes. When trains approach downtown, signals can direct traffic to the underpass and west to the bridge at Ridge Street. Land recovered from the bridge right-of-way and approaches will provide excellent sites for new dwellings and businesses.

By unABRIDGING we will strengthen our neighborhoods and our city.

AND THE WINNERS…

After three hours in jury and a week of public input, the results are in for Project Gait-Way. And the results are unanimous. Both local stakeholders and individual citizens agreed that the best solution to the Belmont Bridge is … no bridge.

Entry #2 “Belmont UnAbridged” proposed removing the current bridge in favor of an at-grade crossing, activating underutilized city property, allowing for a permanent home for a Charlottesville Farmer’s Market, public orchards, a trellised shade park and the utilization of former bridge easements for mixed-use, low-profile development in the city’s center.

This solution won the People’s Choice last week when the designs were unveiled in a UVA pre-exhibit. This Sunday, the design won the Jury Awards for both Best Bridge Design and Best Urban Planning – as well as People’s Choice Awards for Best Bridge Design and Best Urban Planning.

Students collaborating on the winning design were: Kate Martin, Wyatt Hill, Nell Connors, Charlotte Miller, Jason Truesdale, Joanna McKnight, Madeleine Hawks, Kirsten Sparenborg, Chris Barker, Enrique Cavelier, Meghan Maupin, Rodrick Cruz and Kelly Hitzing. The UVA team was advised by WG Clark, UVA’s Edmund Schureman Campbell Professor of Architecture, and Architectural History Professor Daniel Bluestone (watch his contextual history of the previous Belmont Bridges at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RXM4TAqTWBs).

The complete list of winners follows

Project Gait-Way: The Belmont Bridge Design Competition

Competition Jury:
Joe Atkins (VMDO Architects), Phoebe Crisman (Architecture, UVA), Heather Higgins (Bike Charlottesville), Greg Jackson (Pres., Belmont Carlton Neigh Assoc.), Peter Waldman (Architecture, UVA), Brian Wimer (Project Gait-Way organizer), Zack Worrell (Bridge PAI co-founder)

Best Bridge Design

1st PLACE ($500 prize): Belmont UnAbridged – UVA Team 18
Students: Kate Martin, Wyatt Hill, Nell Connors, Charlotte Miller, Jason Truesdale, Joanna McKnight, Madeleine Hawks, Kirsten Sparenborg, Chris Barker, Enrique Cavelier, Meghan Maupin, Rodrick Cruz, Kelly Hitzing, Madeleine Hawks, ARH students: Joanna McKnight, Kirsten Sparenborg. Faculty Advisors: WG Clark + Daniel Bluestone.

2nd PLACE ($300 prize): Ninth & Avon – Jim Rounsevell

3rd PLACE ($200 prize):(Re)Connect Charlottesville – Daniel LaRossa, Amadeo Bennetta

Honorable Mention: The Belmont Bridge – Tim Tessier

Honorable Mention: The Belmont RidgeUVA Team 29
Students: Kathryn Elizabeth Fowler, Eric Michael Gillwald, Malorie Torrey, Morgan Taylor Stackman, Aneesha Baharani, Andrea Brennan, Rachel Vassar, Parker Sutton, Jonathan Bernard, Isaac Hametz. Faculty Advisor: Michael Petrus.

Best Urban Design & PLANNING

1st PLACE ($500 prize): Belmont UnAbridged – UVA Team 18
Students: Kate Martin, Wyatt Hill, Nell Connors, Charlotte Miller, Jason Truesdale, Joanna McKnight, Madeleine Hawks, Kirsten Sparenborg, Chris Barker, Enrique Cavelier, Meghan Maupin, Rodrick Cruz, Kelly Hitzing, Madeleine Hawks, ARH students: Joanna McKnight, Kirsten Sparenborg. Faculty Advisors: WG Clark + Daniel Bluestone.

2nd PLACE ($300 prize): Bridge over Rubbled Water – UVA Team 21
Students: Alexander Dean Kaplan, Samantha Lynn Weiser, Jamar Dimitri Moore, Timothy James O’Neill, Brittany Olivari, Kelly Pierson, Harriett A Jameson, Benjamin Sessa, Tom Gibbons, David Holzman, Catharine Killien. Faculty Advisor: Lucia Phinney.

3rd PLACE ($200 prize): Gaitway Loop – UVA Team 26
Students: Timothy John Morris, Stephanie Marie Smid, Timothy Edwards, Diana Fang, Hugo Fenaux, John Conroe Spiess, Andrew Brown, Megan Driscoll, Kate Boles. Faculty Advisors: John Quale + Sara Osborne.

Honorable Mention: The Grid, The Flour Mill & The Landscape Line
- UVA Team 17

Students: Mikhail Maclaine Payson , Irene Preciado Arango, Evan Shepherd Burch, Laura Jean Burden, Eduardo Diaz-Etchevehere , Eric Hanna, Brianne Doak, Ryan Lewandowski, Luhan Zhou, Silas Haslam, ARH students: Jessica Lankston, Ryan Van Sickel, Kim Larson. Faculty Advisors: Maurice Cox + Daniel Bluestone.

Honorable Mention: Mini Bridge Mega Connector - UVA Team 11
Students: Christopher Wertman, Lu Xu, Robert Grooms II, Yujing Han, Jude Ghassan Majali, Eric Kuhn, David Matthews, Andrew Milner Katherine Treppendahl, Dasha Lebedeva, Charles Sparkman. Faculty Advisor: Nana Last.

PEOPLE’S CHOICE AWARDS

Best BRIDGE Design Award ($150 prize): Belmont UnAbridged – UVA Team 18

 Best URBAN Design Award ($150 prize): Belmont UnAbridged – UVA Team 18

 

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Bridge Brief

 Project Gait-Way:
BELMONT bridge design competition

DESIGN BRIEF:

I. THE CHALLENGE:
The Belmont Bridge in the city of Charlottesville, VA must be rebuilt. But it doesn’t need another “raised road.” The city needs a “Gait-way” – an iconic, pedestrian-centric, bike & auto friendly gateway bringing Charlottesville into the next era of world-class cities. (Budget $14.5 million.) We’re looking for creative, inspiring, innovative and extraordinary solutions – in both bridge design and urban planning. Examine the city’s assets. Provide the plan.

II. SPECIFICATIONS:
For all tech specs, please refer to: http://www.belmontbridge.com/design-scenarios

• Bridge would ideally remain open during construction.
• Lower clearance over the train tracks of minimum 23 feet.
• 5% upper limit of the curvature of the roadway (for sight lines)

Familiarize yourself with the process. Pay attention to the community feedback*
– as well as suggestions from the community charrette.
*This design did not meet approval.

III. Belmont Bridge Guiding Principles:

1. Multi-modal — serving pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit.

2. Gateway – to downtown/neighborhoods, a vital link for residents and commuters.

3. Iconic  – an aesthetically important piece of public infrastructure with architectural treatments reflective of the contemporary Charlottesville community.

4. Green – incorporate green features (low-energy/living) and sustainable materials.

5.  Feasible – built within its existing footprint,** in compliance with design standards.

**Footprint is subject to debate – innovative urban planning solutions will be considered.

IV. DELIVERABLES:

PRIMARY
Design presentation limited to one mounted vertical 36″ x 40″ board. Site plan, section, elevation, aerial/axonometric view. Plus a short, written description of your concept (max 300 words – Helvetica 11 pt). Include your contact info in an envelope and attach it to the back – no identifying info on the design display side. (You will be assigned a number.)

SECONDARY
Although not required, models are encouraged – as a secondary component in addition to board. (max size: 30″ x 30″ x 8″)

Mail designs to:
Project Gait-Way: The Bridge PAI, 209 Monticello Rd, Charlottesville, Va. 22902.

Digital submissions: You may send a digital file. But you must also mail a letter (received by deadline) and check for $60 for printing/mounting to The Bridge PAI 209 Monticello Rd, Charlottesville, Va. 22902 – payable to The Bridge PAI (memo: Bridge Competition). Email digital file (PDF or jpg) to brian.wimer@embarqmail.com.

V. PROGRAM:

• Open Submission: Deadline 6pm February 11, 2012.***
• Public Display: February 13 – 19, 2012 at the City Space in Charlottesville, VA
• Judging will be comprised of public votes and a jury of local stakeholders.
• Award: 8pm February 19, 2012

VI. AWARDS:

• $1,000 Bridge Jury Award
• People’s Choice Award (prize TBD)
• $1,000 Urban Planning Jury Award
• People’s Choice Urban Planning Award (prize TBD)

***Note: Wall space is limited. The competition might not display designs of lesser quality.

For specific questions, contact: brian.wimer@embarqmail.com

REVISED_BRIDGE_BRIEF

Can a Bridge be a Gait-Way?

After six meetings and nearly a year of community involvement, Charlottesville’s Belmont Bridge re-design is complete. Or is it?

This October, during a tense presentation in Charlottesville City Council Chambers, community members picked apart the schematics created by the VA design company, who was hired by the City for roughly $1 million to engineer the bridge project. Some community members question whether the efforts so far have produced the design quality expected for the fee.

Stairways were characterized as impractical “Escher” labyrinths. Aesthetics like faux gas lamps and brick described as out of tune with the times. Overall the audience was underwhelmed by the design’s lack of scope and vision – and by the design team’s failure to have incorporated community input. At a meeting a week later, A BAR member called the design not a bridge, but a “raised road.” And one important question remains unanswered: So what happens now?

Community members aren’t waiting for results. They hope to get the results themselves, even if it means finding a new design team. The solution: Project Gait-Way – an unsanctioned $2,000 design competition for the Belmont Bridge to create “an iconic, pedestrian-centric, bike & auto friendly gateway bringing Charlottesville into the next era of world-class cities and communities.”

Call it creative protest. Community members felt it necessary to step up, where dialog with the current design firm seems to have deteriorated – much like the bridge itself. Built in 1960, the Belmont bridge is allegedly near the end of its useful life.

According to a recent assessment, the bridge’s reinforcing steel has reached its “corrosive threshold.” This rusting is causing the concrete in the bridge deck, sidewalks and piers to lose its bond with the reinforcing steel. The rate of deterioration is accelerating. Hence the closing of the eastern sidewalk. The City is starting the design process before future closure of the bridge becomes necessary. While the bridge still stands, just where the redesign is going is now up in the air.

“This isn’t just a bridge,” says Project Gait-Way coordinator Brian Wimer. “It’s an opportunity.” Charlottesville will be spending roughly $14.5 million on this new piece of city infrastructure. Wimer asks, “Can we do better than another VDOT asphalt bandaid?” On February 19, 2012 the residents of Charlottesville will weigh in on the answer.

The competition, soliciting entries from all comers – encouraging collaboration between architects, engineers, urban planners and artists – began November 29, 2011.

• Open Submission: Deadline 6pm February 11, 2012.
• Public Display: February 13 – 19, 2012 at the City Space in Charlottesville.
• Judging will be comprised of public votes and a jury of local stakeholders.
• Awards: 8pm February 19, 2012.

See brief for details.
For more information, contact Brian Wimer: brian@amoebafilms.tv

Send designs to Project Gait-Way:
The Bridge PAI, 209 Monticello Rd, Charlottesville, Va. 22902.
Electronic submissions will be accepted (see submissions page for details)