ONARCHITECTURE- Huja speaks: Mall project can be done for 'a lot less'

Another brick in the Mall: Some City Councilors think its time to re-think the Mall renovation project and slash its $7.5 million budget.

On June 16, City planners will ask City Council for $4.5 million to jump-start the proposed $7.5 million Downtown Mall renovation. Amid concerns from the downtown business community, who fear the project could drag on the way the recent Third Street project did (it ran nearly a year over schedule), planners say they want to accelerate the renovation, laying several hundred thousand new bricks and performing various upgrades and possible additions between January and the end of spring next year.

However, some City Council members think it may be time to slow down, re-think the project, and slash its budget.

Councilor Satyendra Huja, who was instrumental in planning the original Mall project, believes the renovation project can be done for "a lot less" than $7.5 million. In fact, he's asked City staff for a full budget accounting of the project to see where cost savings can be realized.

"I support repairing the bricks on the Mall, but I do not support changing the character of the Mall," says Huja, who believes it unwise to alter something that has been so successful. "I think the renovation should be simple, clean, and elegant," he says.

"I look forward to seeing that accounting document," says Mayor Dave Norris. "[Huja]'s convinced that we can do what we need to do for half the cost that the staff and consultants are proposing, and since he is clearly more of an expert on this matter than I am, I'm to a certain extent going to follow his lead on this one."

To be fair, it appears that the City has already gotten the message. According to spokesperson Ric Barrick, while the proposed budget is still $7.5 million, there's an effort underway to "reduce the public-paid elements of the project," and he says the City is "likely to spend much less." 

Huja also says he would like to see more of a focus on the side streets, of which there are only four left to be finished. Norris also believes the side streets should be completed, and he says he's asked City Manager Gary O'Connell to see if they could be included in the Capital Improvement Program budget and finished in the next five or six years. 

"Or, if we scale down the Mall improvements," says Norris, " then we will have funds available to do the side streets even quicker."

"First, we need to use the bricks we have," Huja suggests, "clean them up, and reuse them. This will save money and preserve the character of the Mall."

Indeed, last week in this column, Mall designer Lawrence Halprin urged the City not to change the size of the bricks (planners have proposed replacing the existing 4" x 12" bricks with 5" x 10" bricks), saying it was "important to maintain the original brick size and pattern as the ground level establishes the character for the Mall."

Likewise, UVA architecture professor and Halprin scholar Beth Meyer thinks that reuse is a wise option. "There are hundreds of thousands of bricks already there," she says. "Why not use them?"

"Normal bricks are scaled to the hand; the current bricks are scaled to the foot–  literally," says Timothy Slater, a New York-based architect and urban planner who was born in Charlottesville and did an internship with the city several years ago. "It's a subtlety that greatly affects the linear character of the Mall. How does compressing that scale not affect the entire perception of the place?" 

Slater says he's "embarrassed and amazed" that the vast majority of city planners and business people don't understand the subtleties of the design of "Charlottesville's greatest, perhaps its only asset."

 "Instead of tinkering with the Mall," he says. "The City needs to shift their focus to nearby blocks, leveraging the Mall's success as a wildly popular public space to bring good development, and more consumers, downtown."

But City planners and the MMM Design Group, the design firm in charge of the project, have insisted that the existing 4"x 12" bricks are a problem, claiming they are unstable when laid in sand, have caused a "tripping and tipping" concern due to their length and girth, are prohibitively expensive because they would have to be specially ordered from a manufacturer in Nebraska, and would therefore create a "greater environmental imprint" due to the fuel burned to truck them that far. In addition, MMM has said that the brick manufacturer they want to use, Old Virginia Brick  (a Salem-based company that 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 Virginia Business Magazine ) wasn't "willing" to make the 4" x 12" bricks.

When MMM discussed the project before the Board of Architectural Review recently, there was no discussion about reusing any of the 4" x 12" bricks. Instead, MMM proposed replacing them with the 5" x 10" bricks, saying they could be more easily obtained from Old Virginia Brick, were more stable, and would be less expensive. However, like Halprin and Slater, BAR members worried that the new brick size might radically alter the character of the Mall and asked to see sample patterns of the 5" x 10" bricks on larger pallets.

Contrary to what MMM and city planners have said, however, masonry expert Robert Vaughn, a member of the Virginia Masonry Association and owner of the Richmond-based masonry company Shade & Wise, says that 4"x 12" bricks are "very stable" if they're installed correctly and set on a good concrete base. He did say that the 4" x 12" size is "out of the ordinary," but said that several manufacturers in Virginia or in a nearby state could probably make them. Likewise, Charlottesville masonry expert Stephanie Marshall with Marshall Contracting & Masonry also said that the 4" x 12" bricks "shouldn't be hard to obtain." 

Surprisingly, Vaughn also said that he was unfamiliar with the proposed 5" x 10" sized bricks. "I've really not seen anything like that," he said. "That's a very unusual size."

Indeed, according to data compiled by the Brick Industry Association and the National Association of Brick Distributors, standard bricks sizes, which represent roughly 90 percent of all sizes currently manufactured, are typically 4" x 8", 4" x 12", and 4" x 16."

Last week, the Hook asked the City and MMM to address Vaughn's comments, but they had not responded by press time. 

Vaughn also had a suggestion for addressing the concerns of downtown business owners, one that has yet to be discussed publicly by planners–work at night.

 "On an open Mall, it would be best to work after-hours or at night, just like VDOT does when they do road projects," he said. "Both the West Broad Village in Richmond and the Short Pump Town Center were done mostly at night."

Marshall also seemed to questioned the current plan to lay the bricks in a matter of months, saying it would take at least three years to do the job properly. And by properly she means using mortar joints, not simply laying them in sand. "The bricks should be set in mortar so they don't move around," she says. In addition to the amount of labor involved, Marshall said the project would also be dependent on the weather. "Bricks are like sponges," she said. "...you can't have any moisture around while you're working."

And like Vaughn, she says that preparing a sound concrete base is key. "As it is with everything," she says, "you need a good foundation."

Editor's Note: Just hours before we went to press the City issued a press release inviting the community to a "Design Reveal Community Meeting" on the Mall project to be held on June 23 from 6:30pm to 8:30pm in City Space at 5th Street NE on the Downtown Mall.