ONARCHITECTURE- Parking prize: Downtown design contest raises eyebrows

How does the City get to tell a private group how to develop its land? Well, it's been trying to chart the land between the Downtown Mall and South Street for at least a decade. And last July, a group of influential citizens– including Mitch Van Yahres, Blake Caravati, Maurice Cox, and UVA architect Bill Morrish– wrote a letter to Mayor David Brown asking the City to launch a discussion about the development of the Water Street parking lots. Concerned about the possibility of unchecked development on the valuable site– City Manager Gary O'Connell calls it the "most significant piece of land in Charlottesville"– and wanting to preserve the farmer's market, the group suggested the City come up with a "broad, highly professional urban design vision." 

In December, city development staff issued a request for proposals to run a nationwide design competition to generate development ideas. On January 16, after receiving only one entry, City Council selected it– a proposal by the Charlottesville Community Design Center and the local AIA with a $150,000 price tag.

"I'm largely responsible for this idea on Council," admits Brown, who believes the competition is an effective way to develop a compelling design vision for the site. "We want to make sure the last open piece of land in the middle of Downtown is done right," he says.

In its proposal, the Center, which ran a successful design competition for the Sunrise Trailer Court whose winning entry was ultimately adopted, emphasizes the need to create a contest "grounded in reality" that will attract "practical and innovative ideas." 

However, some have questioned the idea of the competition itself. 

Councilor Kevin Lynch pointed out during January's council meeting that the city has already conducted two studies of development on Water Street. "At least review what we've bought and paid for twice," he said. 

Lynch also reminded his fellow councilors that "design control" of proposals from developers is already in place, as any plan would have to undergo a rigorous review process by the BAR, the Planning Commission, and City Council. Lastly, Lynch questioned the wisdom of conducting an expensive design competition for a piece of property the city does not own and for which there is no buyer or developer.

"I don't see how we could spend another $150,000 on the speculation that what anybody comes up with we might want to build," Lynch said.

Councilor Dave Norris also voiced concern about the cost, specifically the amount of the prize money, which the approved plan puts at $50,000 ($103,000 will go to the Center for running the competition). Norris said he researched similar competitions online and found only one with a cash prize over $10,000.

However, Center director Katie Swenson justified the amount, arguing that such high compensation is the only practical way to attract "a higher caliber of submissions," given the fact that a contract would not come with the prize. The amount, she said, was determined with the help of the local AIA, "The idea was to err on the side of attracting the best possible talent."

The idea, however, has also attracted some criticism beyond city council.

"Fifty-thousand for a prize is a lot of money in a time when Council is trying to aid people with affordable housing issues and rising real estate assessments," says North Downtown Neighborhood Association president Collette Hall, who, while she appreciates the work of the Center, has criticized this particular use of tax payer money.

"There are needs more important than providing $50,000 for the design competition," she told Councilors on February 5, citing trees in the historic district on Park Street that were removed and have not been replaced. 

Ironically, while supporters have touted the "transparent process" that the competition would bring to the discussion about the future of the lots, the way the design competition plan was approved appears to have been less than transparent. For example, even Hall, who regularly attends City Council meetings, says she was unaware, until a reporter mentioned it, that the CCDC will reap $103,000 for its efforts.

"I'm the only one who ever speaks about the 'Consent Agenda,'" she says, "exactly because City Council approves millions of dollars without any public comment or question."

Indeed, at the January 16 council meeting, the plan for the design competition was approved without a formal vote and with no comments or questions from the public.

"I'm appalled at the amount the city wants to award the winner of this design," says North Downtown resident Marion Samuels, "a design that probably will never be used. I agree with Dave Norris that other cities are satisfied with $2,000 or $3,000 for something of this nature. What is the city trying to prove?"

      If January's council discussion is any indication, the city may be trying to prove that it can impose an inspired design on an often uninspired development process.

     "Developers want to use their maximum zoning envelope... often without regard to architectural excellence" said Swenson, expressing a concern shared by many city planners, including Mayor Brown, who fear our zoning laws aren't enough to control growth the way the City would like to. "This is our chance to start to collectively envision a future for Downtown Charlottesville," Swenson added.

      Indeed, Mayor Brown and Councilor Kendra Hamilton expressed similar sentiments. Hamilton said the previous studies Lynch mentioned weren't nearly comprehensive or creative enough. "I'd like to see something memorable on the site," she said, calling the generation of ideas through a design competition a "brilliant idea." Likewise, Mayor Brown thinks that having an award-winning design will be an effective way to "market" the wishes of the community to potential developers.

However, when asked if the city would consider buying the lots, essentially ensuring it would be done right, Brown balks. "Ideally, we would want to buy it, but there's the financing to think of. The City has only a finite amount of money."

Brown's hesitation is understandable. When Charlottesville Parking Center Inc., a consortium of downtown business owners, attempted to sell the 126-space parking lot on Water Street two years ago, one developer put it under contract for a million dollars more than its $7 million appraisal and then flipped it to a Northern Virginia-based firm for $10 million. But when the market softened, CPC president Jim Berry told shareholders last week, the contracts were allowed to expire.

As the Hook reported last week ["Grand land: Does CPC breakup mean windfall?"], the CPC appears ready to put their lot back on the block. Of course, whoever has the means to buy the lot will be no shrinking violet, and may not have the proper "regard for architectural excellence," in which case the familiar conflict between planners and developers, between the theoretical and the purely practical, could play out on a scale not seen since the City dug up Main Street to build the pedestrian mall.

"We want to make sure the last open piece of land in the middle of Downtown is done right," says Mayor David Brown about the possible development of this Water Street Parking lot.