ON ARCHITECTURE- Urban hustle: Ready for <I>two more</I> Malls?

For readers who don't know, Albemarle Place is Charlottesville's biggest test case for new urbanism a development scheduled to rise up at the intersection of Route 29 and Hydraulic Road that will be about the size of two Downtown Malls.

"Welcome home to Albemarle Place," reads the intro on the development's website, "where America's best city just got better. Where you can celebrate what makes Charlottesville living so special: fine wines and rich architecture... upscale boutiques and eye-catching entertainment... casual sophistication mixed with unmistakable class."

If all goes according to plan, ground-breaking for this self-proclaimed "town center" could start this summer. If approved, the project will include a Main Street, a 14-screen theater, a 120-room hotel, a potential10-story residential building, and a host of big-name retailers and restaurants.

At a recent Albemarle County Architectural Review Board meeting, developers pressured members for a May 2006 approval. The board resisted, insisting that not enough is known about the plans to allow them to move forward.

What about traffic? According to VDOT, 60,000 cars zip up, down, and across 29 at Hydraulic every day. It's also one of the most dangerous local intersections. According to police reports, there were over 55 accidents at that intersection last year.

Before Albemarle Place can move forward, some say, VDOT's long-standing plan to improve the intersection needs to be considered. And what about that 10-story apartment building? And do we really need a 14-screen movie theater?

Evidently, Charlottesville's popularity has attracted the attention of big corporate developers who want to take our town to an entirely new level of popularity. About a year ago, it was revealed that Ryan Homes was buying land for a massive house-a-thon at Old Trail near Crozet. And although local engineer Frank Cox is the face of the Albemarle Place development he represented the developers at the ARB meeting the project is backed by corporate developers: Landonomics Group in Illinois and Ezon Incorporated in Florida. And CMSS Architects of Virginia Beach, a leading corporate firm, is designing the place.

So, if Charlottesville living is so special, why do we need Albemarle Place and Old Trail? Anyone have the feeling that the discovery of Charlottesville could lead to some pain?

According to some reports, the developers have already spent over $25 million– and plan to spend close to $200 million– developing the project. According to Cox, who recently appeared on WINA's "Charlottesville Live" with Jane Foy, the project is at 'the cusp' of approval and the developers have $70 million lined up.

In addition, says Cox, 50 retailers are anxiously waiting on the ARB's approval. It's been five years since the land was purchased, and it's clear that Cox and the developers are getting antsy. Still, he's philosophical about it. "Rome wasn't built in a day," Cox conceded. "And neither will this new town." Rome? A new town? Whoa!

CMSS Architects, who have designed similar town center developments in Norfolk and Virginia Beach, specialize in creating these mini-cities that are all the rage in urban design and development. In fact, one has to look only as far as the marketing copy to see the similarities in these projects.

For example, Playa Vista, a recent development in a suburb of Los Angeles, claims to be a "community [that] balances residential, commercial, and retail space, creating a place to live, work, and play." Albemarle Place makes the same claims, and even uses a similar slogan: "Live, work, play, and shop- all in one place. Albemarle Place. We're waiting for you."

As George Washington University urban planning Professor Dorn C. McGrath writes in his essay, Not So New, some promoters of new urbanism see it as a cure for congestion, crime, and pollution. But, McGrath notes, "The emperor may want to look into the mirror of reality."

McGrath and other critics point out that Florida's well-known "town center" experiments Celebration and Seaside (the latter the location for the movie the Truman Show) were promoted heavily as the "next big thing" in urban development, but feel artificial and tend to get isolated from the rest of the community.

People want the privacy and security of homes with yards, say critics. People want to hop in their cars and go to the movies or to the mall that's why they move to little southern towns like Charlottesville. Town center developments like Albemarle Place are nice ideas, critics say, but they just don't work.

When you're popular, everybody wants a piece of you. The key to survival, we'll venture to guess, is knowing just how much of you there is to give and who to give it to.