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



There were some downtown businesses (and employees) at the meeting Dec. 1st, they just didn't speak.
You will likely hear from those folks on the 15th.

Seems that the City is doing everything they can to turn the Mall into the ghost town it was back in the 80s. Fix the friggin bricks that are broken and ladies wear flats down there! I don't get it. The same people who will stroll the medieval streets of our sister cities in Europe (on the taxpayer dime) piss and moan over a few broken bricks here. Go ahead fools, and break the back of your only real money maker in the city.

Please everyone, go take a look at the shoddy job that was done on 3rd street and join in the call for common sense. There is still time to stop this idiocy from happening! A few bricks need fixing. Replacing it all is like having Laurel and Hardy rebuild Monticello.

I agree there are cobblestone streets in the most charming cities of the world. This is another example of a lack of maintenance just like our major reservoir, which has not been dredged in 42 years, and now the water authority wants to spend over 200 million by throwing away the investment we have and building all new infrastructure. Another example of the throw away society that hopefully will be rethought in this economic downturn.

The City of Alexandria has beautiful very heavily worn brick sidewalks everywhere. The area they cover is much greater than Charlottesville's mall and countless people go about their daily business walking on them with no noticeable problems. What is up with this mania for tearing up history even as we spend more and more reminding people how "historic" Charlottesville is?

The bricks are just another attempt to point blame at why people don't come downtown. People used to blame the one-way streets, now they blame the lack of cross streets, the bricks, etc. etc.

I walk that mall almost everyday now, and only shop at a few select stores. At some point people need to look at the mix of businesses that are there and when they are open... many of these stores are niche type boutiques that you need a specific reason to visit.

I blame the mall itself as the reason people don't go downtown. Businesses didn't come and go overnight back before the brick. And there was plenty of parking right on Main Street and the side streets. There was no big tent at the east end with beer trucks parked everywhere. And there was plenty of police presence, both on foot and in patrol cars.

I attempted to go to some of the niche stores on the mall a few months ago when I was shopping for a gift for someone. I went after work, around 5:30 p.m.. I was quite surprised to find that I was too late -- most of those shops close at six. Perhaps if they were open at the times when most potential customers can actually go shopping, they might do a better business.

Sorry, but a large part of the blame needs to be laid squarely at the feet of many of the mall merchants themselves. I'm a frequent mall shopper and am continuously surprised at the poor customer service and bad attitudes at many of the shops and restaurants there. Anyone tried to get waited on at Caspari? Yves Delorme? Many of the stores have quirky hours, and the employees act as though it's a privilege for you to be allowed through the door. But mostly it's the small-town hipster vibe that grates.

There are exceptions of course. Most of the used bookstores are great, Tuel Jewelers, Eppies, and O'Suzannah's employees are unfailingly gracious, and there are certainly others I've failed to list. But overall, the mall isn't as welcoming a place to visit any longer, and many of the merchants act like spoiled brats who expect Council and staff to bow at their feet. (Remember their demands for security cameras?)

Ditto what was said about Alexandria. I grew up there, and the bricks and cobblestones posed no problems. The merchants appreciated the historic area they had chosen to locate in, and everybody worked together without temper tantrums.

Council: Fix the damned bricks that are broken and spend the rest of the money helping our poorer brothers and sisters.
Mall Merchants: Just STFU, unless you're planning on providing some quality customer service sometime soon.