ONARCHITECTURE- Mall renovations: Downtown businesses not reassured

Manolo Blahniks, beware: After 30 years, much of the mortar between the bricks on the Mall is gone, creating an unsightly walking surface and striking fear in the hearts of well-dressed women.

On mydowntownmall.com, the project website for the City's proposed $7.5 million renovation of the Downtown Mall, scheduled to begin at the end of the year, stakeholders are assured that the renovation's "primary goal" is to "achieve results in the least disruptive way."

To some merchants, this sounds ominously like the smiling doctor who says, "Relax– this won't hurt a bit."   

"I think it's a much-needed improvement," says Joan Fenton, a downtown business owner and co-chair of the Downtown Business Association, "but I'm fearful, based on the city's track record, that they will end up destroying the Mall in the process."

Fenton says the most recent stain on the City's record is its attempt to renovate Third Street Northeast. Four years after utility work for the Paramount Theater renovation closed that short stretch for several months, a planned two-month project that began last summer could end up taking as many as nine months.

"Third Street never should have happened," Fenton says. "Contractors need to be given a strict deadline with penalties. And why not put down a metal plate in the evening, like they do in big cities when they dig up the street? This is what leads people down here to be worried."

Neighborhood Development chief Jim Tolbert admits that Third Street overhaul has not gone speedily, but he prefers to accentuate the positive.

"The beauty of Third Street is that we've learned a lot," says Tolbert, pointing out that what they've found underground (outdated sewer and water systems) will help better stage upcoming streetscape projects.

"These are small businesses downtown," says Fenton, "and they can be seriously hurt by these disruptions. If you kill a small business for a year, you kill the business."

Indeed, Shirley Barrett, who owns a salon called Nail Secrets on Third Street, has found nothing beautiful about the Third Street dig which continues to keep customers away. She received a letter last August saying the work would be completed in September, then was told it wouldn't be until November. In December, a City construction report predicted a January/early February completion date. However, in January's report that date was changed to "early spring."

Most of today's Mall business owners weren't around for July 7, 1976 dedication of the first five blocks of the Downtown Mall– which culminated a rocky period of torn-up streets and mom-and-pop businesses pushed out of business.

"Merchants on the Mall are not getting rich," says local developer Oliver Kuttner. "You may not think there's a recession, but there is," says Kuttner whose wife runs a shop downtown. "Businesses are suffering."

Kuttner thinks that spending $7.5 million on a massive Mall renovation project is foolish. He'd rather see city staff approach the problem as a maintenance issue, something they should have begun years ago.  

"They've neglected the Mall, and now it's truly falling apart," says Kuttner. "But it just needs to be maintained. There are pedestrian areas in Europe that are 200 years old. Let it become an antique, old Mall. Hire a maintenance crew, some masons, and have them go up and down the Mall. It would probably cost less than $200,000 a year."

"We've not done all the maintenance we could have," admits Tolbert, but he reiterates that the "30-year old shopping center" is now in need of major repairs.

If there's big money to be spent, Kuttner thinks it should go to improving the Mall's side streets, which he says "look like junk."

"Businesses on the side streets are dying," Kuttner says. "If you want to spent $10 million– and I don't think the city is that wealthy– then start with Water Street and the side streets, where anything would be an improvement."

A design plan

In 2005, a  "road map to the future" for the Mall (viewable on the project website) was completed in by Wallace, Roberts, and Todd, the same Philadelphia firm that designed the Charlottesville Transit Center. It emphasizes respect for Lawrence Halprin's original design and calls for improving the side streets to extend the Mall's pedestrian orientation. 

The report also recommends replacing the mortar between the bricks with a sturdier system of bricks set in sand beds with sand-swept joints, installing new lighting fixtures with less glare, "uplights" to show off the willow oaks, curved benches around exiting planters, a "significant" number of new chairs, and even ergonomic trash cans. 

In addition, WRT recommended replacing the red maples at Central Place; and to avoid the risk of losing them all at once, replacing a third of the willow oaks every ten years. And most importantly, the report calls for a careful phasing of the brick replacement so has not disrupt merchants and visitors.

It's a thoughtful road map, but not one the City appears to be willing to follow. Instead of going with WRT again, Tolbert says the city decided to use a local firm, MMM Design Group, to see the project through. 

"WRT provided a big-picture look," says Tolbert. "MMM is taking their stuff and coming up with a workable plan."

However, the contract with MMM does not include any plans for side streets, says Tolbert. Instead, streetscape projects for Second Street West (home of the Hook) and Water Street, already in the works, will be handled separately. In addition, the City is waiting for the nine-story hotel project across from Central Place, which will include streetscape improvements, before tackling Second Street East.

Then, of course, there's the Mall crossing project. Potentially, the next two years could see a confluence of messy Mall construction projects, all on different time schedules and budgets.

 That's an approach that worries an advisor to the WRT report. 

"Going piecemeal," says architect Gary Okerlund, "is very dangerous. You have to have a solid design concept; otherwise, you're going to lose all continuity. The WRT concept should be the backbone of this renovation."

Like Kuttner, Okerlund thinks the side streets should be a big priority, and he also believes that any major renovation of the Mall needs to take West Main into consideration. Indeed, the WRT report recommends extending any new lighting fixtures on the Mall up West Main to begin creating continuity between the two areas. 

"As you renovate the Mall, you need to think about the future of the side streets, of West Main," says Okerlund. "There really should be a design presence in City Hall."

According to Tolbert, the City will meet separately with retail businesses, offices, non-profits, restaurants and theaters, and residents over the next few weeks to hear their concerns before presenting preliminary plans to the Board of Architectural Review and City Council.

Tolbert mentions needed brick repair, enhanced lighting, wireless Internet access, and tree work (there are no plans to remove trees now, he emphasizes), but he's not ready yet to say what specifically is going to be done, or how.

"We're early on in the process," Tolbert says. "People are telling us what they think, and we're listening to business owners' concerns."

Tolbert says the City hopes to have a project plan by late summer or early fall. And as the community meetings get under way, it appears that some downtown stakeholders may want more than just a say in the process– they may want someone other than city officials in charge.

"It behooves the city to hire an outside person, an outside expert to supervise this project, and not leave it to city staff," says Fenton. "If this is not done right, the economic cost to the city will be substantial."

Scheduled meetings with city staff concerning the Mall renovation: retail businesses, January 24 at 10am, SNL building; offices and non-profits: Monday, January 28 at 10am, SNL building; restaurants and theaters, January 29 at 10am, SNL building; residents, Janaury 29 at 6pm, Sage Moon Gallery.

Learn more about the history of construction along Third street on the Hook's website: Paramount pains: Theater takes toll on neighbors (http://www.readthehook.com/Stories/2003/11/27/newsParamountPainsTheaterT...) and Third street blues: What's up with big dig, Croxton's green giant? (http://www.readthehook.com/Stories/2007/11/01/ONARCH-0644.rtf.aspx)


1 comment

I think Fenton is wrong in suggesting that outside management should be brought in. We already pay for management and shouldn't have to pay twice. The city really needs to fire Jim Tolbert and find someone who can handle the job of managing a department that plays such an important role in shaping the future of the city. Charlottesville's government is ineptly run in general, but Neighborhood Development Services takes the cake. Tolbert's is to blame for that.

There probably aren't a lot who remember it anymore, but when the city built its very own City Hall annex, they didn't even notice that they had the building in the wrong place until construction was substantially underway. It was built several feet from where it was planned to go. One can only imagine what they will do to screw up a project involving the whole mall.

Two recent, well publicized lawsuits against the city came from incompetence in Tolbert's department and there are undoubtedly some that haven't made the news.
It seem likely that this fiasco will lead to more once it starts and who knows what the cost of that will be in the end.

Finally, I really have to wonder why Jim Tolbert was surprised to find water and sewer lines running under a street. It's simply amazing that he wouldn't have suspected that and that he didn't have a plan in place for swiftly dealing with the problems that might cause. What does he care though? It's someone else's dreams and life saving that go down the drain while he and his staff "learn a lot."

It's really time for some accountability and not just band-aid fixes. Canning Tolbert is a long needed first step.