ONARCHITECTURE- Calling all architects: City seeks designs

If the city has its way, the Water Street parking lots could become the Downtown Mall's La Defense: a modernist appendage rising up on the edge of our city's historic core. 

In early December, Neighborhood Development chief Jim Tolbert quietly issued a request for proposals to manage a nation-wide juried design competition for the Water Street parking lots. According to Tolbert, various community members had requested that a design competition be held to offer potential developers some creative options for what Tolbert refers to as, "the most valuable piece of land left in the City."

Indeed, a deal was in the works last year to sell the one-acre lower parking lot for a reported $7 million... but more about that later.

According to the recent proposal, first reported by growth watchdogs Charlottesville Tomorrow, the City wants to run an "open ideas" competition on the development of the parking lots, inviting architectural and urban design teams around the country to present creative ideas for the site.

"An open ideas competition generates excitement and publicity for a project while bringing the highest degree of creativity to the process," the proposal states. "Some proposals stretch the boundaries, but aim to provoke thought and provide a vast array of alternatives."

Bounded by Water Street, South Street, Second Street East and Second Street West, the Water Street parking lots have long been seen as sites for future development. According to City spokesperson Ric Barrick, the city hopes to encourage contestants to take their cues from the nearby Live Arts building, which represents a departure from traditional Downtown architecture.

The City also wants the jury to reflect "diverse perspectives" by including not just architects, but also landscape architects, green building experts, urban designers, developers, transportation professionals, City officials, and citizens. The winner receive a "cash prize."

Indeed, the proposed design competition presents a tall order for would-be contestants. In addition to designing "multi-use, environmentally friendly buildings" that connect seamlessly with ongoing and planned Mall development, the city is asking that designs and ideas take into account the need for affordable services and workforce housing, more civic space south of the Mall, a workable parking plan, and future transit accommodations. And the City doesn't even own most of the land.

As Tolbert admits, there's no guarantee that the winning design will get built, but the city hopes the contest will generate public discussion on the use of the land, give potential developers a clear idea of what the city is looking for, and encourage, as the proposal states, "the...best use of a limited public and private asset."

Much of the language in the proposal, some of it word-for-word, comes from a letter that sixteen concerned, and influential, citizens sent to Mayor David Brown last July. Signed by Mitch Van Yahres , Maurice Cox, Charlottesville Tomorrow's Brian Wheeler, BAR chair Fred Wolf, UVA architecture professor Bill Moorish, and others, the letter encourages the city to seek out "open and creative community input" in the development of the lots, and to build "a legacy in planning for the next 30 years." In particular, it emphasizes the need to preserve the "vibrant" site of the City's farmers market, which currently sets up on one of the lots on summertime Saturdays.  

According to Tolbert, a good example of what the City has in mind is the recent design competition for the Sunrise Trailer Park, an effort organized jointly by the Charlottesville Community Design Center and Habitat for Humanity. That $25,000 competition produced ideas for a new kind of housing development model, which went on display at the CCDC last summer and fall, and which Habit will use to develop the new housing development.

Of course, the economics of developing the pricey Downtown property is another matter. Potential developers will not only need a some good design ideas, they'll need deep wallets.  

Last year, the Charlottesville Parking Center Inc., which owns the 125-space lot in front of Live Arts attempted to sell the lot for around $7 million, a deal that would have made it one of the biggest– if not the biggest– real estate deals in Charlottesville history. However, that deal never came to pass.

Ironically, the lot was incorporated in 1959 by local businesses to make sure there was adequate parking for Downtown shoppers. (In the spirit of full disclosure, it should be noted that The Hook owns one share in the corporation.) However, ever since the Water and Market Street parking garages became available, and Downtown land prices began to soar, the temptation to sell has grown stronger and stronger.

In addition, the city's 2003 overhaul of its zoning ordinances, which strongly encourages the development of multi-story (up to 9 stories), mixed-use buildings in the Downtown corridor, has made the parking lot a prime candidate for such development, adding considerably to its value.  The city owns the nearby metered lot, and two other companies own parcels eyed by the City.

Oddly enough, the deadline for submitting proposals to manage the competition was December 20, only 12 working days after it was issued. And according Tolbert, he received only one proposal. Still, he says the City hopes to crown a winner by the end of the summer.

Not your everyday asphalt: Big plans are in store for the Water Street parking lots... at least the City hopes so.