An exhibit of 80 submissions in a competition to redesign and rethink the west end of Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall is being exhibited at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center through May 7.
The competition is being held by local firm Bushman Dreyfus Architects with the goal of starting an annual community dialogue and design competition in the city.
“2017 was our firm’s 25th birthday,” said Jeff Bushman, principal at BDA. “We were searching for something significant we could contribute to our community, and slowly the discussion turned to an idea of sponsoring on an annual basis a design ideas competition.”
BDA hopes that the competition will open a community-wide discussion of Charlottesville’s history and social issues.
They chose the west end of the mall because of its history as the site of Vinegar Hill, a largely African-American neighborhood and business district razed in the 1960s in the name of urban renewal.
The exhibition at the Jefferson School will be open for a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday for First Fridays, a monthly event consisting of gallery openings throughout the downtown area.
On Tuesday, BDA plans to collaborate with Tom Tom Founders Festival to host a discussion of the designs. On that morning, the competition’s jury will convene and discuss the submissions, and the public is invited to vote on the design between 5 and 7 p.m. at the Jefferson School.
Bushman expressed hope that individuals who attend the First Fridays event will return to vote.
“People really care about these issues,” Bushman said. “I’m struck by how heartfelt many of the entries are. They’re not easy questions to answer but the sentiment to come up with an answer is there.”
Author John Grisham will moderate a jury panel discussion of the winning designs at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
The jury is made up of friends of the firm and individuals with the capacity to process and evaluate a large volume of submissions in a short window of time.
The jury includes landscape architect and University of Virginia Professor Beth Meyer.
Meyer is a member of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, founder of the UVa Center for Cultural Landscapes, and former dean of the UVa School of Architecture.
“The essential thing I’m looking for [as a juror] is the possibility of understanding the west end of the Downtown Mall as a threshold to something other than just Vinegar Hill Park,” Meyer said.
The City Council in 2016 approved a plan to establish that area of the mall as Vinegar Hill Park.
“Right now, [the west end] is a big dead end that could take any new form, from something small to a reconfiguration of the entire space,” Meyer said. “That particular site is important because the Mall isn’t as integrated spatially, racially and economically as was intended [when it was built].”
“This is a great project to … [consider how to] make the mall less of an island and more of a network of community spaces,” she said.
“One thing I’ve learned is how this very small piece of Charlottesville, its history mirrors the history of the country in a way, and the issues of the country and issues of racism, urban development and identity,” Bushman said.
“Some people were asking themselves, how can we connect the remnants of the Vinegar Hill neighborhood up there on the hill with Downtown? That’s a really interesting question,” he said.
Other jury members include: Maurice Cox, a former Charlottesville mayor and current planning director for the city of Detroit; Andrea Douglas, executive director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center; Brian Wimer, co-creator and executive director of the IX Art Park; and Scot A. French, a historian of cultural landscapes and sites of memory associated with African-American and Southern history.
Meyer said she hopes Grisham’s perspective as moderator will “make sure the conversation is important, timely, and meaningful for the public.”
“I know the personalities and expertise of the [jury] and am excited about the chemistry and magic of that group for this discussion,” she added.
The jury will select three winners, one grand prize award and two finalist prizes.
Bushman said he was surprised by how many international submissions they received.
“The span of responses will make your head spin,” he said.
BDA received submissions from countries including South Korea, Australia, Vietnam, Mexico, Portugal, Brazil, Venezuela and Germany, among others.
“We were not expecting a response of that scale,” Bushman said.
BDA deliberately asked for submissions in a physical form, to allow anyone to contribute and not limit it to individuals familiar with design software.
For example, one design was submitted by the mother of a family who worked on it around the dinner table, Bushman said.
“Solutions per se are not our goal,” Bushman said. “Dialogue is,”