Back to drawing board: BAR defers amphitheater plan

Almost as soon as this year's Fridays After 5 season ends October 1, construction on the new Coran Capshaw-run amphitheater is supposed to begin so it'll be ready by next spring.

The tight schedule got tighter when the Board of Architectural Review handed the amphitheater a setback September 21.

One of the big issues the BAR considered in its vote to defer design approval: an expanse of concrete taking the place of a grassy bowl.

For BAR chair Joan Fenton, the concrete's an issue when the tent covering the amphitheater is not up. "How do you make it a great space and not a vast wasteland of concrete?" she asks.

In their drawings, a pair of New York­based firms– FTL Design Engineering Studio and Donna Walcavage Landscape Architecture and Urban Design– propose using movable planters and staining the concrete into a maze design.

Fenton is not keen on the maze. She's a big fan of Wolf Trap and its expanses of lawn– but that may not work here. One reason: the gigantic tent kills any grass underneath.

"The whole BAR was wavering," Fenton says, because the structure seemed too large for the site. On the other hand, City Council okayed seating for 4,000. "How do you make it work?" asks Fenton.

Another suggestion that didn't fly with the BAR: "turf boxes" for seating. "No one liked the idea of putting Astroturf on the Downtown Mall," says city planner Mary Joy Scala, who works with the BAR.

Bill Letteri, chief of facilities for the city, who's in charge of the project, was disappointed by the delay, and he defends the maze. "It is a hardscape," he says of the future east end. "I think the maze pattern with movable planters is very creative."

Topiaries add to the whimsical nature of the maze, says Scala. Some members wanted to see brick or crushed stone, but the applicant gave reasons why brick wouldn't work– even though most of the mall is already bricked– and the chairs need a hard surface, eliminating crushed stone as an option, reports Scala.

The BAR did approve a giant retaining wall along Water Street– after it was cut from 25 to 17 feet high. The board still objects to the materials proposed for that: concrete block. "Even though there will be plantings, the wall needs better materials so it doesn't look like the side of Wal-Mart," says Fenton.

And while the BAR has approved the concept of the amphitheater and transit center, "On this, there wasn't any one feature we felt we could sign off on," says board member Cheri Lewis. She cites the absence of details, such as the materials for the stage house, what the amphitheater chairs will look like, as well as the fencing and gates around the site.

"I was surprised we were asked to give final approval when it's still a work in process," says Lewis.

Letteri doesn't think the delayed BAR approval on "minor details" will slow things down too much. "I think we'll turn it around pretty quickly," he says.

And he stresses, "It's very important to turn it around quickly. It's very important to this developer to get this started."

Is the BAR feeling the heat in getting this city-embraced project approved? Fenton laughs. "No. Actually, other developers have put a lot more pressure on us than this."

And she has a suggestion: "I would like to have seen more detail earlier." Like maybe in June, when the concept was approved. "I think it's at that point, with time restraints, it's in their interest to get feedback," she says.

Ken McDonald, Capshaw's Charlottesville Pavilion LLC rep for the amphitheater, isn't worried– yet. "This is part of the process," he says. "It's our goal to stay on schedule. At this point, I think it's all workable. We just have to show a different design."

Rained out no more– the Coran Capshaw-managed amphitheater will be covered in canvas from April to October and will be 15 degrees cooler, according to the city.


A-mazing. Plans for the amphitheater when the giant tent is down call for a maze and topiaries.


The idea of Astroturf boxes for seating didn't fly with the BAR– although they may have been popular with local homeless folks.