ONARCHITECTURE- Curb appeal: 'Skateblockers' slide by BAR

Did the City and the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society drop the ball when they installed these "skatestoppers" along the curb without BAR review?
PHOTO BY DAVE MCNAIR

Fed up with skateboarders damaging the historic marble curb along their sidewalk, the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society had the city attach a series of metal bars to the marble, a move skateboarders call "skateblocking." At least three dozen devices, spaced about two feet apart, now conspicuously cover the curb. 

  "The curb was in great shape until recent years," says Margaret O'Brien, a librarian at the Historical Society, "when skateboarders began chipping away at the marble."

O'Brien says Historical Society staff found the problem "extremely irritating" and have often run to the sidewalk to drive the teens away or to call the police.

"They serve the purpose well," says O'Brien, adding that the problem has finally been solved. "It would be better not to have them, but I don't think they stand out too horribly," she says of the blockers.

However, unlike countless other owners who must go before the Board of Architectural Review to make the slightest changes to a property, it appears that neither the Historical Society nor the City, who owns the building, notified the BAR before installing the devices, something City Preservation and Design Planner Mary Joy Scala says they were required to do. 

In addition, some BAR members believe the impromptu cure may be worse than the disease, as the bars, of questionable aesthetic, were bolted into the marble.

However, there's no doubt the devices work, as one skater confirms.   

"It's impossible to skate on the curb now," says a 13-year old skateboarder, who points out that the sharp, smooth, slanted edge of the curb was ideal for doing 50-50s, nose grinds, and krooks, tricks where a rider grinds the board and its trucks (axles) along the ledge. 

Indeed, the devices work so well that nearby Holy Comforter Catholic Church decided to install similar deterrents of their own. Again, without BAR review. 

"We haven't seen them around," says a church official of the skateboarders, "so obviously it's working." The official says the church asked the City for permission to install the devices, and was told nothing about the need for BAR review.

"We board all the time in Court Square, but no one ever complains around there," says the 13-year-old, mentioning that police generally just tell skaters to move along when someone complains. "It's usually pedestrians or people who own the business who yell at us." 

The teen skater says that he and a friend were recently videotaped boarding outside the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library, and were told by the cameraman that the tape was being used as evidence that the library steps were being ruined by skateboarders. 

The teen says it's hard to resist the real streetscape obstacles downtown, as the City's skate park, located on McIntire Road, doesn't have sufficient ledges and stairs. "There's all sorts of things that skate parks don't have," he says.

Indeed, Historical Society director Douglas Day sympathizes. "I think our skate park is inadequate," Day says. But he also defends the new devices: "The skateboarders were ruining the marble." 

Days says it was the City's decision to use the devices, which were installed by Facilities Management staff. However, Scala says a BAR review was still required, and she has since advised Facilities Management that any exterior changes like this need to be approved.

"This installation will be discussed at a future BAR meeting," Scala promises.

"I think the devices are unfortunate," says BAR vice chair Syd Knight. "I understand and share the frustration with the damage that skateboards cause, but I think there should have been discussion regarding the most appropriate solution for a historic site."

Indeed, for Knight, it's ironic that the Historical Society should have been so oblivious.

"The Historical Society, of all organizations, should have been more sensitive in several areas," he says, "by not permanently damaging the curbs and by supporting the process of historic preservation and going through the proper channels like everyone else."

"Aesthetically, I'm not excited about it," admits Day, "but it was the lesser of two evils." As he points out, the marble curb– donated to the City by Paul Goodloe McIntire in 1921– was being rapidly destroyed by the skateboarders. "It was a preservation move on the part of the City," he says. 

However, if a BAR discussion had taken place, and if members had agreed that the devices needed to be installed, something other than aluminum-colored bars might have been chosen. The website skatestoppers.com offers a series of architectural devices shaped like flowers, vines, frogs, starfish, arches, and even trolley cars. The site also offers to custom-make the devices to buyers' own design.

The BAR discussed the installation, after the fact, at its last meeting, says Scala. "They were concerned that the architecture should not be modified to protect it from being used for which it was not intended," she says.

Scala says BAR members were more inclined to discuss options to discourage skateboarding in historic districts and encourage the use of the skate park. She also notes that BAR chair Fred Wolf plans to communicate this decision to police.

But Police Chief Tim Longo says the devices were news to him. 

"I have no idea who installed them or recommended them," he says. "In fact, I didn't know they had been installed."

As Longo points out, per section 15-246 of the city code, riding skateboards on city sidewalks downtown is prohibited, something his officers regularly monitor.

So might there be consequences for the Historical Society, the Holy Comforter Church, and the City itself for not going through the proper channels? 

"I think the consensus of the BAR was to let this one go," says Scala. "If the devices are removed, there would be holes left in the marble, and they could be further damaged by skateboarders. There's no good solution."

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