Surveys & Opinions


The Space Between: shaping community with transit

July 14, 2010
by Gary Okerlund and Todd Gordon

This photo simulation juxtaposes a modern streetcar vehicle (photographed in Tacoma Washington) with the newly built home of the Live Arts, a community theater in downtown Charlottesville. Image by Okerlund Associates.

Charlottesville, a small city in central Virginia with a population of 40,000, has been home to three presidents, Madison, Monroe, and most famously Thomas Jefferson. He founded the University of Virginia whose Rotunda graces the pages of humanities textbooks, post cards, and prints and draws tourists from around the world. The jam band The Dave Matthews Band got its start a mile away in the popular downtown where students and townies mix along the successful pedestrian mall. These two destinations are linked by West Main Street, a low-density, pedestrian-unfriendly, auto-oriented corridor, like a pair of diamonds strung together with twine.

While the West Main corridor could be an active and healthy link between Charlottesville’s two most thriving areas, it remains constrained by the narrowness of the street, traffic congestion, extensive surface parking, and small and disconnected land parcels. West Main is adjacent to an Amtrak Station and is also served by a good local bus system, including a popular rubber-tired “trolley,” but congested traffic makes bus service unreliable and choice riders continue to drive their own cars.

Questions to ask include: Is there an alternative transportation mode or modes that can simultaneously meet accessibility needs and stimulate the economic health of the corridor?

Can such an advanced system work in a city as small as Charlottesville?

Can such a system be implemented now and still be an integral part of a regional transit system as the area grows?

Thomas Jefferson's world famous Rotunda graces the campus of the University of Virginia, left (photo Brad Sheffield). Downtown Charlottesville, right, is a few miles away. In between is the auto-oriented West Main (photos Okerlund Associates).

With a vision of a more vital, accessible, and pedestrian friendly West Main Street, a grassroots effort began in 2003 to explore Charlottesville’s transit future. The citizens involved in this effort wanted to determine if better transit could not only make access to the downtown and university easier, but also extend the success of those areas to West Main. The result was a “Summit on Transportation and Transit,” a City of Charlottesville sponsored event in the fall of 2003.

The Summit brought top transit experts to Charlottesville to give an objective assessment of the city’s transit needs and opportunities. The results of their work focused on West Main Street, where a strong transit link between downtown and the University could improve economic development, job accessibility, neighborhood vitality, and environmental protection. The Summit panel concluded that Charlottesville should explore the development of an urban streetcar system for West Main, a small electric rail system that would be an appropriate scale for the corridor. While, if realized, Charlottesville would be the smallest city with such a system, the summit panel argued that the population of the community mattered less than the existing and potential health of the corridor. It was agreed that downtown and the University have the density to support a streetcar system and that the West Main Street corridor could also evolve to that level with proper encouragement and investment.

While the Summit left organizers with optimism, greater focus, and the fresh and energizing new idea for a streetcar system, the newness and lack of public familiarity with modern streetcar presented major barriers. With Portland Oregon starting construction of the first modern streetcar system in America only 4 years prior, the public still thought of streetcars as historic relics. An important dimension of this educational component is to recognize that it is less about choosing a transit system and more about choosing the type of community and quality-of life that the public wants, and implementing transit to support that choice.

Following the recommendations of the summit, a number of organizations teamed up to further promote the streetcar concept. These groups were: The Alliance for Community Choice in Transportation (a local non-profit promoting walkability and bikeability), the City of Charlottesville, and Okerlund Associates Urban Design, with financial support granted by The Blue Moon Fund (a private foundation). The strategy of this team was to promote the streetcar concept from the ground up, by educating neighborhood associations and community groups, and to promote the idea as a demonstration project that could eventually become a larger, regional transit system with associated transit-oriented development. This strategy was helped by the timing of other city efforts, including a $6.5 million allocation for a Downtown Transit Center and a $1.5 million allocation for bus transit and pedestrian improvements along West Main Street, as well as recent key policy initiatives such as the approval of a new city-wide zoning ordinance promoting increased densities.

The promotion of a West Main Streetcar began with what the involved groups termed a Technical Preview, a chance to gather information from transit engineers with streetcar experience without undertaking a full and final design of the project. For this task, ACCT and Okerlund Associates hired consultants who had previously worked as project engineers on the construction of the streetcar system in Portland. This task resulted in a conceptual streetcar route, street section designs, and plan of next steps, as well as a greater understanding that a streetcar for Charlottesville was, in fact, a viable option.

The site visit of officials and business leaders was essential for solidifying support. Here the group visits Portland.

The next step in the streetcar effort was to organize trips in the fall of 2004 for key Charlottesville decision makers and community leaders to visit existing streetcar projects in Portland and Tacoma. Participants in these trips included city councilors, university officials, heads of non-profits, real estate developers, and local media, among others. The trips allowed these leaders to experience streetcars in person, meet with people involved in the planning of these now-successful systems, and see the development and community-building effects of streetcars. While prior to the trips, some had concerns about overhead power wires and integration of the streetcar with traffic, these concerns were greatly smoothed by this first-hand experience. Secondly, participants were able to see how convenient life in a transit-rich region can be (no automobiles were used at any point during the transit site visits).

Following the Technical Preview and Streetcar Site Visits, ACCT and Okerlund Associates developed a comprehensive educational presentation to explain the streetcar concept, among a range of transportation options, and the explorations that had already been done toward such a system for Charlottesville. In the form of a report, report summary, and graphic presentation, this educational package was presented to neighborhood associations and non-profits, and at community events in an attempt to build broad public support for a streetcar on West Main.

Through these efforts, the idea of a West Main Streetcar became somewhat accepted, at least in concept. People liked the high-quality, high-visibility transportation option, and to a lesser extent, saw that a streetcar could encourage quality infill development along West Main Street. However, the West Main Streetcar still lacked real leadership, a clear path from concept to construction, and a source of funding for what is, admittedly, an expensive proposition.

In order to move to better explore the details and steps necessary to building the system, a Mayor’s Streetcar Task Force was appointed in 2006. The group was tasked with determining the next steps to assess the feasibility of a streetcar corridor as an element of a regional network and a stimulant for enhanced economic development opportunities along the corridor. The recommendations of this group were presented to City Council. Later, a Scope of Work document was prepared and presented to City Council to determine specific steps, responsibilities and costs to move forward, involving a partnership among the City, development community and the non-profit sector. At this time, the project remains at this step, waiting for funding and a public mandate to move forward.

This project represents a unique public-private partnership between ACCT and the City of Charlottesville. Past transit projects in Charlottesville and in other communities across the country have been derailed or significantly delayed due to lack of political champions and public outreach. This project emphasized public involvement and political champions in the beginning of the planning stages. A public-private partnership was proposed to guide and fund the next effort that would include the City, development community, and private sector.

Due to currently less-than-full interest by decision-makers in supporting the entire effort, and economic pressures on the non-profit and development communities that were asked to match funding, the effort is on hold. The project is far from dead, but our experiences in Charlottesville show that even the best laid plans can go awry, or at least be delayed. As with any major investment nothing is guaranteed; Caveat emptor.

Gary Okerlund is an architect, landscape architect, and urban design consultant, is principal of Okerlund Associates in Charlottesville. His urban design plans and publications include Shaping Community with Transit, Transit-Oriented Communities for Northern Virginia, and Public Improvements on Main Street for the National Main Street Center. Todd Gordon is a planner and urban designer with Okerlund Associates in Charlottesville

This article was first published in the Fall 2009 Streetcar Issue of Trip Planner Magazine.

Mission Statement

Click Photos to Enlarge

Charlottesville Chapel





Rotunda of University of Virginia



UPDATE: 7/2010

The project is far from dead, but our experiences in Charlottesville show that even the best laid plans can go awry, or at least be delayed. As with any major investment,nothing is guaranteed; Caveat emptor.



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