Arrivederci: Cox era on Council to end

It's August, 1994, and City Council chambers are packed. Up pops a 35-year-old Charlottesville newcomer to chime in on developer Lee Danielson's plea to let traffic cross the Downtown Mall. In contrast to some oddballs who are portraying the proposed crossing as Armageddon, the young architect calmly explains how a few traffic pattern changes and some compromises with Danielson might secure the theater and skating rink for the Mall– without the crossing.

Danielson prevailed– but in his own way, so did that architect.

Fresh from a decade spent studying and working in pedestrian-friendly Florence, Italy, Maurice Cox was about to take Charlottesville by storm. He moved into a former funeral home on grand but pock-marked Ridge Street, became the neighborhood association's president, and quickly became a visible fixture pedaling around town in those pre-bike lane days.

On Thursday, January 22, Cox gave notice that two terms on City Council are enough. The now 44-year-old mayor will step down from Council in June.

"I've committed to my family and myself to take a break from public service to reflect on the past eight years, and to consider how I might better serve this community in the future," he said.

In a brief City Hall press conference, Cox announced that he wanted time to "reflect, take stock, retool, and reemerge with a clearer vision."

Clearer vision? Doubts about this man's clarity are rare. The part-time professor helped popularize such formerly mind-boggling concepts as "new urbanism," and "neo-traditional communities." He declared "density" a good thing. And like cold warrior Richard Nixon who sold America on dealing with China, this paid-his-dues urban dweller sold the City on a massive overhaul of its zoning laws. The new ordinance appears to allow much denser development– especially on "corridors" where he hopes mass transit may eventually be viable.

Not everyone loves the mayor's projects. For instance, Cox has thrown his support– even now that's he's a lame duck– behind the notion of developing Preston Commons, the triangular tangle where Grady and Preston avenues converge at Tenth Street.

In a recent Daily Progress story, nearby business owner John Coleman criticized the mayor for attempting to create an architectural "legacy." But pressed for comment on Cox's departure, Coleman says, "Although we crossed horns on this one, it's not like we don't appreciate everything else he's done."

Fellow councilor Kevin Lynch, who has joined Cox in steadfastly opposing the long-discussed Meadowcreek Parkway, a thoroughfare they believe will split the City, says he tried to talk Cox out of leaving Council.

"As a friend of Maurice's," says Lynch, "I really respect the amount of work he's put into this job. He's very much deserving of a break. As a political colleague, I'm really sorry to see him go."

Cox built his political career within and without the local Democratic machine. In late summer 1995, he began unabashedly courting African Americans by registering voters at Washington Park and the IGA grocery store on Cherry Avenue. His quest for a Democratic nomination the following spring torpedoed the effort of long-time party player Blake Caravati (who had to wait two more years to join Council).

When the votes were tallied in the May 1996, elections, Cox came in at #1, with more votes than fellow Democratic victors Meredith Richard and incumbent Virginia Daugherty. But the Machine had the last word, denying Cox the "vice-mayor" honorific, a ceremonial stepping-stone to the mayor's desk.

The mayoralty would come in 2002, despite his alignment with Democrats for Change, a grassroots faction that tried to stop the Meadowcreek Parkway and accused Machine-backed Democrats of coziness with developers.

While his opposition has helped delay the Parkway, even his mentor, former planning commissioner William Harris, has publicly worried that Cox's efforts to deepen the city's density will gentrify the inner city and push out the poor.

Cox responds that a recently appointed task force is studying the issue of affordable housing. "This is a community," says Cox, "that's incredibly compassionate and concerned about being diverse."

There was one humorous moment in 1998 when Cox, two years into his first Council term, was riding his bike in the Dogwood Festival Parade. NBC29 announcers ignored the passing councilor, apparently never imagining that a politician would tool around in anything other than a mid-century convertible.

Earlier this month, Cox scoffed when the lone Republican on Council, Rob Schilling, proposed studying some things that Cox himself had once suggested: direct election of the mayor and returning City elections to a ward system. Not enough time, Cox contended.

Three City Council seats– those held by Cox, Lynch, and Meredith Richards– expire in June. Lynch and Richards have announced that they will seek reelection in May; former City Democratic party chair David Brown is also seeking a seat.

In mid-January, the Daily Progress reported that Cox had held a meeting at his home to encourage prospective like-minded and like-skinned (he's African-American) candidates to run.

About a week later, Rose Hill neighborhood association president Kendra Hamilton (who is also African-American) announced that she intends to seek one of the three nominations when the Democrats convene on February 7. Apparently placated, Cox made his withdrawal announcement later in the week.

From political renegade to king-maker in eight years.

Maurice Cox, the biking mayor

Though Cox is stepping down, he's made sure an African American candidate will run for his seat.



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