ONARCHITECTURE- Fear mode: Merchants ask city to halt Mall project
With the $7.5 million Mall re-bricking scheduled to begin in about a month, some Mall business say the timing of the project couldn't be worse.FILE PHOTO BY WILL WALKER
On December 1, the National Bureau of Economic Research confirmed that the U.S. economy has been in a recession since last December. Fearing for their livelihoods in the current economic crisis, over two dozen Mall mavens, employees, and business owners have banded together to ask the City to halt or alter the approved $7.5 million Mall re-bricking project, which is scheduled to begin in January.
Such a last minute request would appear to be too late. Not necessarily.
According to City spokesperson Ric Barrick, the contracts for the construction work have yet to be signed by all parties. Specifically, there was a problem concerning the first round of bids to supply the bricks themselves because of the "enormous" range of prices, with some of the lower bids not including the price of shipping and handling. In the second round of bids, only two manufactures have submitted for the estimated 375,000 bricks–Old Virginia Brick Inc. for $357,000 and Southside Builders for $393,000.
However, some Mall businesses are hoping those bricks never get laid.
In an open letter to members of Charlottesville City Council and city manager Gary O'Connell, well-known Mall businesses such as Miller's, Rapture, Gravity Lounge, Alakazam Toys & Gifts, Oyster House Antiques, and the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar questioned the intent and timing of the expensive project.
"The estimated $7.5 million dollar cost of replacing the bricks will put an undue burden on taxpayers at a time when city government anticipates a budget crunch– perhaps even a shortfall– for next year... [T]his is reckless, and hard to fathom," the letter states.
Furthermore, the letter writers believe the $7.5 million should be diverted toward more pressing concerns, such as affordable housing initiatives, and that the existing Mall should simply be repaired.
In addition, they claim that City Council and the Downtown Business Association made little attempt to consult or notify downtown businesses concerning the proposed reduction of outdoor patio space and "have paid scant attention to the protestations and concerns of Mall business owners and workers, as evidenced at the meeting held November 14 to discuss the matter."
Indeed, at the November 14 meeting with city planners, many restaurant owners and managers were shocked to learn that outdoor café spaces would not be allowed to open until after the project was completed, and that all outdoor cafe spaces would be reduced to 700 square feet and be required to move away from the public fountains.
"You're talking about something that is going to hurt our business," said Eliza Dilello, the Blue Light Grill's general manager. "I rely on my patio business."
One man reminded Tolbert that many of the restaurants that took an early chance on the Mall, and had therefore contributed to its success, would stand to lose much of their outdoor café space under the proposal.
"To take from the original restaurant owners is grossly unfair," he said, which was followed by a loud round of applause.
Despite reassurances from chief planner Jim Tolbert, who promised restaurants that the city "was going to do everything" to keep them open and reminded them of the $100,000 that was being spent on marketing and PR efforts to inform people that the Mall will be open for business during the renovation, it appears these businesses were not convinced.
"If businesses cannot operate fully, shoppers and diners will go elsewhere, since no one wants to shop or dine in a construction zone," the open letter states. "...This massive renovation project will stifle business downtown for the winter, and into spring. If the project lasts longer, the effects will be staggering. These businesses and their employees are already suffering the effects of continuous construction downtown."
Furthermore, the letter claims the Mall project will be "devastating to working people in Charlottesville already struggling to pay ever increasing rents."
But is this too little, too late? After all, many of the issues that the letter raises have already been presented and discussed, both in numerous public meetings and presentations before the Board of Architectual Review and City Council. Not to mention the numerous stories on the Mall project that have appeared in the Hook and other media.
"It's a late start to opposition, mostly due to the city not consulting with downtown businesses about the specifics of the plan," says musician Brandon Collins, one of the authors of the letter. "The meeting on November 14 seemed to cause a panic amongst downtown workers and businesses, and basically jump-started action by workers downtown. There is a City Council meeting tonight [Dec. 1], and we are expecting a good showing of folks to speak."
However, according to Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris, none of the business owners came to the Council meeting that night.
"I honestly think that this has more to do with frustrations about the café spaces than about the re-bricking itself," says Norris, "which as you know was advanced by the downtown business community and was and is supported by a much larger group of downtown business owners...their petition dwarfed this one."
However, Norris says he shares many of the concerns about the café spaces.
"Everyone needs to understand that these are staff recommendations at present," he says, "and subject to revision and ultimately to a Council vote."
Still, given the economic situation we are in, might Council be wise to listen to this last cry from some of the Mall's original businesses before the bricks are torn up?
"That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard," says developer Oliver Kuttner about the idea to close outdoor cafes until all the re-bricking was done. "The city is almost amplifying the negative impact on businesses."
"These are small businesses downtown," advised Quilts Unlimited owner Joan Fenton back in January, "and they can be seriously hurt by these disruptions. If you kill a small business for a year, you kill the business."
Ironically, Sage Moon Gallery on the east end of the Mall, the site where several public meetings on the Mall project took place, appears to be dead before construction has even begun. The five-year-old art gallery plans to close on December 15.
"This location is large and quite costly," says owner Morgan MacKenzie-Perkins. Rent on the Chuck Lewis-owned, 8,200-square-foot space is over $8,000 a month, she says, and with utilities, comes close to $10K a month.
In May, the east end's Order From Horder across the street closed its doors, and except for a stint as Obama headquarters, the A&N building next door to Sage Moon has been empty for three years.
MacKenzie-Perkins blames the economy for shrinking art sales. "People who can afford to collect are holding on," she explains. "It's called fear. We're in a fear mode."
"Merchants on the Mall are not getting rich," said Kuttner back in January, already aware of what the government wasn't saying yet. "You may not think there's a recession, but there is...businesses are suffering."
And that was 10 months ago.
Still, folks like MacKenzie-Perkins remain optimistic. "I think it will turn around," she says. "I believe the whole Mall is going to be vibrant when we get through this."
– with additional reporting by Lisa Provence