ONARCHITECTURE- Nine lives: Talk continues on Mall towers

The Downtown Mall's nine-story saga continues as City Council met recently with members of the Planning Commission, the Board of Architectural Review, and others to discuss the future of the proposed towers. 

The July 13 work session was the result of Council's June 19 decision to defer developer Keith Woodard's plans for his First & Main project. Woodard was asking Council to overturn a previous BAR recommendation that allowed the leveling of one building and the partial demolition of another, but called for the complete preservation of 101 E. Market St.

Woodard, who wants to demolish everything but the facades, said the recommendations hamstrung the project, particularly his plan for an automated underground parking facility.

At the time, Council seemed ready to deny Woodard's request and support the BAR's recommendations. 

"I consider it a big deal to overturn the BAR," Mayor David Brown told the Hook. "I'm very reluctant to embrace this kind of demolition."

However, after Blake Caravati, in his last session as a councilor, made an impassioned plea to further examine the demolition request and the First & Main project, saying it was "going to set a trend for what is going to be built on the Mall" and that he believed Woodard wanted to "do what's right for Charlottesville," Brown and company agreed to reopen discussion of the project. 

The decision shocked some BAR members, who felt they had already bent over backward to accommodate Woodard.

"Remember, it's half a block of the Downtown Mall we're talking about," BAR chair Fred Wolf told the Hook. "This project would have a huge impact, right at the most identifiable space in the city besides the Lawn. It seems to me it's a small concession to work with our recommendations."

That's why they were at it again on July 13. Jim Tolbert, Director of Neighborhood Development Services, opened the discussion by pointing out some misconceptions.

 "I want to correct the notion out there that we raised the height limit to nine stories in 2003," Tolbert said. "That's a myth."

In fact, Tolbert said, the height limit was set at 175 feet in 1972 and lowered to 101 feet in 1985, meaning the right to build nine stories has been available to developers for the last 21 years.

"And thank goodness nothing has been built to 175 feet on the Mall," Tolbert added. Indeed, as everyone can see, the Lewis & Clark building, the Wachovia Bank building, and the Monticello Hotel are all nine-story buildings on or near the Mall.   

While the zoning might not be new, the fact that these tall buildings might actually be built is. As Planning Commission member Bill Lucy pointed out, the build-out implications of these tall building projects are different than they were in 1972 or 1985. 

"In the past, people probably thought those 175-foot buildings would be office buildings," Lucy said, not the mixed-use buildings being discussed today. In addition, given the economic success the Mall has enjoyed, the large area where nine-story buildings are currently allowed, and the current interest in "new urbanism," Lucy suggested that there could be hundreds of tall buildings in the City's future.

Misconception corrected, Tolbert reviewed the issues: Are nine-story buildings appropriate for the Downtown Mall? Should the BAR consider future development plans when evaluating a demolition request? 

Several growth advocates noted that the discussion seemed to be about limiting what developers could do. They reminded everyone that developers need to be empowered economically; otherwise, they wouldn't be willing to take the risk of developing projects like First & Main.

Ex-councilor Caravati suggested that members of the BAR, the Planning Commission, and City Council work more closely with developers. Caravati even proposed that the City should approach the state to pass legislation requiring the BAR to consider development plans. 

Councilor Kevin Lynch dismissed Caravati's idea, saying the City had the power to change its demolition or building requirements if it wanted to, while Councilor Kendra Hamilton suggested that such a divisive move would be unsuccessful anyway.

Hamilton observed that the meeting had been "tremendously helpful" and that Council needs to "come together on this one." In the end, however, BAR members continued to be perplexed by the continuing discussion, which seemed to be asking them to modify their recommendations based on the supposedly special merits of the First & Main project. After all, the BAR is charged only with considering the historic value of existing buildings.

"I think it's a really bad idea for us to consider what's going to be on the site," said BAR member Lynne Heetderks, "because we have no idea what will actually end up getting built."

While Heetderks doesn't mention "bait-and-switch," she says she's noticed "again and again and again" dreams that don't become reality. "We get presented with a great design, a great model, but when the final budget for the project comes through, all the recommendations have been stripped." 

Former BAR member Jack Rinehart recently told the Hook that the BAR opposed approval of the Lewis & Clark building in the late '80s. "We fought it the best we could," said Rinehart, "but City Council overruled us. It was kind of a fait accompli."

But construction never happens without a developer and some money. For willing developer Oliver Kuttner (he was not at the work session), who is in the early stages of developing the Central Fidelity building, the economics of nine-story buildings, as well as his desire for them, just isn't there. 

"It's my opinion that nine-story buildings are not good for the Mall," says Kuttner, who wants to hold the Central Fidelity building to three or four stories, follow BAR recommendations, and do something interesting with the rest.

On July 21, during his first on-site meeting with architects Gate Pratt and David Kariel (the latter the architect of record for the Terraces project in the old Woolworth's building), Kuttner laid out his early vision for the Central Fidelity building among the piles of demolition debris and dust. 

"I think the Terraces is a good building, not a great building," he told Kariel and Pratt, who were busy taking notes as Kuttner painted mental pictures. Kuttner developed the Terraces.

"But I have a second chance," he told them, "so let's build a great building." 


Nine-stories on the Mall? Developer Keith Woodard's First & Main project has triggered a debate.
Rendering by A2RCI Architect Greg Brezinski