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Winner of Vortex public prize: Replace U.S. 29 parking lots with homes
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The winners of the public prize envisioned urban density
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by Sean Tubbs | Sunday, January 26, 2014 at 1 a.m.

A future where one-story shopping centers on U.S. 29 are replaced with multi-story buildings in which people live, work and shop is the vision of the team that won both the student and public prizes at the University of Virginia School of Architecture’s third annual “vortex.”

The weeklong exercise asked architecture students to imagine how the five-mile strip between Ivy Road and the South Fork Rivanna River might develop in the next several decades.

“Right now, people live off of U.S. 29,” said Silvi Stefi, a third-year graduate student in the school. “We’re trying to create this environment that has dense residential units and commercial uses under the residences.”

The entry from Stefi and her colleagues, called “Resi[dense]city,” analyzed the development potential for the land on either side of the intersection of U.S. 29 and Hydraulic Road. Their project encourages developers to consider building vertically and connecting to existing communities on both sides of U.S. 29 through new roads and multi-use trails.

Both Stefi and fellow third-year graduate student Christy Depew have participated in all three of the architectural school’s community planning events.

“One of my values … is to try to contribute something to the community through this exercise rather than do an architectural design for the sake of it,” Depew said.

Depew and Stefi deliberately chose the intersection of U.S. 29 and Hydraulic because of the potential for future redevelopment of low-income housing units on Michie Drive and shopping centers built in the 1980s. Across the street lies the Shops at Stonefield.

“We thought that was an interesting juxtaposition of the two conditions of brand-new versus something that’s emptying out,” Depew said.

The Kmart property is owned by Riverbend Development, which also built the Whole Foods on Hydraulic Road.

Great Eastern Management Company, the owner of Seminole Square shopping center, has not announced any redevelopment for the center, which was built in the mid-1980s.

The planned Hillsdale Drive extension is expected to be a catalyst for the redevelopment of both properties.

Both properties also are uphill from a public housing site operated by the Charlottesville Redevelopment Housing Authority.

“One thing we were really interested in was looking at the topography there,” Depew said. “All of the shops are elevated and there’s a huge drop and the residential areas are kind of in a hole.

“When we were there, we saw a lot of shopping carts that had been abandoned because people can’t get between the houses and the shopping center,” she added.

They recommended access points to allow residents of city neighborhoods to the east to reach the new urban area.

Depew also said developers should consider more underground parking, similar to how spaces were built underneath the Regal Cinema at Stonefield.

Other teams working on the intersection avoided weighing in on the long-running community debate about whether to build a grade-separated interchange. About 55,000 vehicles pass through the U.S. 29 and Hydraulic intersection every day.

Graduate student Asa Eslocker said he didn’t think that issue was going to be as relevant in the future.

“Many theorists, designers and engineers are predicting that within as few as 20 years, everyone will be driving automated vehicles, and in a world of automated vehicles, you don’t need stop lights,” Eslocker said. He added his team imagined pedestrian bridges to get people across the highway, which would remain busy.

His team also identified the location as a “node” where urban development could occur. His team’s scheme includes areas set aside for light industry and laboratory space to help grow innovative new companies within close proximity to new residences.

“It’s a major crossing at Hydraulic, and it’s a place that would connect a lot of neighborhoods north of U.S. 250,” Eslocker said.

David Mitchell, an engineer who works with the Great Eastern, said he appreciates the call for greater density.

“The best use of land, especially in this location, is to build up,” Mitchell said in an email. “I also really like the idea of residential units close to the green space around Meadow Creek.”

However, Mitchell cautioned that parking structures can be very expensive.

“If the city allowed the density in this area the numbers might work,” Mitchell said.

Neil Williamson, president of the pro-business Free Enterprise Forum, said he appreciated the academic exercise but said people who view the projects should not expect any of the concepts to be built soon.

“This one-week architectural design mosh pit is by no means a solid predictor of the future,” Williamson said.

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