Court flair: Is it worth $2.7 million?

When it comes to revitalizing public places in Charlottesville, the standard set by the Downtown Mall raises the bar for every other project in town. In June, The Project for Public Spaces, a national non-profit group studying community revitalization projects since 1975, named the Downtown Mall one of 21 successful revitalization projects worldwide, comparing it to a small-scale Las Ramblas, a historic pedestrian mall in Barcelona, Spain.

This Friday, November 18, another Charlottesville revitalization project makes its official debut with a ribbon-cutting ceremony: the Court Square Enhancement Project.

Introduced in 1998, the Court Square Project is the brainchild of Mark Beliles, chair of the historic resources task force; former city director of strategic planning Satyendra Huja; and former city councilor Meredith Richards.

"Mark Beliles came to me with an idea for a park near Court Square," Richards recalls, "a place where people could gather. It was just a sketch."

That sketch turned into a $3 million historic renovation plan. The idea, according to Richards– who admits it was her "pet project" on city council– was to restore the Square based on the history of the area and make it a "focal point, a doorway, to visit the history of Charlottesville."

The history began when the Square was laid out in 1762; the courthouse was constructed in 1803. According to The Virginia Landmarks Register, "It was not unusual in the early 19th century to see Jefferson conversing here with James Madison and James Monroe.

For Beliles it was a no-brainer. "I just noticed how under-developed our court house was," he says. "This project went smoothly because there was a general agreement that this was a special place. Of course we need this; why didn't we do this long ago?"

More than half the cost of the project went to burying utilities around the square. The final bill, according to the city budget office, came to $2,725,000, including a $1.7 million "T21" Federal Enhancement Grant.

Has the project achieved the goals? Was the money well spent? Will the new Court Square attract more townspeople and tourists? Or is Court Square all dressed up with no place to go?

"I think it's beautifully done, no doubt about it," says vice mayor Kevin Lynch. However, Lynch does have concerns about how the T21 Enhancement Grant was used and wonders if burying the utilities was really worth it. "I'm not sure it provides a lot of bang for the buck," he says. When city council voted unanimously to approve the Court Square Project in 2001, it was Lynch who raised concerns about the cost of putting utilities underground.

"It did take money away from other transit projects, for which the T21 grants were created," says Lynch. "'We could have built a bike path from downtown to Forest Lakes for that kind of money, or pedestrian bridges over the railroad tracks downtown and in Fifeville."

Lynch admits he doesn't really know how much those other projects would cost, but he points out that T21 grants– handed out by the U.S Department of Transportation under the Transportation Equity Act– were intended for communities to improve their transit systems. Technically, burying utilities around Court Square– because it facilitates pedestrian access– qualified as improving public transit.

Although he's happy with the Court Square renovation, Lynch wonders if the city might do something different next time. "I do think its fine to say, 'Okay, this looks nice, this looks beautiful,'" he says, "but the next project should be used for the things that T21 funds were meant to do."

And, Lynch explains, city council is doing just that. "There's more interest on council in doing something that helps our transit system work better," he says. Lynch suggests more transit stops on West Main and Route 29, more frequent Trolley routes, and perhaps some smaller transit stations around town to augment the big (nearly $10 million) Transit Center planned for downtown.

But what about Court Square? Will the new renovations make it a destination, a gathering place like the Downtown Mall?

"I think it will," says Lynch. "It's a different sort of crowd... but I think it will continue to be a destination, and I think it anchors the fabric of historic buildings downtown."

As for Beliles, he's pleased with what he saw as a long overdue historic renovation. However, he would have liked a larger pedestrian area at Court Square, a kind of "pedestrian area-only plaza," he says. He also wishes the more historical Park Street side of the courthouse had received more attention.

"I would have liked to see brick all the way around the square," he says, "but there just wasn't enough money for that." Beliles hopes Court Square will become a destination similar to the Downtown Mall: "I would love to see more inns, coffee shops, and restaurants in Court Square."

Only time will tell if the Court Square Enhancement Project will be a revitalization success like its downtown neighbor. In the meantime, it sure does look pretty. And even if it doesn't improve transit or become a popular place to hang out, there's always the history.

"I see it as our legacy to the public realm," says Richards, "to honor our history." And who can argue with that?

Granite curbs and wide brick sidewalks went overground while utilities were sent underground