ONARCHITECTURE- Mall renovation: 'Simple' $7.5 million solution?

In February, City Council said no to more fountains on the Mall, but they sprang up again before the Board of Architectural Review.

What's been officially referred to as a "renovation" or "rehabilitation" of the Downtown Mall sounded more like a re-design as reps from the MMM Design Group, the company contracted by the City to spearhead the proposed $7.5 project, presented their latest design plans to the Board of Architectural Review last week.

Though city planners have vowed to remain faithful to Lawrence Halprin's original design, the proposed renovation includes 

*two new fountains (one of them a "cascading" fountain between the Omni and the ice rink)

*a so-called Sister City Plaza on this same west end (a series of plaques and flags to honor our six sister cities, which one BAR member called "a little bit of Rockefeller Center on the Mall")

*newspaper box "corals" to block them from view

*a children's playground on the East end (which the City has asked the Charlottesville Community Design Center to study)

*outdoor café spaces bordered by removable bollards

*spaces for public art displays

*and finally– new 5" x 10" bricks (the existing ones are 4" x 12") that could create a radically different pattern on the mall's surface.

In February, when MMM unveiled its plans to Charlottesville City Council, members made it clear that they wanted to keep the renovation simple and did not like the idea of more fountains.

Councilors Satyendra Huja and David Brown thought the fountains were too expensive (MMM rep Joe Schinstock told Council they would cost "several hundred thousand"), and both said they wanted the project to be limited to replacing bricks and updating utilities.

"I worry a little about trying to make the Mall do too much to appeal to too many people," Brown said. Huja, one of the original city planners at the Mall's inception in the 1970s, mentioned that he had a "paternal interest" in the project to rebuild the 32-year-old pedestrian center. "I think if you can keep the spirit of the original design, we'll be better off," he said. Councilor Holly Edwards also thought the fountains were inappropriate. 

Addressing the BAR, however, MMM reps Chris McKnight and Taylor Gould continued to lobby for the fountains, calling the West end of the Mall a "dead area" that would be enhanced by a fountain and the Sister City Plaza. Unlike City Council, BAR members appeared to have no problem with the fountains, and several members even said it would be nice to get more west-end water.

BAR members did, however, have an issue with the bricks. McKnight explained that they want to use 5" x 10" brick pavers on the Mall instead of replacing the existing 4" x 12" bricks because the former are "less likely to become unstable" and because the local brick company they want to use, Old Virginia Brick, "isn't willing" to produce the original custom size. (Roanoke Valley-based OVB was acquired in 2006 by "a private Charlottesville-based investment group that also has holdings in banking, real estate development and building materials," according to a 2006 article in Virginia Business Magazine.)

In addition, ordering them from farther away would be too expensive. McKight said the 5" x 10" bricks would be laid in the same herringbone pattern, but some BAR members worried that the fatter, shorter size would change the Mall's brick pattern entirely. To get a better sense of how it might look, members requested samples of the 5" x 10" bricks on a larger pallet.

MMM also wants to install permanent borders for outdoor café and restaurant seating. Company representatives suggested that current borders are too "loosely" defined; they proposed installing inserts that would accommodate removable bollards directly on the Mall's surface. They also suggested that three or four bollard designs could be ordered so that restaurant owners could have a choice.

McKnight discussed replacing the concrete banding and inlays on the Mall's surface with granite, as Halprin originally intended, and showed board members dark and light granite options. 

The two Mall crossings are going to be included in the renovation, but McKnight provided very little detail, other than to say he thought they "could thicken the slab and use a clay product on the crossings." He did say that the crossings would be identical to the rest of the Mall and ADA compatible. However, despite doing the two crossings, McKnight said the side streets of the Mall would not be part of the project.

Of course, supporters of the elaborate renovation plan justify it by saying the Mall is now beyond mere repair and maintenance. But is it really?  

"They've neglected the Mall, and now it's truly falling apart," says developer Oliver 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."

Indeed, as Neighborhood Development chief Jim Tolbert has admitted, the city "has not done all the maintenance we could have" over the last decade or so.

Kuttner suggests that the Mall bricks could simply be replaced or repaired by a crew of masons working their way slowly along over the next few years and "would probably cost less than $200,000 a year."

In addition, if the City really wanted to remain faithful to the Halprin design, wouldn't it make sense to simply restore and preserve it?

Instead, the city appears ready to spend millions. While $7.5 million has been the official estimate, it's likely that completing the two Mall crossings, building the Sister City Plaza, two new fountains, and a children's playground (never mind replacing the brick and the concrete inlays with granite) could push up the price on a "simple" rehabilitation. 

Developers like Kuttner also wonder why the "big money" isn't being spent on finishing the side streets. City Planning Commissioner Mike Farruggio asks the same question. He likes the idea of finishing the side streets, he says, "because it gives the Mall more of an area to be what it is, to do what it does best: invite pedestrians downtown. Plus, doing the side streets would bring the Mall to Water and Market streets and make it much more visible." 

BAR vice chair Syd Knight agrees that the side streets need attention, but he thinks Main Street needs to come first. "I'd love to have it both ways," he says. "I can understand that it may just not be possible budget-wise. It's a tough, tough choice; and it certainly doesn't seem to have a magic solution."

Still, some might wonder if the "several hundred thousand" to be used to create more fountains– not to mention the extra cost of building a mini Rockefeller Center and a children's playground– might be better spent.

After all, both the north and south sides of Third Street have already been upgraded, and the Water Street side of First Street was done by Kuttner (when he developed the Terraces). Also, the renovation of the Second Street crossing is in the works, improved streetscaping along Water Street side will be part of the new Landmark Hotel, and MMM is already designing the two crossings anyway.

That leaves just four unrenovated side streets– the Market Street side of First and Second Streets SE, and Fifth Street. Using the recent Third Street renovation price of $400,000 suggests that extending the Mall toward Market and Water Streets would cost just $1.6 million– to nearly double its pedestrian footprint!

As for the crumbling brick, Kuttner's idea of hiring a crew of masons at $200,000 a year may not be a "magic" solution, but it sure sounds practical– working slowly over the next two or three years, say, and not disturbing businesses as much, the project would cost tax payers just $600,000.



"In February, City Council said no to more fountains on the Mall, but they sprang up again before the Board of Architectural Review." It's great the Overrun O'Connell and MMM are showing council who's really in charge.
I believe the 3rd Street bricking actually was four months late and cost $800k with 00% in overruns.
It's intersting that MMM says that the west side is now dead when that argument was used five years ago to help justify the building of the transit hot dog concession stand.

While a fountain and "Sister City Plaza" sound nice, I'd much rather have more finished Mall surface on which to walk. Next to re-bricking the Mall, finishing the side streets should absolutely be a priority.

Cville Eye,

No, the Third Street bricking cost $400,000. In the past, we reported it was $800,000....but we found out that that price tag included the renovation of the Second Street crossing as well.