Rivanna River Pedestrian Bridge at Woolen Mills: A Historic Opportunity

Update: The MPO Policy Board will vote on which bridge to pursue at its meeting on Thursday, March 24, at 2:00 p.m. The public is typically invited to speak at the beginning (and end) of the meeting. [Agenda / Info].

Woolen Mills has for centuries been an important nexus where human transportation, economic activity, culture and ecosystems cross paths. Now there is an opportunity to create a new way for people to cross — or simply experience — the Rivanna River at this historic location.

The Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) is preparing to apply for a grant from VDOT’s SMARTSCALE program to fund a pedestrian bridge and ADA-accessible path connecting the Woolen Mills and Pantops neighborhoods on opposite sides of the river. This bridge and trail will provide an important regional connection, linking neighborhoods, jobs, parks, shopping, healthcare and other community resources in both Albemarle and Charlottesville.

Between now and the April 1, 2022 pre-application deadline, the MPO is considering two possible locations for the bridge. The final application is due in August and funding would be awarded in 2023. If this project is selected, there will be a detailed design process with lots of community involvement and construction would begin around 2028.

In the meantime, below is some background and information about the options being considered. This post closes with multiple ways that you can share your ideas.

A project many years (and many public discussions) in the making

Woolen Mills sits astride transportation routes dating back to Monacan times. A pedestrian crossing there has been a community goal for generations. It is mentioned in numerous plans, including Albemarle County’s Pantops Master Plan, Charlottesville’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan, the Jefferson Area Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan, the Rivanna River Corridor Plan and both localities’ comprehensive plans. The idea of a crossing in the general area has broad consensus — the question is precisely where and how to build it.

a map showing areas of connectivity along the Rivanna River
(Map by VDOT)

In 2019, VDOT worked with planners from both the city and the county and a team of consultants to look at six possible crossing locations in the Woolen Mills area. They found two of the options to be technically feasible and realistically achievable. Other options required complicated crossings of railways, private property and steep grades. The consultant provided “planning level” analysis of those two viable options.

One option, which the consultants named “Option 1,” would be located at the foot of Chesapeake Street at Riverview Park. The other possibility, “Option 2,” would be located at the end of Market Street, just past the entrance to the Wool Factory. Both bridge options would connect to South Pantops Drive (near Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital) via a gradual walk/bike path suitable for people of all ages and abilities.

map of two bridge options over the Rivanna River
PEC map showing the precise locations of the two bridge options and current proposed connector paths. This map is accurate as of February 1, 2022.

A conjunction of possibilities

This project is unique in its potential to positively impact transportation, recreation, health, tourism, and economic development in the area. Some benefits would include:

  • Connecting Albemarle’s growing Pantops community to Charlottesville and the rest of the urban area. The only existing bicycle/pedestrian connection over the Rivanna (the sidewalk along Route 250) is uninviting. There are many jobs and residences on both sides of the river.
  • Providing people of all ages and abilities new ways to experience the river and the area’s history.
  • Giving new access to Albemarle County’s Old Mills Trail, which is expected to extend more than 10 miles by 2030, from Darden Towe Park to Stone Robinson Elementary School, Milton and beyond, passing by the ruins of Thomas Jefferson’s 1807 mill. The trail is not currently fully functional because it is a dead end; the bridge and connector trail will remedy that.
  • Bringing together several of the region’s top private employers (including Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital, Willowtree and numerous local start-ups) and economic development areas (including the State Farm property, south Pantops and the Broadway corridor).
  • Linking Woolen Mills residents to shopping (including a grocery store half a mile from the Pantops trailhead) and multiple healthcare facilities. It will also provide park, river, and trail access to hospital caregivers, patients and staff.
  • Opening new access to Riverview Park, relieving congestion and parking issues. There are also bus stops on both sides of the river.
  • Making a key connection for the future Three Notch’d Trail Richmond to Afton.

Local plans also call for additional crossings near Free Bridge, Darden Towe/Pen Parks and Polo Grounds Road. The Woolen mills location was selected to be pursued first because it offers the greatest combination of benefits and likelihood to receive VDOT funding. The other locations have not been forgotten; they will be pursued at a later date.

Approx. view from Option 1 at Riverview Park

Approx. view from Option 2 at The Wool Factory

Two good options–at a glance

Option 1: Riverview Park at Chesapeake StreetOption 2: The Wool Factory at Market Street

Likely Bridge Type
Suspension bridge (565’ long), 40’ above normal river height.Arch bridge with a pier on the rocky island (590’ long), 25’ above the river.
Sample Renderings
(Note: These are not actual proposed designs–design will happen if/when funding is awarded, and after substantial community input. They are examples of how bridges *could* look.)

View from bridge deck
[360-degree drone shot][360-degree drone shot]
Relative advantages
Note that because both options share a common terminus–South Pantops–the table mainly compares the western half of the project
• Most direct connection to downtown including uninterrupted sidewalks
• Best interface with Riverview Park, making an uninterrupted four-mile loop trail on both sides of the river
• Would not touch the river, requiring fewer permits and less cost
• Better flood clearance (15’ vs. 1’)
• Nearby bus stops
• Direct connection to employment, economic, and cultural centers (Wool Factory and Broadway)
• Abundant off-peak parking and some all-hours dedicated parking
• Potentially less impact on viewshed along the river (other bridges nearby)
• Shorter (but steeper) connector path
Relative challenges and concerns we’ve heard• Some neighbors have long standing concerns about parking in and around Riverview Park. This could make those worse.
• Some feel that Riverview Park is already over-visited.
• Neighbor concerns about traffic along narrow section of Market Street
• Requires a road walk to reach the park and river loop
• Located on private land (permanent public right-of-way exists)
• Greater impact on the flood plain
Cost estimate~$11.3 million~ $15.3 million

What’s next?

The MPO plans to submit a pre-application by April 1. The final application will be due August 3 and funding decisions will come out in January of 2023. This means that the MPO’s governing Policy Board must make a decision by no later than its March 23 meeting.

How you can help

You can leave comments on the MPO’s SMART SCALE website.

The bridge will also be discussed at the following meetings, all of which will be held online and all of which welcome public input:

Rivanna River Bridge Community Meeting
Tuesday, February 22, 6 p.m. [info | meeting registration]

Public Workshop Regarding All Local SMARTSCALE Projects
Monday, February 28, 6 – 8 p.m. [info | meeting registration]
Learn about some dozen other SMARTSCALE projects in the area.

Special MPO Policy Board Meeting
Thursday, March 10, 1 – 2:30 p.m. [meeting info + packet | meeting link]
This meeting will primarily discuss the Rivanna River Pedestrian Bridge.

Regular MPO Policy Board Meeting
Thursday, March 24, 2 – 4 p.m. [meeting info]
The board will vote whether and how to proceed at this meeting.

Both bridge options have a great chance of being funded, but overall public support will be crucial. Constructive feedback early in the process, which is where we are now, can also help make the final project even better.

If you’re interested in future communications related to to this project, I invite you to send me an email (pkrebs@pecva.org) so I can make sure you’re included. You can also join my advocacy list for all things connectivity and trails in Charlottesville and Albemarle.