Saturday, July 3, 2010

Blogging for real now (hopefully)

So, having recently graduated, I finally have time to start blogging. More importantly, I have found a topic that angers me enough to provide incentive to write the first real post.

The topic? The train station in my hometown of Charlottesville, VA (image courtesy of the CVille Weekly, a local paper). The picture reflects the town's opinion of the parcel of land. It emphasizes the sad state of the parking lot (the station is a red brick building behind the lot). The lot has so many potholes I feel like I need an off road vehicle to pick up a friend at the station.

So, do we blame Amtrak, the perenially cash-strapped government-owned corporation? While providing decent and improving service does it just not have the money to fix up the lot?

No. The station and lot are, in fact, owned by private developers, specifically Union Station LLC, a rarity among Amtrak stations. As far as I can research, the developers purchased the property in 1997 and since then, have installed one restaurant next to the station and spruced up the building somewhat. It is also possible that they are responsible for the refurbishing of the platform used by trains heading North-South (the Crescent and the Northeast Regional). Still, the literally gaping sore of the lot has gone untouched.

Why? My best guess is that the city, which also owns a stake in the lot, has prevented them from charging for parking, aside from a 5 dollar-a-day honor-based payment for passengers leaving their cars there for a trip. Therefore, because they can't make money from the paving, they won't do it, no matter how much we all kvetch.

But the story gets worse. Apparently, when the developers purchased the lot, they had great visions of transit-oriented development (TOD), with 7 story mixed use buildings, a parking garage, and a new and improved intermodal station that would serve as the hub for the public transit buses that serve the area. In other words, a lot of value-added for a lot they purchased for just over $700,000.

They met with the city about this, and tried to get something done. The city secured federal funding for the intermodal station and a prepaid lease from Amtrak. Tentative plans were drawn up, and then a representative from the city council and the primary developer sat down to negotiate. And failed. According to one insider, negotiations fell apart over the number of parking spaces reserved for the development as opposed to being for general use by passengers and West Main Street shoppers. All of that potential development and profit for developers disappeared because of a parking lot. Ironic, when you think how much well-designed TOD, combined with the imporved transit system being planned now, could have reduced the need for the lot at all.

So now I have a dream. Work for two years for the government, at the DOT, learning the policies and regulations. Get a Master's in planning, and then return home and get enough investors to buy the parcel off their hands. Build what they wanted, but better. It won't be the hub, because the federal funding went to a different site right on the downtown mall, with no train access so it is not truly intermodal, but it can at least be bus accessible. Periodically, I'll post developments to this dream: drawings, local news, cost estimates, etc. Hopefully, someone will get there before me, but given that the property (which is up for sale) is priced at 13.5 million, I doubt it. However, if that person, slightly farther along their life journey is out there and ready to try, let's talk, because right now, that lot is literally a gaping wound.