ONARCHITECTURE- Busy builders: Another year of explosive growth

It's been a busy year in architecture and development. UVA approved the multi-million dollar South Lawn project and opened John Paul Jones arena and Wilsdorf Hall; the city unveiled the Free Speech Wall; work started on Albemarle Place near Hydraulic Road, a development twice the size of the Downtown Mall; the first of several planned nine-story buildings around the real Downtown Mall was approved; a large section of the Juvenile & Domestic Relations Court building collapsed– take a deep breath– the Jefferson Theater was sold and is being renovated by Coran Capshaw, and a developer's decision to cut down a 148-year-old beech tree tested the system that guides local development.

And that's merely a tiny slice of what's been going on. During the year, an entire column every week wasn't enough to cover everything being built or planned.

What's amazing is how many different kinds of people we talked to for the stories we covered, including architects, artists, trail planners, developers, neighborhood association members, zoning officials, PR reps, lawyers, business persons, UVA officials, landscapers, environmental activists, restaurateurs, free speech advocates, gadflies, hoteliers, photographers, real estate agents, clock repairmen, engineers, social workers, philanthropists, biology professors, physicists, baristas, preservationists, archeologists, construction workers, arborists, and even rock stars.

At some point, everyone is affected by the built world, whether it's a group of UVA architecture professors criticizing the faux-Jeffersonian design of the South Lawn project, a citizen angry about the development in his neighborhood, a property rights advocate fed up with government guidelines and regulations, a preservationist saddened by the loss of her heritage, a developer trying to make a profit, a city planner trying to balance competing interests, an archeologist trying to preserve some unseen history, a homeowner petitioning for a new sidewalk, or a driver trying to find a parking space.

This year, one of the more important dynamics of how that built world gets built was best illustrated by the loss of part of the natural environment.

When– frustrated with the way it was hampering construction of a parking lot for his multi-million dollar Watson Manor project– developer David Turner took it upon himself to cut down a 148-year-old beech tree at 3 University Circle, he did more than violate a special use permit and make tree lovers mad– he transgressed the tacit pledge from government to developers: "We will respect your wishes if you respect our authority." 

Faced with having to nix a popular development, that authority didn't have much clout. UVA's Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, which is privately funding the project, was fined a mere $200 for felling the old tree and allowed to continue with the project, although Turner did resign as project manager. In addition, the Institute mollified angry University Circle neighbors with $5,000 in a cash and an 8-inch "replacement" for the mammoth beech.

If it hadn't been for the flogging that Turner took in the press– with city officials initially suggesting that criminal charges should be filed– it's unlikely that Turner and the Institute would have suffered any real consequences for their actions. And some might wonder if, even after all the hubbub, that wasn't actually the case.

In yet another year of explosive growth, with Charlottesville's popularity attracting more and more development, the fight over the tree really became a fight over who (or what) controls the process of planning and development. Is it the developers with their cash, ledger books, pretty project renderings, and bravado? Is it city planners with their aesthetic judgments, architectural guidelines, statistics, and pragmatic long-term visions? Or is it controlled more by market forces and public opinion?

Of course, the answer is simple: the process is a combination of all those things, and the tension they create is our imperfect democracy in action.

The Free Speech Wall, which went up in front of City Hall this year, proved that democracy, and development, can be messy.



OnArchitecture highlights 2006

Staunton: We fell in love with the Queen City long ago, and so we reported on several of its architectural treasures, such as the National Valley Bank, the Marquis Building, and the Clock Tower. However, we also reported on the proposed demolition of the infamous Dejarnette Center and the fate of Western State Hospital.

Free Speech Wall: Some think it's a unique and fitting tribute to our First Amendment; others think it's an ill-conceived eyesore.

Jefferson's jail: In Lovingston, preservationists discover proof that the sheriff's office was designed by Thomas Jefferson.

RiverBluff: Developers market the project overlooking the Greenbelt Trail as an ecosystem-friendly "conservation community," but they damage the ecosystem during excavation. Local residents also question the wisdom of siting a development with $500,000 dwellings at the end of a street of low-cost houses and federally assisted rental properties.

Locust Avenue sidewalk: When the City introduces plans to extend the sidewalk to the "boulevard" end of this center-city thoroughfare, some residents realize it will chop their yards, and ask the City to re-route the walkway. But some neighbors take offense, pointing out that the "abutters" had extended their yards beyond legal boundaries. The pavement goes on as planned.

Stonewall Jackson Hotel: Staunton pumps $20 million into the renovation of the old Stonewall Jackson Hotel, but will the risky investment pay off? Despite lower-than-expected bookings, Queen City officials express optimism that taxpayers can handle the hotel's $580,000 annual costs.

Albemarle Place: Excavation begins on a development near Hydraulic Road that will be twice the size of the Downtown Mall. The proposal includes a Main Street, a 14-screen theater, a 120-room hotel, a potential 10-story residential building, and a host of big-name retailers and restaurants.

Belmont Manor plays its part: When Rock Hudson came to Charlottesville with Liz Taylor to shoot the opening scenes of George Stevens' classic 1955 movie, Giant, he landed at a luxurious Keswick mansion that was supposed to speak volumes about horse country. When the mansion goes up for sale, some architectural critics note that the mixed architectural message speaks volumes about human vanity.

Courthouse collapse: In March, the entire northeast corner of the old Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court building plunges earthward. While no one is hurt, the incident derails the $13.5 million renovation by many months.

Little High Noon: The Mews project on Little High Street, a 40-unit low-income housing complex for people with disabilities, turns into a classic confrontation between pragmatism and idealism. On one side, embattled social services agency Region Ten wants to parlay a limited budget into much-needed housing for its clients, while on the other, the Neighborhood Association demands a more inspired design.

Architects scrap over South Lawn project: An open letter signed by over 30 UVA architecture professors appears in the Cavalier Daily, signaling a full-scale revolt against the University's promotion of "faux Jeffersonian architecture" and something called "apologetic neo-Jeffersonian appliqué" in the South Lawn project design. UVA approves the project anyway.

Number nine dream: What will downtown Charlottesville look like in 20 years? The Waterhouse development on Water Street becomes the first of several proposed nine-story towers to be approved on or near the Downtown Mall. However, First & Main, another nine-story project slated for the heart of the Mall, has city planners and citizens wondering if tall is really the way to go. 

Critta's Corner: If all goes according to Stonehaus development's latest plans, the 207-acre Belvedere development on Rio Road could be a model for the future of suburban housing as well as the preservation of slavery's past history. Archeologists discover a free black community on the site where Sally Hemings' sister, Critta, lived.

Jefferson Theater: Hook editor Hawes Spencer admits to mixed feelings as he sells the Jefferson Theater to Coran Capshaw in April. Will Capshaw care about the building as much as he had? Early signs indicate that the multi-million-dollar renovation is going to make the old theater shine.

Kitty Foster site: as part of UVA's South Lawn project, the residence and community of Kitty Foster, the first freed black slave to own property in Charlottesville, will be recognized with a sort of living sculpture and landscaping that reveals some of what archaeologists have found on the site. 

County Office Building turns 25: On October 31, county officials celebrate the 25th anniversary of the renovation of the County Office building on the corner of McIntire and Preston Avenues by christening the $1 million renovation of the 500-seat Lane Auditorium. That gives us a chance to meditate on its previous incarnation as Lane High School, and the decision to replace its old windows in the 1981 renovation.  

Rocker reflects on Wilsdorf Hall: Dave Matthews and his sister Jane wax eloquent about the opening of the new $43 million UVA building dedicated to the study of materials science and engineering, chemical engineering, and nanotechnology. The rock star's father, John W. Matthews, worked as a physicist at UVA before his death in 1977. Matthews and his family made donations to honor his memory and promote collaboration between scientists.