Friday, September 30, 2011



Joseph Passonneau, a renowned American architect-engineer, died in Washington, D.C. in late August at the age of 90. Among his accomplishments was his design of I-70 through Glenwood Canyon in Colorado as well as his ability to persuade a timid St. Louis political hierarchy that the controversial Arch would be a successful gateway to the West.

In the late 1980s, Passonneau also worked on Charlottesville’s gateway: U.S. 29 North. In fact, his proposed urban expressway became so controversial that “expressway” became a pejorative word in Charlottesville transportation lexicology. It shouldn’t be.

In his 1988 report, Passonneau pointed out that it was possible to design “large urban roads that delight the communities in which they are built,” and he envisioned such an expressway for through traffic on 29 with adjacent and parallel landscaped local traffic lanes. (The recent Places 29 Plan proposed a similar design but avoided the “expressway” term.)

Passonneau analyzed the various bypass pathways, including his own adjustments to an urban expressway expediting southbound traffic through Charlottesville and connecting to 29 South via the 250 Bypass. The design built on the so called “base case” traffic improvements of grade-separated interchanges to foster the flow of local east-west auto and pedestrian traffic at Hydraulic and Rio Roads with crossover roads at other points like Greenbrier Drive and Shoppers World.

Such an urban expressway, Passonneau pointed out, would take 242 fewer acres than the proposed bypass, destroy no residences, farm, forest or subdivision land, and impact less business land than any of the bypass pathways. Certainly, an urban expressway would be the least environmentally-damaging option.

Despite Passonneau’s vision, neither he nor his proponents (the Piedmont Environmental Council and Supervisor Tim Lindstrom among the most vocal) could convince the powerful North 29 business owners that a more attractive roadway not only would provide a better solution for local and through traffic but also would serve long term economic interests by creating a more attractive 29 business district. After all, in addition to the local lanes along 29, the network of parallel roads to serve local traffic would include Hillsdale and Commonwealth Drives. That would allow development of an expanded business district– not just the 29 strip.

At the time, however, the 250 interchange flyway, perhaps most controversial piece, was criticized as having too large a footprint. Yet Passonneau had designed it and the rest of the roadway to national safety standards, not to VDOT’s more gargantuan scale. In fact, the 1988 design has no larger a footprint than the Bypass/250 flyway now proposed (and shown in 3D modelling on the Charlottesville Tomorrow website).

Passonneau's urban expressway (and its later version in Places 29) were nixed largely by those representing local business interests, which have evidenced in the 29 discussion little imagination, creativity, or commitment to the region's long-term economic health.

Glenwood Canyon above the Colorado River was a far more difficult engineering challenge and an even more controversial project. Nevertheless, Passonneau’s design preserved and even improved on the terracing above the Colorado River, weaving a 12-mile highway through tunnels and bridges to complete I-70. The result is a beautiful, functional, and scenic highway, which earned Passonneau a Presidential Award for Design Excellence.

Here, in Charlottesville, state politicians have engineered (pardon the pun) a political decision to build a western bypass that will cut through the rural landscape, including Stillhouse Mountain and the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir, impact beautiful residential areas and several schools while spending between $240 - 500 million of taxpayer dollars for just six miles of road ($40/million a mile at the lowest estimate)– while removing just 10 percent of the traffic from 29 Business. The interchanges, by contrast, would cost $40-50 million apiece.

If we want a real solution to local and state traffic issues through Charlottesville, one need look no further than to the vision of Passonneau. If Glenwood Canyon could benefit from this excellent designer-architect, why shouldn’t Charlottesville get a landscaped gateway that welcomes visitors to the uniqueness of Jefferson’s country?

Over 35 years ago, Charlottesville invited another visionary, landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, to design the Downtown Mall. Despite naysayers in the business community, the Mall thrives thanks in large part to Halprin’s vision and the leadership of the two Councilors who voted aye on the then-controversial issue: Charles Barbour and Mitch Van Yahres.

An urban expressway on 29 would transform an Everyplace USA strip mall road to vindicate Passonneau’s vision, but more importantly, it would be a true testimonial to the long range vision of our local and state leaders.

Will the expressway design be revived? Probably not.

But imagine what could happen if we could scrap the special interests to execute a truly win-win solution not only for transportation and beauty, but also for business, for the community, and for the Commonwealth. Sphere: Related Content

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