February 15, 2006 — Two topics dominated discussion at the Feb. 3 meeting of the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors: the safety of pedestrians on Grounds and the awesome task of overseeing the design and construction of the South Lawn.
Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Leonard Sandridge reported to the Board of Visitors that on Jan. 29 at approximately 10 p.m. a female student crossing Emmet Street in the crosswalk just south of Sprigg Lane was hit by a vehicle traveling southbound. She was treated at the Medical Center for a broken pelvis. The driver of the vehicle was charged by City of Charlottesville Police with failure to yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian.
During the past five years there have six other pedestrian accidents at five different locations along Emmet Street between Ivy Road and Jefferson Park Avenue — and several more “close calls,” said Sandridge.
City traffic engineers studied the area in 2004 at the University’s request and several improvements had been implemented or were underway. In spring 2005, the number of crosswalks was reduced from six to four and the crosswalks were repainted with fluorescent paint to increase visibility. In late winter 2005, fluorescent yellow break-away signs were installed in the middle of the crosswalks and flashing lights were added overhead to further alert motorists and reinforce the pedestrian right-of-way. All these safety devices were in good working order at the time of the accident.
To better light the sidewalk and roadway in this section of Emmett Street, 26 new streetlights had been planned, with installation scheduled to begin this month and to be completed by June. This lighting project is part of a much larger effort in recent years to improve lighting and pedestrian safety on Grounds. The University has installed approximately 110 lights along streets and walkways in the past three years, including along University Avenue and McCormick Road.
Because the accidents have been distributed all along the stretch of Emmet Street that bisects Grounds, there is no single silver-bullet fix, explained Sandridge. The administration had considered installing a pedestrian bridge across the road in the vicinity of Memorial Hall.
However, traffic experts warned that such a bridge might make a more dangerous situation, because people tend to avoid the hassle of walking up and down steps to use an elevated bridge when there is a crossing on level ground nearby. Removing the crosswalk to encourage pedestrians to use a new bridge would make crossing the road even more dangerous for those who “cheat” and don’t use the bridge.
Interim Chief of University Police Michael Gibson described how the sight lines approaching the site of the accident from the north are obstructed by a small incline just south of the intersection of Emmet and Ivy, and he recommended placing a 25 mph speed limit sign farther north, near Lambeth, to give motorists more warning and more time to slow down before reaching those crosswalks.
Board member Susan Y. “Syd” Dorsey asked for a report on whether rumble strips could be used in that section of Emmett Street to improve safety. Two other board members, Alan A. Diamonstein and Don R. Pippin, voiced support for rumble strips or other safety measures, regardless of whether drivers would disdain the solution. “Everyone hates [rumble strips]. And they work,” quipped Pippin.
Sandridge noted that the problem does not lie entirely with drivers. “We have an increasing problem with pedestrians who are distracted when crossing the street” because of cell phones and other factors, he said. He pledged to continue studying “best practices” for improving safety and to revisit the safety plans at a future meeting.
SOUTH LAWN PROJECT
The board engaged in significant discussion about the importance of the South Lawn project, and how it will be the board’s biggest challenge and biggest legacy. Board member Gordon F. Rainey Jr. summed up the responsibility of designing something that will abut the Lawn: “It’s sort of like putting a wing on the Taj Mahal.” He added, “This is sufficiently special that it’s worth spending a little more money on, possibly a lot more money, than we would for other precincts.”
A sense of reverence for the Lawn was echoed by several members of the Board. Pippin, who had lived on the Lawn as a student, called it “holy ground to me” and emphasized that the South Lawn project must be in keeping with the classical architecture of University founder Thomas Jefferson. To emphasize his point, Pippin read a quote from Jefferson discussing how his design for the Virginia capitol was “not the brat of whimsical conception never before brought to life…but copied from the most perfect models of ancient architecture.”
No board members expressed any disagreement with Pippin, and Rector Thomas F. Farrell II said, “It will be very difficult to have a design approved by this board that doesn’t look more traditional” than the buildings in the preliminary concept sketches for phase one of the South Lawn project — new classroom buildings to be built just south of Jefferson Park Avenue with a wide terrace spanning the road and connecting the new construction to the Cabell Hall vicinity.
Those drawings were presented to the Board on Jan. 20 by David Neuman, architect for the University, who noted that he came to the University knowing the difficulty of working in the long shadow of Jefferson’s venerated architecture. He pledged that the design process would succeed and that he would work with the Buildings and Grounds Committee to make sure the South Lawn project is something “that we all can be proud of.”
Responding to the suggestion that the planning timeline for the South Lawn possibly should be expanded, Neuman noted that keeping construction projects on schedule and on budget has been one of his major efforts. Building a project on schedule is integral to staying on budget because of the rapidly increasing cost of construction in Virginia. Construction cost inflation was 8 percent last year in Virginia and is projected to be 10 percent this year. Such rapid inflation adds significant costs to a $100 million project, noted Neuman.