Let’s Talk: A New Lens

Informed citizens create better communities; it’s the quickest and highest articulation of our mission at Charlottesville Tomorrow. For the past 11 years, Sean Tubbs has devoted his time, talent, and energy to covering the city and county’s planning and development beats so the people of Charlottesville-Albemarle could engage their governments to make the changes they wanted to see. Since he announced his plans to join Piedmont Environmental Council as a field officer last week, all kinds of people have been writing in to thank Sean for his work. We’ll miss you Sean, and we will try to raise the bar you and Brian set high.
When Charlottesville Tomorrow was founded in 2005, the city and county were facing the pressure of unprecedented growth after adopting a new set of comprehensive zoning rules in 2003. For-profit media was flush with real estate advertising, and the area needed an independent journalistic approach that didn’t mix business with telling the truth, so our founders created a nonprofit that would follow every step of the planning processes. The idea was to hold local government accountable for decisions that could shape the physical and economic character of our area for decades, and the focus of the mission was to ensure that smart planning balanced growth and sustainability, urban development, environmental stewardship, and rural preservation.
When I arrived in town as editor-in-chief of C-VILLE Weekly in 2011, the Recession had paused all the growth and given the government time to initiate long-term planning processes and address longstanding infrastructure debates with the help of federal money. Those discussions involved learning from over-extended developments like Biscuit Run, using TIFs to drive redevelopment in areas marked for density, and looking at future plans for the redevelopment of public and affordable housing stock. All of that took place under the looming shadow of The Landmark, an unfinished reminder of failure. West Main Street was still a blank slate, even if the properties and much of the zoning was already locked up, and the Bypass and Water Supply debates were raging. What people may not remember as clearly is that it was in this period that the Dialogue on Race yielded initiatives like City of Promise and the Minority Business Council. The pause in economic pressures had made time for deeper thinking, and lengthened the horizon on the implications of major decisions.
The Boom and the Bust were lenses that fit very nicely with Charlottesville Tomorrow’s mission statement. The forces at play– growth vs. sustainability, investment vs. affordability, urban redevelopment vs. rural protection– could be seen playing out in our planning and development beats from meeting to meeting. But the need for clear, accountable reporting extended to other areas, and Charlottesville Tomorrow added an education beat. What set of issues matters more to local taxpayers than education? A direct application of their property taxes to the future of their own children and their own property values?
Beats, forces, and lenses are all ways of understanding public processes and governmental decisions. Most people spend their time thinking about their own self-interests and their national politics, which these days is often driven by cultural identity. No one actually likes government any more, and while we all know that’s a problem, it’s hard to own up to the fact that it’s our problem. But it is our problem, and it’s Charlottesville Tomorrow’s mission, and mine, to help you stay involved in the solutions, long- and short-term. Maybe even to help you like government again.
The events of last August have been volcanic, traumatic and explosive but also geological and destabilizing. In addition to the forces I’ve already mentioned being brought to bear on our city and county governments, we’re reckoning with our history as a segregated city with a legacy of racial discrimination and structural barriers that have closed down opportunities to African-American communities. It’s a pivotal moment, and you can see that in the governmental and nonprofit landscapes with an unprecedented number of leadership transitions.
Over the past year, many of the problems are coming into focus, but the conversations about solutions are still fragmented, chaotic, and reactive. The scale, stakes, and complexity of contending with them will require informed communities, a forum for ideas, intelligence, energy, and constituencies capable of articulating clear priorities.
For example, you can’t think about the redevelopment of Friendship Court without thinking about the performance of Clark Elementary School, the infrastructure and property values of Belmont, the plans for Market Plaza, or the future development of the Fifth and Avon Street corridors. Just one example of how our beats intersect in the complicated landscape of community design.
My commitment to you as executive director of Charlottesville Tomorrow is that we will stay on our beats, track the public processes, and offer you valuable lenses to help you engage your local government to make the change you want to see in our community.
Giles Morris
Executive Director
Charlottesville Tomorrow