ON ARCHITECTURE- Little High Noon: Neighbors, Region Ten square off

Pragmatism and idealism have always been warring elements of architectural design, but like a marriage, it's the blending of the two that makes a project work. After all, what good is an inspired design if it can't be built? Likewise, without inspired design, we might still be living in caves.

The Mews project on Little High Street, a 40-unit low-income housing complex for people with disabilities, has turned out to be a classic confrontation between these two elements.

On one side are the pragmatic concerns of Region Ten, the embattled social services agency, which wants to parlay a limited budget into much-needed housing for its clients. On the other side are the concerns of the Little High Neighborhood Association, who are demanding a more inspired design.

Since the two sides began warring last October, there has been little progress toward a compromise, and they may be headed for a showdown before City Council.

How did it come to this?

The feud began brewing last summer when developer Richard Spurzem decided to sell the Mews to Community Services Housing Inc, a non-profit development company working on behalf of Region Ten.

Before CSHI made its offer, Spurzem had planned to build 40 upscale apartments on the site, a project that aroused no oppositions from the Little High Neighborhood Association. Spurzem had also promised to consult the Association throughout the phases of his development.

But instead Spurzem cashed out. In August 2005, he sold the Mews to Region Ten for $1,955,000. Along with the sale went the special-use permit Spurzem had obtained to expand the facility.

That meant Region Ten and CSHI had no legal obligation to consult the neighbors, even as the Mews morphed almost overnight from a potential upscale development to a continuation as a public-housing style project with a 16-unit addition. Many neighbors say they didn't learn about Region Ten's plans until construction began in October 2005.

This triggered a strong reaction from the Neighborhood Association, which held a community forum in late October. In early November, the Association officially announced its opposition.

Neighborhood Association president Mark Haskins says that Region Ten and CSHI initially agreed to offer a more thorough design and later claimed that state regulations made the changes impossible.

"We began to be accused of being unreasonable," says Haskins. "Now we're told that it's too late to correct the mistakes."

Region Ten interim director Caruso Brown admits there have been missteps. "There could have been better insight into the planning process," says Brown. "I don't think we did justice to the Little High project."

Caruso thinks that much of the confusion was caused by a difficult period of transition for Region Ten. Last year, long-time director James Peterson retired after 30 years at the helm, and new director Phillip Campbell was just getting his feet wet when the purchase from Spurzem happened. Complicating matters, Campbell began butting heads with Region Ten board members, and on March 13 of this year the Board fired him, citing alleged "arrogant" management.

From Region Ten's point of view, all design discussion is over.

"As Charlottesville grows," says Brown, "there are a limited number of places for people with special needs. Our job right now is to meet the needs of our clients."

What next?

Granted, the Mews project under Region Ten's direction may be architecturally uninspiring. But CCHI president Bob Smith says, "Go over and look at it. We're not talking about a Frank Lloyd Wright project here."

Indeed, the boxy building tucked behind the houses along Little High Street has never been a finalist for any design awards. And at one time it was a dilapidated hang-out for drug dealers, according to Spurzem. According to Smith, "Any improvements to the building now, as it exists will be such an improvement that the neighbors should just stop talking about it."

Haskins say it's that attitude that angered the neighborhood. And while Haskins concedes that he'd like to see a "more economically diverse population" for the building, he says that it is design– not NIMBYism– driving the neighborhood opposition.

"It stings when we're accused of being anti-public housing," says Haskins. "For us, this has always been a planning issue."

"Bob Smith has a distain for design," continues Haskins, who has a degree in architecture. "All along, we've simply wanted Region Ten to take responsibility for working with the neighborhood and coming up with a better plan. Instead, there's been an absence of thoughtful design."

Little High resident Lynn Sanders agrees. "The Mews is a truly monstrous plan. It's kind of a big box with yellow siding and shutters. Region Ten is having trouble grasping that it's the ugly design that disturbs the neighborhood, not who might live in it."

That kind of disdain for the design hasn't made Smith a fan of Haskins.

"The leader of that group will never be happy," says Smith. "I have no idea why he's doing what he's doing. He's just a troublemaker.

"I think the neighborhood's concerns were very over-blown," Smith continues, "but we tried to address those concerns as much as we were able."

Smith says significant changes include adding shutters, gabbles, and balconies to the front, as well as securing extra money for landscaping. Haskins scoffs.

"They just did 'strip mall' additions: fake pediments, trim that gives the illusion of depth," says Haskins. "It's possible to add some human scale to the project– more light in stairwells, for example. The new wing could have been better designed, could have overcome the old 'housing project' style. Instead it's perpetuating the legacy of places like Garrett Square," says Haskins, referring to the old moniker of Friendship Court.

While Haskins presents a lot of interesting ideas, as far as some are concerned, his suggestions are like asking a toad to sing.

"Mark doesn't understand that RT doesn't have any money," says City councilor Blake Caravati, who also happens to live in the Little High neighborhood. "There's very little wiggle room in this kind of financing. There's just no money to do what Haskins wants done."

In the cacophony of miscommunications, accusations, and widely opposing points of view, Caravati– who's been aware of the project from the beginning– appears to be the voice of reason.

"In negotiations you have to go to the middle," says Caravati. "Haskins didn't budge. Smith did some, but Haskins didn't come back."

Caravati also accepts some blame. "I made some personal mistakes," he says. "I knew about this in August of 2004, but I didn't talk to the neighbors about it."

Still, Caravati thinks that should have been up to Smith. "He didn't tell the neighborhood. He neglected to work with the neighbors on the design in the beginning."

Still, Caravati has faith in Smith and Region Ten. "CCHI is a non-profit that does nothing but good things for the city," he says, "and if people screw around at this point, Region Ten could lose its funding. Delaying it any more will kill the project. I don't know if Haskins knows this. "

Now Caravati is gearing up for City Council's review. "Nobody is being served," he says. "We're in limbo. Somebody needs to make a hard decision, and we're going to do it."

Meanwhile, Haskins shows no signs of backing down. "We've never been able to get them to discuss the issue of planning," he says. "We've always been told we're idealists, but we're not; we're realists."

Haskins says the Neighborhood Association plans to petition the City for a public hearing.

"We hope it will go in front of the planning commission," says Haskins, "because [Region Ten] just doesn't have anyone there with an iota of experience with this."

Meanwhile, the Region Ten clients already living at the Mews, and those waiting for housing, will have to wait for this battle of opposing wills to end.

The Mews, a low-income housing project for Region Ten clients, has Little High residents up in arms.