Tricky triangle: Locals tangle over city's designs on Preston

The only thing everyone agrees on is that the future of Preston Avenue is at stake.

Beyond that, there's anything but consensus. At issue is a parcel of land that looks like little more than a funky median strip.

The thousands of people who drive through it every day may see merely the triangular tangle where Grady and Preston avenues and Tenth street converge. The city, however, sees it as an acre of prime real estate begging to be developed.

The intersection itself is a problem that dates back to the late '60s, when the city had grandiose plans for a six-lane expressway stretching from downtown to Emmet Street via the current Preston and Grady corridors. The project got squashed in 1973, after folks on University Circle decided they didn't want to give up their homes so that shoppers could dart between downtown and Barracks Road.

That left the current four-lane Preston dead-ending into the incoherence of disappearing lanes, inexplicably timed lights, and awkward u-turns.

"I think people agree that's not much of an intersection," says Satyendra Huja, Charlottesville's director of strategic planning. "It's very complex and difficult to get in and out of."

The city's new plan? Simplify the current traffic pattern of greenspace and crossovers into a triangle of two-way roads, and build residences in the center.

On November 8, the city issued a Request for Proposals, or RFP, that envisions 45 units of housing and possibly some retail on the site. Buildings would rise about five stories high in the back, towards Washington Park, with a more modest three stories facing Preston Plaza and the old Monticello Dairy building. An underground parking garage would be included to accommodate the driving requirements of new residents.

Huja is quick to point out that a building on that particular piece of turf would be nothing new. "Before the expansion of Preston, that was the home of the City Laundry," he says. "This is a 50-year-old idea."

Mayor Maurice Cox also believes that such a development has historical precedent. "It's kind of ironic, but we're going back to the future on this one."

Cox and Huja held a meeting last Tuesday at the Firehouse Bar and Grill to talk to local residents and merchants about the plan. Cox was presented with a petition detailing local residents' concerns about community involvement, urban planning, the impact of construction, the removal of parking, and the alleged shortcomings of the RFP.

"I think about it day and night," Cox told the predominantly entrepreneurial crowd. "If we don't develop, Charlottesville will be overwhelmed by developments on our doorsteps."

The city's plans for the parcel came as a surprise to most local businesses, and many were upset at not being informed or consulted.

"I was literally papered with information about a sidewalk in front of my house," says Amy Spence of GLR Recording, which has recently finished renovating its studios in the Monticello Dairy building. "But never did I hear specifically about this until I saw surveyors."

"It's hard to imagine a five-story monolith rising out of the middle of Preston," says John Coleman of nearby Central Battery. "But what's most alarming is the fact that no one at City Hall saw fit to come knocking on our doors and engage us in the development of this RFP. I don't know if it's arrogance or stupidity, but either way, it's malfeasance."

For architect and urban designer Gate Pratt, however, the real crime would come if the city misses a golden opportunity.

Pratt, who lives in the nearby 10th and Page neighborhood, and whose office is in the Monticello Dairy building, has a unique perspective on the issue: His 1999 master's thesis was an in-depth analysis of the Preston Avenue and Vinegar Hill neighborhoods, with particular concern for future development, and that study has since been integrated into the city's so-called Corridor Study.

Pratt's initial skepticism was about the one potential scheme presented to developers in the RFP, which showed full build-out of the site.

"I've maintained that there should be a plaza, a public area– you could get the same density while leaving the front half open," says Pratt, who drew up his thoughts and gave them to the city pro bono, expecting them to be included in the RFP. They weren't.

"This project needs public input and a decent urban plan, and there isn't either," says Pratt. "This should be a pilot project that demonstrates how you do this in a city. I fear we're going to get a really second-rate development that won't be well thought-out and is missing a great opportunity."

Cox reminded those present that the RFP was a fact-finding mission. "We'll be screening these proposals carefully, and you'll all be a part of that," he says. "We don't have to accept any of them."

Mayor Cox, who is also an urban designer and member of UVA's planning faculty, reminded everyone present of the growing pains that accompanied the construction of the Downtown Mall.

"It was contentious," says Cox. "There were lawsuits and people lying down in front of bulldozers. But someone had the foresight to know that it'd be good for the city."

So is the proposed Preston Commons a done deal?

"All we're looking at right now is whether developers think they can make money," says Huja. "Maybe it won't be economically feasible and nothing will happen– we need to find that out.

"It's very hard to talk about a proposal when you don't know what's going to happen there," he adds.

Mayor Cox remains excited about the project. "People in Charlottesville are interested in urban models of living," he says, "but historically, we haven't been building much of it.

"This is a great opportunity," Cox continues, "and the more voices we have at the table, the better it will be."

Pratt agrees that the community meeting was a step in the right direction. "If the City makes the effort to be inclusive, I'm optimistic that the project will evolve in a positive manner."