Mike Stoneking at March 8, 2018 PLACE Design Task Force Credit: Credit: Sean Tubbs, Charlottesville Tomorrow

PLACE group debates role’s change to assistant city manager level

A community engagement position approved by Charlottesville’s City Council last year has been elevated to an assistant city manager for design and development and will be advertised this spring.

“This person has to have a steel skeleton and charisma galore,” said Mike Stoneking, chairman of the PLACE Design Task Force. “It’s like Cary Grant meets the Terminator.” (Stoneking is a member of Charlottesville Tomorrow’s board of directors.)

The PLACE group was formed in 2012 to advise the council on design issues in the city’s public areas. Its annual report in 2016 endorsed “the creation [and provision] of funding for a city designer/architect position” that would play a role in shepherding the city’s aesthetics.

In the current fiscal year, the council budgeted $119,465 for a “community engagement/placemaking/design” position but it has not been filled. The proposed $171.3 million budget for fiscal year 2019 has raised the position to a managerial one.

At their meeting Thursday, PLACE members discussed what they would want to see in the position. They used a draft job description written by City Manager Maurice Jones for an assistant city manager for design and development.

“Our next ACM will work with staff to provide support to various citizen committees, including but not limited to the PLACE Design Task Force, the Planning Commission, the Board of Architectural Review and the Historic Resources Committee,” reads the description. “She or he will closely work with staff to develop a community engagement process to ensure that all voices will have an opportunity to be heard on critical development projects.”

The city currently has two assistant city managers who report to Jones. The city manager’s office also includes the office of economic development and office of communications.

The draft job description goes on to state that the new hire would be tasked with developing a long-range vision for design in the city. They also would supervise the Department of Neighborhood Development Services, Public Works and Public Utilities.

The person hired also would work “with staff and key stakeholders to develop a comprehensive strategy for improving and streamlining the development process in the city.”

Part of the PLACE discussion was about whether the position should be at the assistant city manager level.

“As far as compelling departments to implement a vision, the implication of Maurice’s statement is that unless you have an assigned supervisory role, there’s no way you can compel staff to undertake a project,” said Rachel Lloyd, a member of the group since it was formed.

Another PLACE member suggested the position could become more like the Office of the Architect position at the University of Virginia.

“They’re not supervisory but all major plans and all major policies have to go through them,” said Lena Seville.

Lloyd said one difference between UVa and Charlottesville is that the architect’s office there generates development on Grounds and carries out a master plan.

Other PLACE members said the person needs to bring new ideas to the table.

“It’s thinking ahead to things we haven’t thought about and setting an agenda that we haven’t managed yet,” said Fred Wolf.

“We haven’t had anybody really dreaming and managing the vision really since the 1970s,” said Genevieve Keller, the Planning Commission’s representative on the task force. “That’s what we need.”

Seville raised concern that the position would not be connected to neighborhoods.

“I do think they have to have the ability to communicate with the neighborhood associations and the people,” she said. “If they are creating a vision, they really have to be connected to the community rather than supervising departments.”

One person asked what role this person would play in the review of the Comprehensive Plan.

“The way we said it before, this would be the person who would flesh it out and bring life to it,” Stoneking said.

PLACE will form a subcommittee to continue discussing the position and what its members desire. Any meetings with more than two members must be advertised to the public under Virginia law.

The new position is not the only one under consideration that would touch upon community engagement related to the built environment.

Jones’ proposed budget sets aside $100,000 for a new position in the Department of Neighborhood Development Services. The exact role of this position is not known but will be informed by an assessment of NDS conducted by the Novak Consulting Group. The council decided at a work session Wednesday to wait until after the budget is adopted to finalize the position.

The proposed budget has an additional $225,000 to fund two new positions as part of a reclassification of the clerk of council’s office. One would conduct research and development for councilors and the other would help councilors with community engagement and media appearances.