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)

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