Staunton didn't self-destruct

"Is Staunton the next Charlottesville?" [Cover story, February 19] I hope not.

I grew up in Charlottesville. I have friends and relatives in Staunton and have visited many times. I've been telling people that Staunton is how Charlottesville used to be.

Author Laura Parsons writes, "Once stately facades in the central Beverley Street district deteriorated into ramshackle shells. And because Staunton had no preservation laws, owners were free to demolish their buildings at will. Finally, in 1971, as a new highway project threatened to decimate the old railway district known as 'The Wharf,' concerned citizens formed the Historic Staunton Foundation to stop the demolition madness. It was a start. But by that time, 50 historic buildings had fallen victim to the 'urban renewal' impulse of the 1960s..."

In Staunton, urban renewal is 50 properties demolished by their owners because the buildings were literally falling down. In Charlottesville, urban renewal is 500 properties demolished by city government under protest of the owners. If you include properties after 1980 and other forms of eminent domain abuse, such as widening Preston Avenue to clear out a mixed-use, mixed-income community, that number may be over a thousand.

When's the last time you read an article stating the total number of properties that comprise Charlottesville's urban renewal? You haven't because we're still counting. This is so serious that you couldn't write a story called "Is Charlottesville the next Staunton?" Charlottesville has a long way to go.

In Staunton, you can buy or rent a big old cheap house without fear that a wrecking ball will show up if the assessments go down. People are less cynical and feel better about the community in Staunton.

Charlottesville would have plenty of cheap old houses today, ready to renovate, if not for the "demolition madness." Everybody would feel more secure, too. But instead, urban renewal has become a permanent part of Charlottesville's culture, its defining symbol.

Here's how Charlottesville can catch up with Staunton:

(1) Stop abusing eminent domain.

(2) Tally the number of cases.

(3) Compensate the victims.

(4) Establish penalties for the abuse.

(5) Change the city charter.

Because Staunton can talk about its urban renewal, we can all talk about the town's entire history. That's not yet the case for Charlottesville.

Blair Hawkins