ARCHITECTURE- Atwood's attempt: A Waterhouse 'village' downtown?

If William Atwood has his way, and if the Board of Architectural Review allows it, the hodgepodge of asphalt that occupies the South Street side of the block between the Lewis & Clark building and Second Street NW (behind Club 216 on Water Street) will become a harmonious pedestrian village. Standing there staring at the ugly incongruity of the landscape, its hard to imagine, but its not hard to wish him luck with the endeavor.

Friday, May 12, at the Charlottesville Community Design Center, Atwood held a charette on his proposed Waterhouse village. Although designs for the project are still on the drawing board, and Atwood has yet to endure some grueling BAR moments, he did have a chance to present his preliminary designs and discuss his vision.

One of three massive downtown projects now in the planning stage, Atwood's is the only one of the three that isn't going to be nine stories tall. (The others are Coran Capshaw's proposal for the old C&O coal tower site and Keith Woodard's proposal for the storefronts beside the Wachovia tower.)

One of the main goals of Waterhouse, Atwood says, is "to support, enhance, and build up the space for the existing buildings. If the neighborhood really comes together on this one, they could reinvent the block.

Basically, Atwood hopes to tie together the cacophony of structures on the block by creating a village behind and above the buildings that house Club 216, Eloise, and Sidetracks music. In particular, he hopes to rescue the Lewis & Clark building from its seemingly isolated perch and draw that late 1980s post-modern condo tower into the downtown streetscape.

The beauty of the Lewis & Clark building is that it's a simple, fenestrated square building, but its on top of an asphalt mound, says Atwood. Anything you could do to make it not want to fly off on a string, which is what it feels like its going to do– to tie it to the ground– would be an improvement.

To his credit, Atwood, despite eliminating an existing lot on the site, wants to improve the downtown parking situation. Theres a strong need for parking in Charlottesville, he says. And all the parking for this project could be underground.

Atwood says the development will be 99.9 percent housing and will abut the existing retail space. Although the exact amount of housing hasnt been decided, Atwood says there could be about 50 apartments/condos of 1,500 square feet each and perhaps several 3,600-square-feet cottage-like townhouses, complete with front porches, along South Street.

Clearly the Waterhouse project is in its embryo design stages, as evidenced by Atwoods frequent self-critiques during the presentation.

I think we made a mistake going down the townhouse road, he said, as if he were still thinking it through. We want it to be more of a 'village'.

The development will also be at least three stories high (I think we need four stories, he mused at one point) and feature a pedestrian-oriented plaza and the underground parking structure. It might entail permanently closing South Street.

I was against closing South Street in the beginning, Atwood said, but then I changed my mind. Atwood envisions a largely pedestrian area that would enhance his village idea.

Needless to say, all this makes for a very unusual urban planning problem, he acknowledges.

Atwood recalled that early drawings for the project, which called for a single multi-story building with a shorter wing, were deliberately aggressive and caused quite a stir.

The drawings certainly drew a lot of attention," says Atwood, "People called them schizophrenic. Finally, we decided we didnt want this bizarre appendage coming out of the building, so we decided to separate the two, creating the pedestrian area in between.

Previous owner Oliver Kuttner says he sold the acre-plus complex (together with several condos at Lewis & Clark Square) to an intermediary for $5.4 million; Atwood didn't volunteer his purchase price, and city tax records still list one of Kuttner's companies as the owner.

Atwood acknowledges that his in-fill plans have provoked a larger discussion about downtown development.

The Downtown Mall area is pretty amazing when you think about it, he said. There is just so much to do within a 10-minute walk. Still, Atwood thinks there should be more retail.

Architects can create a lot of pretty pictures, but thats not what makes people come to places like the Mall," he says. "Other than marriage, dinner and a movie is the strongest cultural connection we have. Thats what made Downtown."

And then he invokes the name of the man who built the Charlottesville Ice Park and the Downtown Regal Cinemas.

Lee Danielson– love him or hate him– has done a hell of a lot better than I have over the last 30 years to make the Mall what it is, he says.

Atwood believes the transforming moment in the Malls history was the night a man was stomped to death outside the restaurant now known as Bizou. The so-called "Fat City killing," named for the now defunct eatery on the site, occurred in January 1990.

That changed everything, he said. For some reason, that energized people, and has to this day. It was just too much.

If all goes according to plan, the Waterhouse project will continue to change the Downtown Mall. Whether it will energize people the way other downtown projects have–- the ice park, the Pavilion, the Paramount, or the proposed Transit Center- only time will tell.

Lewis & Clark Square, in the background, looms over the site of architect William Atwood's proposed Waterhouse development between South Street and Water Street. If the neighborhood really comes together on this one, says Atwood, they could reinvent the block.