The Charlottesville City Council has asked the consultant overseeing a $7.5 million renovation of the Downtown Mall to eliminate some design elements in the latest version of the plan in order to keep the cost of the project within or under budget.  MMM Design and City staff will now incorporate Council’s feedback into a revised plan, to be presented at a public meeting on June 30, 2008.

Council also agreed in principle to amend the FY2009 City budget in order to allocate $4.5 million in the Capital Improvement Program budget. Shifting the funding forward would allow the City to conduct the renovation over a four month period, rather than spreading the work over three years.  The overall budget for the project has not changed and a contingency fund could cover an additional $1.84 million in expenses.

Before the report, several speakers urged Council to preserve the existing Mall, which was designed by Lawrence Halprin in the 70’s. City resident Beth Meyer said the plan developed by MMM Design would “replace a significant, modern designed landscape with a banal one.” Planning Commissioner and downtown resident Genevieve Keller said she understood the need for the Mall to evolve, but that any renovation should be consistent with Halprin’s design.

Lydia Brandt, a member of the Preservation Piedmont Board of Directors, said the Downtown Mall was as worthy of preserving as any building in town.

“As 21st century Charlottesville residents, our role is not to reinvent the Mall, but to serve as vigilant stewards of its preservation,” Brandt said.

Jim Tolbert makes his presentation to Council

Jim Tolbert, the City’s Director of Neighborhood Development Services, said MMM Design and City staff heard Council’s concerns in February that the renovation plans were too ambitious and should be scaled back . A proposal for two new large fountains was removed, though the plans still show an option for creating a fountain in front of the Omni Hotel.  Tolbert said this option would only be implemented if private money could cover the $650,000 cost.

Many downtown businesses have expressed the concern that the renovation will shut the Mall down for years. They point to the long delay in adding bricks to 3rd Street NE last year.

“The problem on 3rd Street was that there had never been anything done there, and we had to dig it out completely,” Tolbert said. “We found utilities that I think Jefferson put in, they were so old. They were in places where we didn’t know where they were.”

Tolbert added that workers also had to install a brand new concrete slab on which to lay the brick pavers. In the case of the mall renovation, the existing slab will more or less be left in place. He did say that some areas of the slab would be broken up to help fix utilities lying underneath.

Tolbert also said there are no plans to remove all the trees on the Mall. Instead, 21 trees are scheduled to be taken out due to disease, and replaced with new trees in the existing pattern.  Tolbert said the replacement trees “will be as big as we can possibly support when they are planted.” However, the red maples in front of the Omni will be removed and replanted in a slightly different pattern. Tolbert said the area in front of the Omni is not part of the original Halprin design.

Staff is no longer recommending a children’s play fountain, and is also not depicting any play area for children.

Other changes proposed in the plan from MMM Design include:

The existing 4″ x 12″ bricks are set with mortar joints

Another topic of debate has been the size and number of bricks to be used in the renovation. In February, Tolbert had told Council that MMM Design was planning on using a 5” by 10” brick paver because a local supplier for a 4” by 12” brick could not be found. A supplier closer to Charlottesville has been found to provide a brick closer in size, but Tolbert said it won’t be as stable, and will cost an additional $200,000.

“If we want to be true to the Halprin design, the  4” x 12” is the way to go and do that,” Tolbert said.

During the renovation, the City will lay the bricks in sand on top of the concrete slab without using mortar joints. A similar process has been used in the Court Square area as well as on 3rd Street NE.
Tolbert said this would make it easier to remove them for repairs.

“The beauty of doing it in sand is that if we have a water line break, we’ll be able to just pull the bricks out, move the sand back, and fix the water line break,” Tolbert said. “You can go down there now and see where every break has been because it discolors the mortar joints.”

Tolbert next turned to the question of cost. While the plan is not fully designed, Tolbert said the project is budgeted to cost $7.5 million, and MMM Design is suggesting a 25% contingency figure of $1.84 million. He said the City will hire construction management firm Barton Malow to oversee the project.  Using several crews at once, Barton Malow officials say they can get the whole project done within four months.  Tolbert also pointed out that the firm was able to bring the construction of UVa’s John Paul Jones arena in under budget.

“Barton Malow has told us they are confident that we can start this on January 2nd and be finished by the end of April,” Tolbert said.

Joe Schinstock of MMM Design

Joe Schinstock of MMM Design said the plan was meant to update Halprin’s vision for the 21st century by replacing many of the elements that are more prone to wear and tear. Most notably, he said the bricks are deteriorating because the mortar that holds them together is wearing away due to iron-chloride penetration, use of ice removing chemicals, as well as frost heaves caused by cold weather.

Schinstock also detailed the plan’s depiction of a Sister City Plaza in front of the Ice Park. He also detailed new water features, such as a fountain to be installed in block east of 1st Street NE. The fountain at Central Place will be reworked to restore lighting and to fix faulty pumps. A wayfinding kiosk is projected to be placed in the block to the east of Central Place.

Besides seating size, Schinstock also said there are other deviations from the Halprin plans. For example, the existing trash receptacles were redesigned so that City custodians could more easily remove trash bags.

The new bricks will be set in sand, without mortar joints, similar to these bricks on 3rd Street NE

The Board of Architectural Review took a look at these new plans on May 20, 2008 . Remaining issues for the BAR include whether to  require a uniform design for newspapers boxes, approval of the drinking fountain design, as well as the size and of the bricks. Schinstock said it is not feasible to reuse the existing bricks because upwards of 15 percent are damaged beyond repair. Additionally, there aren’t enough bricks to make up the difference when the switch is made from mortar joints to sand. Schinstock said that would create a space of 15,000 square feet that would need to be filled.

Tolbert said the renovation would also address the electrical system. He said on many nights, two-thirds of the Mall’s lights will go out because of faulty wiring. He said one of the utility “vaults” is currently underwater.

“We believe we’re doing an update that is a minor update when it comes to the changes, but is bringing it into this century… and keeping what is there now, but is the least we can do and do it effectively.  I regret that it costs $7.5 million, but I hope it doesn’t cost that when we get it done,” Tolbert said.


Councilor David Brown

Councilor David Brown wanted more information on where fire trucks were having difficulty accessing the mall, and said he would like to know where the “pinch points” are so that a solution could be found to use the existing lights where possible.

Mayor Dave Norris asked why the cost estimate has remained at $7.5 million, even though Council directed staff to scale back the project in February. For instance, Council asked for a $600,000 fountain to be removed from the plans. Tolbert said the current plan is at the 35% design phase, which means it is more detailed.

Norris also asked Tolbert if the plans would cover the side streets. Tolbert said it would not, but that the City is contractually obligated to do work on 2nd Street by the new Landmark Hotel, on 5th Street NE by the Holsinger building, as well as on 4th Street NE.

Councilor Satyendra Huja made lengthy comments about the plan. He said he wanted the work to be done to not sacrifice the simple elegance of the existing mall. The existing plan, he said,  “would change the character of what is there right now in significant fashion.” He said the renovation should re-use as many of the existing bricks as possible, and also objected to using taller lights.

“Changing the height by two feet would change the character from pedestrian to more vehicular lighting,” Huja said. “I think the side street access for fire engines could achieve fire safety.” He also estimated the cost of the project could be brought down by $1 million if new lights were eliminated, given that each new light is budgeted to cost $10,000.

Huja also disputed that the trees slated to be cut down are dying and said trees tend to be more resilient than arborists say they are. He also did not think it was worth the cost of coming up with new barriers for the outdoor cafés, and that the Downtown Mall would look more like Fashion Square Mall with them.

Huja also objected to the extra fountains, the newspaper boxes, art installations and any other new elements that would clutter up the Mall.

“You can’t put everything in one place,” he said. Huja also said the City should not rush into the design, though he did support doing the entire project at once.

Concrete banding will be replaced with granite under the plan

Councilor Brown disagreed with Huja that the bricks could be re-used. He said that it would be difficult given that the original bricks would not fit into the herringbone pattern once the mortar joints are removed. He also said it would be difficult to both re-use the brick and get the project accomplished in four months.

Brown agreed with Huja on the idea to not make the Mall too uniform with the uniform newspaper boxes and the new café bollards.

“I can be persuaded that there are really good reasons to do those things, but I’m not crazy about the issue of trying to make everything be uniform,” Brown said. He also said the Mall did not need art installations or additional decorative fountains.

Councilor Holly Edwards said she also objected to the taller lights, but could understand the need for fire trucks to reach the Mall, given the forthcoming Landmark Hotel as well as the likelihood of more people living on the Mall.

Mayor Norris said he agreed with many of Huja’s points.

“I do believe that this current plan includes a lot of bells and whistles that I don’t believe are warranted or even attractive,” Norris said. He called for a functional breakdown of the plan’s budget so Council could make choices based on the cost. Norris said he did not favor the Sister City Plaza, the newspaper boxes, new art installations, the new café bollards, the new decorative fountains, or the plan for the section of the Mall outside the Omni.

However, Norris did support some version of a play-space for children. He suggested planners take a look at the areas installed on the Boulder, Colorado’s downtown mall.  “Being the parent of two children, I know that a lot of parents when they go downtown would that a very attractive part of the downtown.”

Councilor Brown disagreed with Norris on the play area, while Councilor Edwards supported Norris. Taliaferro said he needed more information before he could make a decision.

Huja conceded his position on the re-use of bricks, and sought to list the areas in which Councilors were in agreement:

The above directions did not take the form of an official motion. Councilor Taliaferro said he did not want to take any action until after the June 30 public meeting on the Downtown Mall. Tolbert said he had enough to work with.

Joe Schinstock told Charlottesville Tomorrow his team would be updating the design according to Council’s direction. He said he met with Beth Meyer to discuss her concerns, and that he would be talking with others who have concerns about the renovation.


Sean Tubbs