ONARCHITECTURE- City planners: 'Let there be light on the Mall'

Last June, after the Board of Architectural Review rejected developer Keith Woodard's plan to demolish several Downtown Mall buildings to make way for his nine-story First & Main project, members of the BAR, the Planning Commission, and City planning staff met with Woodard and his architect for further discussions. Woodard, fearing the BAR decision would hamstring the project, had already appealed the decision to City Council. 

Needless to say, the tension during the meeting– which was held in one of the buildings Woodard wanted to demolish– was palpable. Woodard's architect, Greg Brezinski, proceeded to pitch the project to the group, and afterwards some BAR members complained that the development duo had simply repeated themselves. 

At one point, as everyone discussed the lofty subject of the Mall's future, Planning Commissioner Jon Fink, one of the few non-architects or professional planners in the room, wondered if a building so big might block out the sun from the Mall or from Lee Park, a point met largely with silence. 

"That's a good question," said Bresinski finally, admitting his design team hadn't yet conducted a shadow study.

At that was it on the subject of sunlight. 

In a June 1 Hook cover story following that meeting ("#9 dreams: Invasion of the super towers"), we wondered if the City realized what it was getting into. Since the 1980s, the city height limit has been 101 feet,  and language in the revised 2003 zoning ordinance encourages developers to build big. The City had already approved a nine-story project on Water Street, and would later approve multi-story projects along Avon Street near the Pavilion and near Garrett and Second streets. It was only when Woodward came forward with his ambitious project that City planners began to back-pedal.

When Council reviewed the project on June 19, they managed to annoy both Woodard and the BAR by deferring the decision and calling for further discussion. Woodard's position was that he was only trying to do what the 2003 zoning revisions had encouraged. From the BAR's point of view, it appeared Council was questioning their judgment.

"This project would have a huge impact, right at the most identifiable space in the city besides the Lawn," BAR chair Fred Wolf told the Hook. "It seems to me it's a small concession to work with our recommendations." 

In July, as a result of the deadlock over the First & Main project, City Council initiated the first of several joint work sessions with the BAR, the Planning Commission, City planning staff, and others to rethink the Downtown Mall's vertical growth plan. 

Seven months and several work sessions later, in a story first reported and pod-cast by the development watchdog Charlottesville Tomorrow, the City appears to have seen the light– literally– and endorsed Commissioner Fink's observation.

According to a shadow study prepared by the City, buildings above 70 feet, especially on the Market Street side, could cast the Mall and nearby Lee Park into darkness. Based on these findings, a City-appointed committee appears ready to recommend that the City lower the current 101-foot building height to 70 feet on the north side of the Mall.

Based on diagrams that have the sun shining on the Mall at a 32-degree angle from its Market Street and Water Street side, this brain trust may also recommend new ordinances to determine new setbacks and shapes of proposed buildings to prevent the Mall from becoming a dark canyon, à la Wall Street in New York.

Sunlight isn't the only issue. The goals of this committee, according to a memo by neighborhood development chief Jim Tolbert, include preserving the "human scale" of the Mall and saving existing historic buildings, while still allowing developers to build bigger buildings.

"Now that we're seeing the reality of development starting to take place on the Downtown Mall," Tolbert said at a January 25 work session, "was that really what we wanted to see? Was that what we intended all along?"

Apparently not.

As Tolbert pointed out, the existing zoning ordinance allows nine-story buildings on the Mall but does not control the mass of the buildings or the depth of the setbacks. Using the shadow study data, Tolbert explained how a 40-foot streetwall height limit on the Mall and deeper setbacks preserve the existing sunlight and "preserve the unique character of the Downtown Mall." 

Former planning commissioner Craig Barton, an urban design professor at UVA, expanded on that idea, suggesting that coming up with more comprehensive streetwall and setback regulations would make the business of reviewing projects easier, as they would give developers clear guidelines about what was possible, and give City planners more control over what gets built. As it stands now, the committee seems to agree that the current ordinance simply isn't equipped to address the problems that Woodard's First & Main project raised.

Like Barton, BAR vice chair and committee member Syd Knight believes the current zoning doesn't allow for enough "creativity" and fears it relieves the City and particularly the BAR of their authority to control what gets built.

"When the BAR reviews some of these buildings that are within their rights," said Knight, citing the nine-story condo project along Avon Street that was recently approved (and which is "clearly too large," he believes), "anytime our subjective guidelines, and our subjective interpretation of those guidelines goes up against what the special use permit allows, we're gonna lose. And if it goes to an appeal, we're gonna lose." 

 "Don't worry," said Planning Commissioner Bill Lucy at that first June meeting, trying to calm concerns about unchecked growth on the Mall. "We'll have plenty of time to revisit our zoning laws and guidelines if we start getting worried about too much big development." 

No decisions were made at the January 25 work session, and further discussion on the sunny future of the Mall will continue.

In a June 2006 Hook cover story, we wondered if the City was ready for more 9-story buildings on the Mall. Now City planners are wondering too