Hujavision: The 'urban turban' plans... his escape

After more than three decades in City Hall, the man who insisted that Charlottesville needed a pedestrian mall is retiring. Satyendra Huja has strolled these streets– and in many cases scultpted these streets– with trees, bike lanes, and public art. While his legacy will surely inspire vigorous debate, few residents can deny that Charlottesville is a far different place today than the planner with a turban found when he arrived 31 years ago.

"It was anything but cool and anything but ranked the number the one place in America," says Mayor Maurice Cox, who– like Huja– left office June 30. "His effectiveness as an agent for change," says Cox, "is pretty astounding."

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A native of Nainital, India, Huja came to the U.S. in the late '60s to study architecture at Cornell. After earning a master's degree in city planning at Michigan State, he worked at just two planning jobs before settling into what would become a marathon career as Charlottesville's top planner.

He remembers when city manager Cole Hendrix recruited him away from Portsmouth in 1973.

"Are you sure," Huja says he asked Hendrix, "that your Council can deal with a guy with a turban, a beard, and an accent?"

Apparently they could, but Huja, now 63, recalls the time an angry citizen stormed into his office demanding to speak to a planner: "I said, 'I'm a planner.' He said he wanted to speak to the boss. I said, 'I'm the boss.' He left."

Like millions of members of the Sikh religion, Huja keeps his hair uncut and wrapped inside a turban. To this small southern town, he brought a distinctive appearance– and some distinctive ideas.

Less than a year into the job, he told Charlottesville that it should remove cars from the very heart of Main Street. No sooner had the Downtown Mall opened in 1976 than he oversaw a massive survey of historic structures– and soon unveiled a preservation ordinance that targeted 97 specific buildings, an act that inflamed some property owners by mandating what they could do to their buildings. Before long, "the urban turban" was one of the nicer things people were calling him.

"I used to dread going down Main Street," says Huja. "People were telling me to go back to India. I was ready to be fired every six months."

Flash forward about three decades to find historic preservation practically enshrined– and the Mall thronged with vibrant retail, sidewalk caf├ęs, apartments, and lots of people.

"Now, I can't walk into a bathroom without someone saying something nice," says Huja. "I'm glad I stayed around."

***

In the 1970s, says Mayor Cox, "bricking over main streets was pretty much the rage nationally. But many of the pedestrian malls were yanked out four or five years later if they did not immediately succeed."

Although a few notable restaurants– such as the Nook, Miller's, the Hardware Store, and the C&O– took the risk downtown, the expected boom didn't materialize. Even worse, existing businesses started to founder. The Paramount Theater seemed to be issuing a vote of no confidence by announcing shortly after the landmark 1974 City Council mall-bricking vote that it was going out of business.

While Charlottesville did not follow the lead of the dozens of other communities in digging up their malls, Charlottesville's Mall, as late as the 1980s, was seen as "a bit of a failure," says Cox. But Huja's support never wavered.

"He stuck to his guns," says Cox. "He remade the city into the kind of city he'd want to live in."

The metamorphosis might seem pricey.

It was Huja who urged the City to follow through with Mall designer Lawrence Halprin's call for a big hotel to anchor one end of the Mall, and City Council jumped into the role of developer.

In 1985, Council welcomed a large Radisson hotel and convention center at the western terminus. But questions were raised about financial dealings such as letting a division of General Electric (later GE/Fanuc) pay just $1 a year for approximately 25,000 square feet of office space in return for lodging visiting executives at what within six months became the Omni Hotel.

Cox believes the hotel "stabilized" the Mall. But what it would eventually destabilize was some taxpayers– as over $11.3 million in tax money had to prop up the cash-bleeding project.

Although distancing himself from the financial aspects of the hotel deal, Huja is unapologetic about the vision. "You're spending a few cents to save a few dollars," he says. "It saved the downtown in my mind."

Compounding the controversy of the "Omni deal," restaurants and hotels sued when Charlottesville doubled the lodging tax and created the meals tax to pay for Council's decision to dabble in real estate. The controversial project is widely viewed as ending a city councilor career or two.

The 1991 down-zoning of much of the city's neighborhoods created another city-wide controversy. Previously, duplexes had been widely allowed, but in response to homeowners' anger over irresponsible renters, Huja supported a new category called R-1A, zones where duplexes were banned.

Critics such as pedestrian advocate Kevin Cox suggested the problems could be solved by strictly enforcing existing trash, weed, and noise ordinances, and they predicted that with the supply of new duplexes choked off, rental rates would skyrocket.

They were right. While even his harshest critics acknowledge the so-called "UVA effect" as well as the national housing surge, Huja "certainly has some responsibility for the high cost of rental housing in Charlottesville," Kevin Cox claims.

Clearly, not everyone has embraced Hujavision.

Not everyone has embraced his enforcements, either. As the chief administrator for the Board of Architectural Review, or BAR, Huja has often clashed with many freedom-loving property owners.

In one of the most spectacular brouhahas in city history, Huja pressed developer Lee Danielson in 1996 to stick with the BAR-approved design for the Regal cinema– and called an emergency meeting to make sure Danielson didn't substitute inferior materials– and inferior design. Huja won.

"I trust he will have a long and restful retirement," a still-miffed Danielson says today.

"He tried to get me fired," says Huja.

He wasn't alone. "Over the years," Mayor Cox notes, "a lot of people tried to get him fired."

But both city managers under which he served– Hendrix and the current city manager, Gary O'Connell– stood by their man. However, about two years after the Danielson battle, Huja got a new job: director of strategic planning.

Did Danielson succeed in getting Huja kicked upstairs?

"I don't know that he did," says Huja. "But if he did, I'm thankful for it."

Along with promoting his long-term interests in art and culture, Huja found that his new role charged him with getting developers to build more housing. He's helped push dormant, difficult, and even polluted city lands into private hands:

* part of the old CSX rail yard became Belmont Lofts condos,

* the old sewer property off Rio Road will become "Lachlyn Hill," about 160 houses and, and most recently,

* a ravine at the corner of Ridge Street and Cherry Avenue could wind up under the control of developer Charles Hurt.

For neighbor Antoinette W. Roades, the last project smacks of back-room dealings, since no public hearing has been held on disposing of that parcel partially owned by the city. But for Mayor Cox, the numbers speak for themselves. On Huja's watch in his final city job, new housing units in Charlottesville have grown from dozens annually to hundreds annually.

"There are thousands of units on the drawing boards," says Mayor Cox. "If you look behind the deal, in most of those, you'll find Mr. Huja at work."

Such zeal has hit plenty of roadblocks. One ambitious plan would have reconfigured Preston Avenue's "terrible triangle" near the Monticello Dairy building with 45 units of housing, underground parking, and several retail spaces.

In the eye of Huja and its major City Council supporter, Mayor Cox, the proposed Preston Commons would have created a dramatic five-story gateway bridging the university area and downtown. But the plan so traumatized nearby merchants that it was killed in March by a 4-1 Council vote.

Another Hujavision that didn't turn out quite as planned was the one-waying of Market and Water Streets which occurred in the mid-1970s. The theory was that the change would create a clockwise wrap of traffic around the Downtown Mall.

"It just didn't work out," concedes Huja. "It caused confusion." He blames the idea on a 1973 traffic consultant's report.

"There's no point in keeping something that doesn't work," says Huja. Two-way traffic returned to Water Street in 1997 and to Market Street in 1999.

To Huja, another glitch in Downtown Mall planning was fixed in 1996 with the controversial notion of letting traffic cross the Mall on Second Street beside the Regal Cinema. Despite millions of dollars and countless hours spent nurturing the Mall, it had remained– until the crossing– "invisible," says Huja.

Yet another Huja project that prompted wry smiles from critics was his steadfast preservation of the so-called Tarleton Oak. Located at the corner of Lexington and High, the tree with a girth the size of an automobile began dying on Huja's watch. An admitted tree fanatic– he expanded the historic ordinance to include tree preservation– Huja directed the city to pay Van Yahres Tree Company to preserve the oak, which tree surgeon Mitch Van Yahres had described as a "stump" before it was finally buzz-sawed in 1997.

Here's the irony. The tree was the legendary tenting place of British Colonel Banastre Tarleton during his 1781 raid on Charlottesville. However, historian John M. Nalle believed that Tarleton actually bivouacked about a mile away– by the Rivanna River. After this reporter published that assertion, the state yanked the site's historic designation. Is Huja embarrassed he fought so hard for a tree with a questionable pedigree?

"No," answers Huja. "It was still a good tree."

***

"He is singular in city government in his ability to think outside the box," declares Maurice Cox. He certainly has the professional training of a planner. But being a cultured, educated, well-traveled man is his greatest asset."

Cox even notes approvingly that if Huja doesn't like the rules, "he will rewrite them." Adds Cox, "In a world of people asking 'why?' it has been refreshing to work along with someone who asks, 'why not?'"

Sometimes he doesn't even ask. Huja admits that he didn't always get permission before jumping into a project. "I was too excited to get things done," he explains.

In 1999, critics branded Huja a finagler when he declared that to get federal money for building a traffic circle– something the feds refuse to bankroll– the city should claim it was building a "landscaped island." Whatever the name, the roundabout in front of the Albemarle County Office Building never got built.

Bike fans include Huja among those they thank for something that did get built: lots of bike lanes. Huja made bike lanes an integral element of road rehab – even on traffic-choked West Main Street– a conversion that occurred over strenuous merchant objections in the spring of 1996.

Twenty years ago, Huja says, "You could not walk safely on West Main." So he oversaw a federally assisted effort to put three colorful murals on the sides of buildings in addition to trees, parking lots, and wide sidewalks along what's now seen as a vibrant connector between UVA and downtown.

But Huja is not all bikeways and parks. "I'd like to see Meadowcreek Parkway built," he says unabashedly. "Eventually, it'll get done" he says of the controversial road that would link McIntire Road with the upper portion of Rio Road, a supposed salvation for Downtown.

Speaking of salvation, there are those who credit the Mall's current success story to Lee Danielson, builder of the Regal cinema and the Charlottesville Ice Park in the mid-1990s. Others credit the Charlottesville Parking Center, a private company whose liberal two-hour free parking policies make downtown accessible to anyone who can handle a rubber stamp.

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Huja says three major projects he proposed two decades ago are now reaching fruition: a pedestrian bridge over Emmet Street, a connector into UVA's North Grounds, and a loop road behind the UVA hospital.

"It takes 20 years in this town," says Huja of such projects.

Amid the arrivals, one departure stands out. In July 2001, Martha Jefferson Hospital announced it would relocate its operations to Peter Jefferson Place, a county office park on Pantops Mountain. Wags attributed the move to the city's firm stance against wholesale neighborhood demolitions and conversions.

So who lost Martha Jefferson?

"I don't think I lost Martha Jefferson," says Huja, pointing out that he supported some demolitions on Locust when the hospital built its Cardwell Center in the early 1990s. "It's not who lost Martha Jefferson. I think Martha Jefferson outgrew the site," he says.

Such debates will rage on, but Huja won't be around to hear them.

As he makes ready to depart, Huja can't help but notice that yesterday's radicals become today's politicians. He may be thinking of Kevin Lynch, who became famous for attacking City Hall over the Mall crossing and a city land sale near Court Square, but who has just been reelected to that same City Council.

"Most of the best friends I've met started in an adversarial relationship," says Huja. "My general philosophy about democracy is that the system is flexible enough to co-opt all the radicals."

Might this radical town-scaper somehow parlay his work into politics as an elected official? "I'm not that far yet," he answers.

"I never had to look for excitement. Excitement usually found me."

 


Greenbelt trail - After a visit to the famed Riverwalk in San Antonio, Texas, Huja decided that Charlottesville's deserved a riverfront treatment of its own.

 


West Main Street - When Huja arrived in 1973, "You could not walk safely on West Main," he says.

 


Corner Improvement Project - In 1992, the $1.1 million sidewalk renovation project, almost half of which was provided by a special tax levied on Corner property owners, provided wide brick sidewalks with curb cuts, bicycle racks, decorative street lights, a new staircase, and more traffic signals. On-street spaces were replaced by sidewalks and a handful of 15-minute parking spaces reserved for delivery vehicles in the mornings. Some missed the convenient on-street spaces that had been available any time. No longer can one put a nickel in a meter and sit down for lunch at the Virginian– unless you can dine in 15 minutes. (Maybe a Gusburger at the White Spot?) Moreover, some merchants still grumble that Elliewood Avenue should have gotten a turning lane.

 


Downtown Mall - The biggie. In other cities, they've been removed, but as it nears its 30th anniversary in 2006, Charlottesville's is busy and full of humans, commerce, and culture.

 


Pedestrian Bridge over Emmet - Huja says he urged UVA to build one 20 years ago. This $3.2 million one is slated to open by the end of November.

 


When he arrived in '73, a plan to turn Preston Avenue into a six-lane thoroughfare crashing through University Circle on its way to Emmet Street was already hitting– well– roadblocks. "I said, 'What are you trying to do, build a landing strip?'" he says. Huja reduced the lanes to four and turned the landing strip into a median. A donor later provided tulips galore.

 


Court Square Renovation - Under way now, this $3.4 million overhaul of the district where Thomas Jefferson used to practice law is due to be completed this fall.


Transit center - After scoring $6 million in federal funds in the early 1990s, Huja set about securing a location. Since Union Station owner Gabe Silverman backed away from hosting the center on the site the City had helped him buy from Norfolk Southern, the money will now go to the eastern end of the Mall in a project called "President's Plaza."

 


The Lexis/Nexis Mall extension - When this $1.5 million tunnel was built under Avon Street in the early 1990s, critics predicted it would swarm with bums, beer, and urine. But the design, with its uncomfortable scattering of rocks, made vagrancy unpleasant.

 


Bike lanes - When noted urban planner Jane Jacobs spoke at UVA in the early 1990s, she reportedly asked, "Where are the bicycles?" Huja must have heard. He insisted on bike lanes on major roads– even on traffic-clogged West Main Street. Some bikers believe they haven't come fast enough.

 


The McAdams table - Huja stumbled into a public relations controversy two decades ago when he told Daedalus Bookshop to register its free book table as a vending cart. After an eruption of letters in the
Daily Progress , Huja dropped the issue. The table's still there. "We're friends now," says owner Sandy McAdams. "He couldn't be nicer."

 


Regal facade - In 1996, developer Lee Danielson tried to get away with substituting stucco for brick. Not on Huja's watch.

 


Yellow bikes - Huja helped win approval for the bright yellow racks that sprang up around downtown in 2002. The program, however, flopped after all the yellow bikes went missing.

 


The side streets of the Downtown Mall - Huja has long advocated lavishing more attention on these. So far, only two have received a thorough gussying. In 1994, the City unveiled improvements to Third Street toward the Water Street Parking Deck, after taxing nearby properties to cover part of the cost. In 2000, Council let developer Oliver Kuttner buy a little piece of the street and made sure he bricked it.

 


Trolley - Begun as the "Hoo Bus" with a push from Huja and financial assistance from Lee Danielson, this free shuttle between JPA, the Corner, and Downtown is now the most popular route on the CTS system– and has been credited with introducing thousands of Wahoos to the Downtown Mall.

 


Washington Park - If Huja had his way, 45 apartments or condos might have looked out over Washington Park as "Preston Commons."

 


Art in Place - When City Council approved it in 1986, Huja's "Percent for Art" law stipulated that the City would allocate one percent of the cost of big public improvement projects to public art. There was always concern about what noted art critic Tom Wolfe famously called the "turd in the plaza" school of public art. In the 1990s, after at least two controversies over its choices, City Council let Huja simply buy and permanently install pieces of art from the private Art in Place program.

 


The Downtown Mall crossing - Despite the impassioned protests of sign-carrying zealots, in 1994 City Council voted 4-1 to approve this effort Huja carried to make the Mall more visible.

 


The man himself.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO

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