When the MMM Design group unveiled conceptual plans for the downtown mall revitalization project last month, one of the new elements suggested was a set of interactive fountains. Members of the Charlottesville City Council were not so receptive to the idea at a February 11 work session. The meeting happened just two weeks after the City held a series of design charettes with citizens and business owners . Jim Tolbert, Director of Neighborhood Services, said the exercise was productive.
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“I think we were able to take a project that some folks were really concerned about and after going through the process, they’ve gotten on board with it and are excited about it,” he said. Yet, Tolbert acknowledged there is still some degree of nervousness from businesses owners who don’t want their livelihood threatened during construction.
No decisions have been made yet regarding the timing and phasing of the project, which only includes the Mall itself. This project does not include work on the side streets, according to Tolbert. Some of that work will be done in stages as various construction projects are performed along the Mall.
Joe Schinstock of MMM Design said his team has been evaluating the general health of the Mall over the past nine months. They found that the utility lines underneath are in good shape, the lights and fountains are in poor shape, and that the willow oak trees are “generally in good health” though their life-spans will be shorter because of the stressful environment. The bricks, however, are deteriorating because of the method of construction – bricks laid on top of a concrete slab, connected with mortar.
“One of the things the City tasked us with doing is to not just make the mall fresh, but to look for opportunities to enhance the Mall,” Schinstock said. While that means building a more durable pedestrian walkway, it also means making the Mall accessible to fire trucks. Currently access is only available via the two ends.
Schinstock said the Board of Architectural Review wants the revitalization project to be absolutely faithful to the original Lawrence Halperin design of the Mall, down to the size of the bricks to be used.
“They would prefer us to stay with a wire-cut extruded brick, and also insisted we pursue the same size brick that’s out there now, which is a 4 x 12,” Schinstock said. However, that style of brick is no longer commonly available, and would have to be shipped in from Nebraska. “In terms of a carbon footprint, bringing the amount of brick we need on this Mall from there versus a local Virginia plant, you’re looking at over 180 tons of carbon,” he said.
There is no final cost estimate at this time. Other unknowns include whether the project will be phased and what sections will be revitalized first. Schinstock said the project is expected to be advertised for bid by the end of the year.
In his presentation to Council, Schinstock described new design features that MMM is suggesting for the Mall. They include areas for art installations on the West end of the mall near the Omni, a Sister City Plaza on the west end, new water features at Central Place, and an interactive water fountain on the east end. Schinstock said the fountains would likely cost several hundred thousand dollars.
Councilor Julian Taliaferro asked what would happen to the existing bricks. Schinstock said there were several options, including being ground up to use for trails elsewhere in the City, or used to delineate various portions of the Mall. “They will not be land-filled,” he said.
Councilor Satyendra Huja said he had a paternal interest in the future of the Mall, given that he was one of the City planners who helped coordinate its installation in the mid 1970’s. “I think if you can keep the spirit of the original design, we’ll be better off,” he said. He said the cost of the fountains is too high, the west end access point is already wide enough, and that the revitalization project should simply be about replacing bricks and lights.
Councilor David Brown said he agreed with Huja, and that the revitalization project should be simple. “I worry a little about trying to make the Mall do too much to appeal to too many people,” he said. He also said he wanted to hear from the BAR about why they do not approve of any other size of brick.
Councilor Holly Edwards said she liked the idea of a children’s area, but thought an interactive water fountain would not be the most appropriate. She also said that she would like to see some sort of element that represents the City’s diverse population. “This is an opportunity to change the social context of the Mall and also make it more welcoming for everyone who lives here,” she said.
MMM Design will now incorporate feedback from Council and the charettes into a revised conceptual plan. That plan will go before the Board of Architectural Review later this year. If the BAR awards a certificate of appropriateness, the project can be advertised for bid.