Charlottesville’s City Council will be asked Tuesday to spend up to $400,000 to purchase right-of-way to ensure that the city can improve the intersection of Hydraulic Road and Emmet Street as nearby properties are converted to new uses.

“Accommodating traffic at this intersection is critical to the safety of motorists, as well as the economic health of the surrounding city commercial corridor,” wrote Jim Tolbert, the city’s director of neighborhood development services, in a memo to the council.

Three out of four corners of the intersection are in Charlottesville. The fourth is in Albemarle County, and is home to the new Trader Joe’s in the Shops at Stonefield development.

Tolbert said he is asking the council to purchase land from four property owners because redevelopment of the Seminole Square shopping center and Kmart is expected to move forward in the next few years.

One of those properties could be developed in the near future.

Collins Engineering has submitted a site plan requesting to build a 5,640-square-foot, single-story bank for the Fulton Financial Corp. where The Import Car Store sits now.

Tolbert said the city wants to secure the right-of-way now so that future access will not be prevented by new construction.

“Purchasing the public right-of-way in advance of a site’s development may offer the city a cost-effective means of constructing road improvements,” Tolbert said. “Both the redevelopment and roadway undergo improvements at the same time.”

Tolbert’s memo does not outline specifics for what improvements would be made to the intersection, but he said in an email to Dexter Auction that they would not be for a grade-separated interchange.

Money to purchase the land would come from the McIntire Road Extended and Old Lynchburg Road projects.

Tolbert said “slivers of land” will be purchased from the owners of Kmart, The Import Car Store, Sherwin-Williams and the Outback Steakhouse.

Transportation plans have called for such improvements for years, but they have been rejected by the city on at least two occasions.

In 1995, the council voted against a proposal for traffic improvements at the location out of concern that it would hurt businesses. In May 2009, the city Planning Commission urged the council to include the grade-separated interchange at Hydraulic and U.S. 29 as part of the region’s long-range transportation plan.

The council declined, again citing impacts to city businesses. The grade-separated interchange is currently on a wish list for UNJAM 2035, as the current transportation plan is called.

One group is hoping that the concept will be discussed again as the long-range plan is updated.

“The Hydraulic intersection is the major chokepoint on Route 29,” said Morgan Butler of the Charlottesville-based Southern Environmental Law Center. “Every transportation study that looks at Route 29 concludes that unclogging that intersection is
absolutely key to solving congestion.”

One of the conditions of the rezoning for Stonefield was that land be set aside to accommodate a grade-separated interchange if elected officials decide to build one at the intersection.

During the rezoning discussions, a “single-point urban interchange” was designed that would have lowered U.S. 29 underneath Hydraulic Road.

“What is clearly needed is a compact interchange that would let drivers on 29 pass right underneath Hydraulic without stopping, while making it much easier for local traffic, as well as pedestrians, to cross over 29,” Butler said. “It need not be some monstrous thing like the design that scared City Council 20 years ago.”

The high price tag was another reason the project was left on UNJAM’s vision list. The Places29 Master Plan, adopted in February 2011, carries a $40 million cost estimate for the interchange.

The Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce and its North Charlottesville Business Council have long opposed grade separation on U.S. 29 at Rio and Hydraulic roads and favor the construction of the U.S. 29 Western Bypass to address traffic congestion.

The City Council meets at 7 p.m. Tuesday.