Amphitheatrical: Architects pummel Mall design

City Council's approval of a Coran Capshaw-run amphitheater last month sparked excitement over a venue that will draw national acts– and fears about whether the city's beloved Fridays After 5 would survive. (They will.)

Now some local architects are lambasting the arch-and-canopy design of the new amphitheater and the glass transit center planned at the east end of the Downtown Mall.

They charge that City Council's eagerness to team with a private developer has tied the hands of the Board of Architectural Review in its mission to protect the city's historic character.

"Emasculated" is the word Candace Smith uses after attending the June 15 BAR meeting that approved the amphitheater and transit center. Smith, who's worked in Charlottesville for 14 years and has her own architectural firm, decries the scale of the amphitheater and its 85-foot-tall arch.

"It will overwhelm City Hall," she predicts. "People are going to be amazed by the scale."

Smith also objects to the amphitheater's orientation, which she says is off-axis to the Belmont Bridge, City Hall and the pedestrian mall. "A citizen is going to look at it and say, 'Why is this thing cockeyed?'"

She's not alone in her criticism.

"What bothers me," says Bob Vickery, professor emeritus at UVA's school of architecture, "is the design at the end of the mall is a pastiche of half-baked ideas. I think the design is awful."

Vickery claims that over-development of the Downtown Mall threatens quality of life. He notes that the amphitheater and Paramount Theater are both designed to bring people downtown, "but not one parking space has been added."

And he calls another aspect of the project, the proposed closing of Seventh Street by City Hall "a disaster" that will lead to worsening traffic and, eventually, a mall crossing at Fifth Street.

There's been so much buzz among local architects that the city's Chief of Facilities Bill Letteri is presenting east mall plans July 15 at the monthly meeting of the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

"I've heard both points of view," says chapter president Jim Boyd, who points out that two local AIA members worked on the steering committee for the east end of the mall.

Kenneth Schwartz is one, and he acknowledges that it's hard to tell what the impact of a project will be from a model– a "God-looking-from-above" perspective. "People really want to see the impact," says Schwartz. "No one's saying that's not a fair concern."

Former mayor, architect, and amphitheater proponent Maurice Cox urges his fellow architects to avoid a rush to judgment. "One of our strong suits as professionals is that we can envision the great potential of a thing," says Cox. "We're not ones to say the sky is falling."

However, investing in graphics that put viewers in the middle of the transit center and plaza "will go a long way toward calming people's concerns," he says.

The city's contract with Capshaw's Charlottesville Pavilion LLC calls for seating 4,000 people: 2,750 in fixed seats, 250 in boxes, and 1,000 on the lawn. Smith calls the amphitheater's orientation "a mathematical decision to get maximum seating."

And she worries about public access during the 40 events a season Capshaw is allowed to put on. "It will be blockaded," she says. "What is supposed to be a public area, half the time citizens won't be able to go there."

Cox responds that public access is something the city already deals with during Fridays After 5. "You're talking 40 days out of 365," says Cox. "I think that's a marginal issue."

As for the angle, Cox says that has less to do with seating than correcting an existing flaw. "The setting sun gets in the eyes of the performers," he explains. "They've complained about it for years." The off-axis location also makes the backstage area more serviceable from Market Street, he adds.

Cox defends the height of the amphitheater's arch, calling it a "civic icon" that will be an addition to the cityscape. "It has the scale of a civic monument," he says.

He agrees with Smith on one thing: The lack of graphics showing eye-level plans for the mall's east end has been a problem. "Without having access to a presentation, it's difficult for anyone to make an informed opinion," Cox says.

Certainly that was the problem at the BAR meeting June 15. "On the drawings we got, we didn't get the height of the arch," says BAR chair Joan Fenton. "We've asked for a rendering at eye level. All we've seen is the downward view."

Fenton thinks it's an overstatement to say the BAR has been "emasculated" by the City Council's blessing of the Capshaw amphitheater. "In my mind, Council gave guidelines that it could have a certain number of seats," she says. "You can't take that right away and say it's too big."

Green space and walkways were Fenton's concerns. She wanted to see more seating on the grass, à la Wolf Trap. And if the area is going to be closed for private concerts 40 days a year, "You really want to have walkways people are going to use, because otherwise they'll take shortcuts."

BAR member Cheri Lewis, who supports the amphitheater overhaul, says the BAR was pressured to approve plans. She has a bigger problem with the transit center, and says she voted to approve it under "economic duress."

The federally funded transit center is a major public building and a point of arrival for Charlottesville. "My concerns are applying our historic district guidelines to the transit center," Lewis says.

Lifelong Charlottesville resident Virginia Amiss says people don't come to Charlottesville to see modern glass architecture such as the proposed transit center. At its last meeting, she told the BAR, "If you build this building, then you have forfeited your right to ever put a financial burden on anyone else for the sake of historic preservation."

"Transit stations are always about projecting the community into the future," says Cox. "When we get a streetcar system, it's not going to be quaint. It's going to be 21st-century state of the art, and we need a transit center that reflects those same aspirations."

Local architect Candace Smith thinks people will be very surprised at how the new amphitheater, designed by FTL Design Engineering, is going change the face of the east end of the Downtown Mall.



Local architects complain that renderings of the new transit center and amphitheater such as this give the public no clue about the scale of the project and how it will change the east end of the Downtown Mall.