Members of the Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville had the chance on Tuesday to find out what the three Democrats running for City Council think about issues related to the city’s pedestrian mall.
“We felt that there’s a lot of issues that we as a community often address with City Council,” said Joan Fenton, chair of the DBAC. “We all think that the Downtown Mall and downtown businesses are the heart and soul of Charlottesville. We often bring up issues that the city needs to address because they are the landlords and the people who control the Mall.”
Democratic challengers Amy Laufer and Heather Hill appeared with incumbent Bob Fenwick at the Violet Crown to answer questions about parking, how to pay to maintain the mall and other issues related to downtown.
The three Democrats are on the ballot during the June 13 primary. Seven independent candidates have filed paperwork to be on the November 7 general election ballot.
Fenwick said before he was elected to Council in 2013, he tried to build awareness of Mall businesses through cash mobs.
“We would get a group of people together, shoppers, and we would flood a store,” Fenwick said. “We did it not just on the Downtown Mall but also at Jefferson Park Avenue and the Corner. It brought a lot of energy and a lot of promotional activity to the businesses.”
Laufer said it is crucial for the city to maintain the Mall.
“[The Mall] is part of what makes Charlottesville so unique,” Laufer said. “Everybody that visits me I bring here as well. It is amazing. It feels like Europe and it is so unique. If you look across the country we really don’t have many places like this and it really is an economic engine.”
Heather Hill is the president of the North Downtown Residents Association, an organization that published a report in 2012 that called for city policies to reduce loitering on the Mall.
“Issues of the Downtown Mall are very real to us because the Mall falls within our neighborhood boundaries,” Hill said. “I first got involved with the NDRA because of a tremendous amount of work the board had done to raise the issue of conditions on the mall and challenging our city to address those issues head-on.”
Hill said the Mall needs additional lighting to make people feel safer at night. She also wanted to know why public cameras have not yet been installed on the Mall especially in the wake of the murder of University of Virginia student Hannah Graham.
“We were relying on business owners and their cameras and those cameras aren’t always reliable,” Hill said. “But it was because of those cameras that we were able to find [the murderer].”
Laufer also wondered why public security cameras have not been installed but said she is undecided on the issue.
“I think the real question is civil liberties,” Laufer said. “People are concerned what’s going to happen with the information. The Rutherford Institute has been vociferous on this issues. I think what we need to is create the policy before we implement this. Let’s bring them in and create the policy with them.”
Hill also said she wants to further research a public toilet that would be open 24 hours on the Mall.
Fenwick and Laufer also supported that idea.
“I think it’s time that we tried it and find out if it works or not,” Fenwick said.
The topic of parking also came up at the forum. Council voted 4-1 last year to allow a six-month pilot program for meters that will begin later this year. Fenwick was the lone vote against the idea.
“Now we’re faced with the prospect of paid meters on the periphery of the Downtown Mall,” Fenwick said. “Not only will that be an expense for the merchants but it will be an expense for the workers. It will be an aggravation for the shoppers.”
Laufer said the city should work with its parking manager Rick Siebert to identify park and ride lots that can be tied to transit routes for downtown employees.
“We need a catalog of all the parking places around the Downtown Mall like the churches,” Laufer said, adding that the city could work to utilize unused spaces during the week for out-of-town commuters.
Hill said she would support satellite parking but care must be taken to ensure that they are safe places that are walkable as well.
Fenwick said he believes the city government is taking the Mall for granted. He also said he opposed the idea of levying a special tax for properties on the Mall to pay for a “business improvement district.” That idea was last floated in 2014.
Laufer also disagreed with the creation of a BID and suggested commercial property taxes should be lowered.
Hill said she wants fees paid by merchants who rent cafe space on the Mall to go back into maintenance for the pedestrian walkway.
The topic of tax credits for the developer of the Landmark Hotel also came up at the forum. Construction of the structure stopped in January 2009 and the unfinished property was purchased by John Dewberry in June 2012. Council voted 4-1 in March to grant $1.1 million in tax breaks over a ten-year period.
Hill said she would reluctantly have voted with the majority.
“We are where we are,” said Hill. “Right now [the property] is not generating any revenue as it is. I think the biggest priority for that city is for that to get built.”
Fenwick voted for the tax incentive package.
“The economic deal that [Dewberry] had is very similar to what we gave to the CFA Institute and WaterHouse,” Fenwick said, referring to the use of a tax increment financing scheme.”
Laufer said she knows many people feel Council’s action was deplorable, but the city needs the structure to be completed.
“It looks dilapidated, it looks terrible and it looks like a safety hazard,” Laufer said. “I really hope he’s able to salvage whatever’s left and create something we can all be proud of.”
The event was the last of six forums before the June 13 primary. Another round of campaign forums will be scheduled in the fall before the general election.
In their closing statements, two of the candidates made one last pitch for support.
“I’ve been doing budget and policy work for almost six years,” Laufer said. “I feel like I have the skill set to be collaborative and to work together.”
“On Council I really just want to be the voice for our community and I don’t feel there’s any one thing I can do on my own,” Hill said. “I want to work in collaboration with other Council members so we can best be addressing the priorities of our community.’
Fenwick used his closing statement to try to answer a question about panhandling, but time ran out and the theater needed to be cleared so the Violet Crown could show a movie.
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