ONARCHITECTURE- Visionary moms? <i>DP</i> out on limbs for McGuffey Friends

According to the Daily Progress, McGuffey Park was "overgrown, creating shielded nooks where illegal activities took place."

The Daily Progress sure likes what's happening to McGuffey Park. The Progress ran an article on June 18 lauding the efforts of the McGuffey Friends, a community group founded by a trio of moms who convinced the City to spend $400,000 to overhaul the little park on Second Street, raised another $279,000 on their own to add designer play equipment and a "weeping water wall," and received an award for their efforts from the City Planning Commission.

Oddly, though, the Progress chose to completely omit the controversy surrounding the renovation, including some park-watchers' concerns over such a large expenditures on such a small park (1.1 acres), their belief that there wasn't anything wrong with the park as it was, and their shock at seeing about 90 small trees felled along High Street and 13 large trees (some over 80 years old) felled within the park.

In addition, the article gave Friends cofounder Elvira Tate Hoskins a forum to say that safety was always the biggest concern. "The park [had] a steep drop-off and access issues, as well as illegal activity going on at night there," she said. "For instance, we would find needles and condoms in the morning."

Four days later, on June 21, the Progress delivered an unsigned editorial calling the effort "inspiring and heartwarming" because of the three "visionary moms," and predicted that the park will have a "beautiful new identity." The editorial also repeated the "needles and condoms" and "illegal activity" claims, and added, "Portions of the park were overgrown, creating shielded nooks where illegal activities took place."

As for "steep drop-off and access issues" threatening park-goers, the Hook found that no traffic study was done on the intersection of West High and Second Streets as part of the site plan approval, despite the fact that the Park will gain an entrance on that busy corner, where cars coming up the hill on West High often make sharp right turns onto Second, and drivers heading west on High often can't see cars coming up the hill as they negotiate a left turn onto Second.

Moreover, claims about McGuffey Park as a den of iniquity don't appear supported by police reports. The Hook obtained Charlottesville Police records that demonstrate only seven incidents of illegal activity in McGuffey Park since 2004– and only three involving a drug or narcotics violation.

In contrast, during the same time period, nearby and similar-sized Lee Park was the site of many more criminal incidents. While Lee had the same number of drug violations, it had four times as many simple assaults, plus three aggravated assaults, something not reported to have happened at McGuffey. Other things reported at Lee Park but not at McGuffey include an indecent exposure and forcible fondling. In all, there were 19 criminal incidents at Lee, nearly triple the number at McGuffey.

Here's something the DP and City officials might want to ask themselves: If park safety was such a big concern, why wasn't $400,000 in City money spent on the much more crime-ridden Lee Park?

"Taking by typo" goes to court

Having taken their cause to the city attorney's office, to the Board of Zoning Appeals twice, and having sparked a preliminary discussion between City Council members, Woolen Mills neighbors have now decided to take their "taking by typo" crusade to court. 

"It feels really portentous to see Emory v. Charlottesville on a sheet of paper," says Woolen Mills resident Bill Emory, who recently filed a complaint in Circuit Court on behalf of the neighborhood. "Not my idea of fun."

 "Bill's name has to stand alone on this filing because he's an adjoining property owner," says fellow Woolen Mills resident Victoria Dunham, "but he's far from alone in this. If it were allowed, there would be many names alongside his."

Dunham says the idea of taking the issue to court is "daunting," and Emory says he and his neighbors had hoped that either the BZA or Council would directly address the issue.

"I thought we'd be able to settle all this via quiet conversation with the city attorney last summer," says Emory. "No muss, no fuss, no personalities. But no, it rolls on."

Emory's complaint challenges a February 2007 city zoning determination that may have robbed portions of the Timberlake-Branham property (now the Mary Williams Senior Center) on East Market Street of the Individual Protected Property (IPP) status it was granted by City Council in 1993. It's also on the National Register of Historic Places.

Woolen Mills residents have argued that Council's 1993 action was intended to designate the entire seven-acre property as historic, and that a series of zoning snafus led to its de-listing. Indeed, zoning officials have admitted as much, saying the city failed to add three new parcels on the property to the list of IPPs before they were officially added to the tax maps in 2001, and that the city also failed to update the tax maps, which were being converted from paper to digital at the time. Despite acknowledging the errors, zoning officials chose to ignore the mistakes. Since the new parcels were not listed as IPPs after the new city-wide zoning ordinance took effect in 2003, officials reasoned, only the parcel around the house could legally be considered an IPP. 

Meanwhile, Timberlake-Branham property owner Preston Coiner has wondered where the neighbors were when his 2001 plans for a Woolen Mills Self-Storage facility were approved (the facility was subsequently built on part of the seven acres). Presently, Coiner, who has spoken in public but who has repeatedly refused to comment for this newspaper, has maintained that only a portion of the property was meant to be an IPP. He  has plans to build a 12-15 unit development on his remaining parcels, the proposal that led to the discovery of the zoning mistakes when Emory and others began looking at city records. 

During a June 4 City Council meeting, Councilor Dave Norris raised the issue wondering if Council should "step up to the plate." However, City attorney Craig Brown explained that the BZA's most recent ruling had nullified any prior mistakes.

"Anything anybody wants to do?" Mayor David Brown asked at the end of the discussion. There was a prolonged silence. "It's a difficult situation," Brown said.