MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Just last June, the city of Morgantown approved a comprehensive plan designed to make the downtown a more pedestrian-friendly and attractive environment. Six months later, city officials violated that comprehensive plan by giving Sheetz 10 variances so the chain could build a gas station and fast food emporium on an already heavily trafficked section of University Avenue in downtown Morgantown.
Some community activists say the planned Sheetz is just one example of how city officials have allowed commercial development to supersede their own efforts to make Morgantown a more livable city. The new Sheetz, which will be built on the site of the former Buick dealership across from The View, an apartment building on the waterfront, will only worsen the city’s traffic congestion and make it more difficult for people to access the waterfront, they say.
“Sheetz doesn’t fit in with the city’s comprehensive plan,” says James Guiliani, a local real estate developer and resident of Morgantown for the past 56 years. “We don’t need another gas station in our downtown and [city officials] haven’t done anything to mitigate the traffic” caused by the proposed Sheetz.
For example, the Zoning Board of Appeals ignored the traffic study conducted for the new gas station, which concluded that a left turn from University Avenue into the Sheetz parking lot not be allowed, Guiliani says. The city’s zoning board also recently approved the construction of a new CVS at the corner of High and Willey streets downtown and the addition of 45 new parking spaces for the pharmacy.
“The [zoning for that area] says you are not required to have parking because we’re supposed to be a pedestrian-friendly downtown,” Guiliani says. The additional parking spaces will only add to traffic congestion on High, Willey and Spruce streets.
Guiliani and others say these recent zoning decisions are counterproductive to the city’s efforts to make Morgantown a more livable and attractive place. Studies show that people pay more to live in walkable cities, according to Christiaan Abildso, chair of the Morgantown Pedestrian Safety Board committee and an assistant professor at West Virginia University’s School of Public Health.
“People pay more to live in walkable cities, people spend more locally, retail rents are higher, and sales are higher,” Abildso says. “If we don’t support inexpensive, healthy ways to get around, we’re really doing a disservice to our residents and our community.”
Contributing to the congestion downtown is the fact West Virginia University, in conjunction with private developers, is building a number of new high-rise student housing facilities. For instance, developers just finished Beechview Place , a $30 million facility on Beechhurst Avenue with 232 apartments and retail stores on the ground floor. In 2012, the university purchased another 39 properties in Sunnyside, demolished them and is building a new residential high-rise development with retail stores off of University Avenue. University Place is expected to open in the fall of 2014 and Beechview is already open for business. Both developments are expected to accommodate more than 1,000 people in the next few years.
The goal in adding highrise residential developments within walking distance of campus is to reduce the need for students to drive, city planners say. “The plans are to have a community that can walk to the university,” said Kenneth Martis, Administrator of the Morgantown City Planning Comission, and a geography professor at West Virginia University.
However, Guiliani says many of the students who rent apartments at these new high-rises will have cars. As a result, these developments will also contribute to the city’s traffic congestion. And another planned residential development near the new CVS will add 360 bedrooms with just 120 parking spaces.
“If you have 360 bedrooms and we know that 60 to 70 percent of the tenants are going to have vehicles, than you’re not being honest with yourself,” Guiliani says.
This deteriorating biking lane, the only one in the city, may reflect an official indifference to supporting non-vehicular ways of getting around Morgantown.
Making matters worse, many of the pedestrian walkways that do exist in Morgantown are old and unsafe, with telephone poles projecting out onto crumbling sidewalks. In addition, the harsh winter has left city streets riddled with potholes, posing a hazard to pedestrians, cars and cyclists. Also, many sidewalks in Morgantown do not meet the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
William Kawecki, a city councilor who serves on Morgantown’s planning commission, says the fact that West Virginia University owns approximately 33 percent of the city’s 5,611 acres of land makes it difficult for the city to make needed infrastructure improvements. As an academic institution, WVU doesn’t pay property taxes, which hobbles the city’s ability to raise money needed for improvements. Kawecki says university officials do not always make things easy for the city.
“In order to expand Beechurst Avenue at its most congested area, we would have to take out Stansbury Hall, a church, and one of the poles that support the PRT,” Kawecki says. ““Tell me if the university would be willing to sacrifice one of its buildings, as well as the operation of the PRT for a period of time.”
But Guiliani says such constraints are all the more reason why the city shouldn’t have permitted construction of a busy gas station and fast food restaurant on a thoroughfare that already has too much traffic, particularly during rush hour.
City officials are trying to reduce traffic congestion in Morgantown by improving its public transit. The WVU Board of Governors recently approved a major $70 million overhaul to the outdated Public Rail Transit (PRT), and the Mountain Line Transit Authority is planning to expand its service frequency and ridership by 15 percent in 2014 and by an additional six percent in 2015. However, with the university’s stated goal of increasing the number of its students to 38,000 by 2020, traffic congestion will only increase, interfering with Morgantown’s stated goal of becoming a more pedestrian-friendly city.
“With the traffic and growth issues that we already have, there needs to be two or three years before there’s any more talk of future building or growth,” Guiliani says.