Monday, May 11

Why Cherry Avenue isn't happening

I'd like to indulge in one hyper-local post - it's about my neighborhood of Fifeville - but I think it does touch on some broader urban design themes. In fact, I'd love it if someone out there with more knowledge of good streetscape design weighed in to let me know if I'm on the right track or not. Beyond a quick skim of Allan Jacob's Great Streets, I only have my personal experience to work with here. I have a hunch for why Charlottesville's plan to redevelop the Cherry Avenue corridor, which runs through the heart of Fifeville, after eight years has not had any success.

As part of the 2001 comprehensive plan, The city conducted several corridor studies and made some pretty visionary recommendations. Cherry Avenue was envisioned to become a mixed-use corridor with ground-floor retail and residential or office space above. The whole streetscape was to be reoriented around pedestrian access and attractiveness. The buildings were to be pushed up to the sidewalk, and parking would be put behind. These have all become best practices in urban design, but in 2001 this was fairly innovative. Two years later, a rezoning was passed that put some regulatory force behind the plan.

But then nothing happened on Cherry. No developers bought in. By 2006, a Fifeville neighborhood plan declared, "Cherry Ave commercial district should be the center, but is now woefully underutilized." A year later, the 2007 Comprehensive plan also acknowledged that the mixed-use corridor just wasn't happening. Today, although there are now some developments planned on the edges of the corridor, the main drag of Cherry still has vacant lots, underused parking lots, and abandoned stores scattered throughout.

Sure, there are always many factors involved, but I think the street itself may be what is holding things up. The section of Cherry Avenue within the corridor is a three-lane road with no shoulder at all. The speed limit is 35 mph, which is higher than the other corridors in town (with the exception of Preston). I don't think it's realistic to expect a mixed-use corridor to sprout up around this kind of street.

Here it is on Streetview:

View Larger Map

What if the street were repainted to turn it back into a two-lane street with on-street parking?

The parking would automatically create a traffic calming effect, making the street more hospitable to pedestrians. Businesses would not have to meet all of their parking needs with expensive off-street spaces, and parking would most likely be more convenient for customers. The City Parks and Recreation department thinks the popular Tonsler Park lacks enough parking. This would solve that problem as well without having to pave over more greenspace or remove a basketball court.

I know the center lane is supposed to enhance traffic flow by allowing easy turns onto the side streets, but from what I've seen it's not used much at all. With the exception of the major intersection between Cherry and Ridge, all of the turns are for small side streets or parking lots. For most of the stretch, this is really a wasted lane. The extra space of pavement only encourages drivers to speed.

So what about this? Easy low-cost solution or a meaningless tweak to a hopeless corridor plan?


CarFree Stupidity said...

First off, I'm no expert, but I'll give you the ideas that came to mind as I read your post.

First off, if your trying to build a pedestrian corridor you need good sidewalks. The ones from the photo are pathetic looking.

I think your right, the street needs to be reconfigured. Removal of the center lane except at intersections, improved/widened sidewalks, bike lanes, trees, and parellel parking would go a long ways towards creating a more pedestrian friendly environment. Though I don't know if there is the curb-to-curb width necessary for putting a lot of that in.

Changing the speed limit would help too, but lowering speed limits and removing lanes are usually pretty contentious things to attempt. From what I've seen here in Missoula with proposals for changing roads away from strictly for cars to multi-modal is that the locals within a few blocks are for such things but commuters just passing through and businesses outside the immediate area are against these types of things because they are mostly worried about capacity issues and commute times.

On the development side, there are still a lot of developers that won't touch this kind of stuff because they are not yet convinced of the market demand. Building a suburban development is usually also a lot easier with less restrictions, higher profit margins, and economies of scale from the simple fact that most residential developers have done so many that they have the whole process streamlined.

Your local city council might be partly to blame also, if they require too much of the developer in this multi-use stuff, then it drives profits down and developers away. Give it time and things will start to happen, although with the current recesion it might be awhile.

Daniel Nairn said...

Hey thanks! That's exactly the kind of input I was looking for.

As for the politics, I agree this could be tricky. The neighbors would likely get on board, but this neighborhood is not known for being terribly organized (unlike many others here). One thing going for it is that the Comp plan very specifically calls for a pedestrian orientation here. Hopefully, pointing to that would mean something.

As for development, I think you're right that urban, mixed-use was considered a wild card for a long time - maybe still is. The City has decided to get rid of many building fees just recently, which could be a good thing. Of course, nothing is really happening right now anywhere, but maybe as the economy recovers redevelopment on Cherry might happen. I just hope the conditions are right when developers do starting thinking about it.

Eric Orozco said...

It would be interesting to see if indeed existing streetscape/environmental aspects affect development potential. However, I suspect your city is requiring the developer to provide the infrastructure improvements...which, unfortunately, does put a damper on things. The market demand must then justify the extra investment required of developers. (It would be helpful to know: How much retail exists and is already located nearby? Are there new rooftops going up in the vicinity that may provide additional market demand for any kind of retail? Is there a latent demand for new residential? Office space demand?)

Keep in mind you can't create demand from scratch, regardless of zoning allowances. You really do need a market study it sounds like. Was that not part of the planning process?

But streetscape/infrastructure improvement of any kind is always a good deal for future development. I agree with your road improvement recommendations. The city should consider a capital improvement project and that may actually get more developer interest. On the other hand,...maybe just wait a little bit longer until the economy gets back on track. Realize that many developers are right now realizing they have to retool their approach to business as usual. One thing mixed use allows is concentration of potential. It diversifies the investment...which is what banks are going to be looking at (and mixed-use models are now well known and still successful so banks are going to be noting these). You may soon be seeing things change dramatically Daniel!

jconover said...


I just found your blog and felt I should comment although your post appears to be a year old.

I live in Fifeville on King Street and long to see Cherry Ave properly developed. I was very frustrated to see the City repave Cherry this past year and not do any bike lanes or anything innovative (or fitting with the comp plan). I am also not an engineer, but do believe that there could some re-engineering to allow for bike lanes, on street parking, or green scape islands down the middle. There is tons of traffic on Cherry during rush hours of people I am assuming are coming to/from 64 to the hospital, but otherwise, it is not that congested.

I am participating in the City's Neighborhood Leadership Institute program and we recently got a chance to talk with the City's traffic engineer, Jeanie Alexander. I was in the group that looked at this neighborhood and we suggested some changes along this corridor and perhaps trying to set up a park and ride out 5th St for the commuters.

If you ever decide you would like to be more organized about this ever, please let me know! I think it will take some creative real estate development to kick start it, but a little pushing from citizens might help...

Joey Conover

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