The Charlottesville City Council has approved an ambitious project to replace the bricks on the Downtown Mall over a five month period beginning January 2, 2009. The project will now no longer include the Mall’s West End plaza between the Omni and the ice park, though the work will remain budgeted at $7.5 million.

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Jim Tolbert, the City’s Director of Neighborhood Development Services, used his presentation to confirm the changes requested by Council at their June 16, 2008 meeting, as well as to further justify why he believes the renovations are worth the investment.  In short, Tolbert said the Mall is over 30 years old and is deteriorating.  The electrical infrastructure is unreliable, and the City has had to pay damages to people who have stumbled over heaving and cracked bricks.  Water has to be specially trucked in to run the fountains, grates protecting the trees need replacing, and the lights are not in compliance with the City’s dark sky ordinance.

“The Mall is a very important part of the tax base,” Tolbert said. “There’s over 2 million square feet of residential, retail, entertainment  and office space. Over $223 million in assessed value in the downtown area… it’s a key generator of meals and sales tax, and a destination for many folks.”

Tolbert said the City has been preparing for the Mall renovation for ten years, and now those efforts are becoming more specific. Construction management firm Barton Malow has begun producing a construction schedule that will be coordinated with business owners who will serve as block captains. Up to four crews will be working on sections of the mall at any one time.

The renovation will no longer include this section in front of the Omni

The cost of the project has been a concern to many. At their meeting on June 16, 2008 , some Councilors wondered why the project was still budgeted at $7.5 million, even though elements such as an additional fountain and a new Sister City Plaza were removed.  Those concerns were also expressed by many people at the June 30, 2008 public meeting on the Mall renovation who suggested money could be saved by re-using existing bricks where possible, and retaining the use of mortar to lay the bricks.

In his staff report, Tolbert explained that the $7.5 million estimate dates back to the master planning work done by Wallace, Robert and Todd in 2003. However, the estimate had ballooned since then to $9.1 million. To stay within budget, Tolbert revealed several design changes that have been made since the June meetings. First, the West End Plaza will not be part of the renovation, and Tolbert claimed that would cut $530,000 from the project.  Second, new areas of granite banding will not be installed, saving $200,000. Second Street will no longer be bricked over as part of this project, reducing the project budget by another  $223,000. The project is now under budget, according to Tolbert.

As for the suggested alternatives, Tolbert said Barton Malow estimates the project would cost an additional $1 million if Council were to decide to stick with the existing mortar joints, and the project would take up to two years to complete. Re-using and “tuck-pointing” the bricks would cost half a million more, and would also take up to two years to finish.

Also new since the June 30th meeting is the creation of a Design Assistance Committee which will be an additional layer of guidance as the construction plans begin to be implemented.

Eight people addressed the Mall renovation during the public hearing. Bob Stroh of the Downtown Business Association delivered a petition from mall owners expressing support for the project. Morgan Perkins, owner of the Sage Moon Gallery, said she has heard many comments from visitors who say the Mall is getting seedy.

Beth Meyer addresses the Council

Beth Meyer, who had spoken out against the project at previous meetings, thanked Council for scaling back the project and said she appreciated the creation of the Design Assistance Committee. She also read a note from Lawrence Halprin’s assistance, who thanked the City for going with the larger 4” x 12” brick.

However, Historic preservationist Daniel Bluestone insisted the City should rehabilitate the existing bricks.

“When I hear Jim Tolbert tell you that 10 to 15 percent of the bricks on the Mall are in bad shape, I look at that and I say 85% of those bricks are in pretty good shape,” Bluestone said. “How is it that we’ve gotten to the place where long-deferred and overdue maintenance gets replaced with… tearing everything out and starting over again new?”

Karen Waters of the Quality Community Council said that whichever way City Council decided, she hoped to see a workforce development component where the work crews would be hired locally.

Councilor Satyendra Huja

Councilor Satyendra Huja said the renovation was long overdue, but he wanted to know what would happen with the bricks. Tolbert said a decision had not been made, and that he would be back before Council when more information is gathered. He said he would like to make the bricks available to the public in some way, but cautioned that many bricks will be damaged when they are removed.

Huja also raised the possibility of revisiting the creation of a uniform look for newspaper boxes. Council had taken that out of consideration at the June 16 meeting. “I think they look quite hideous, and I think they really distract from the Downtown Mall,” Huja said. Councilor Julian Taliaferro agreed, and called them tacky.  Edwards said she would support that, as long as the newspaper companies were involved in the discussion.  Brown said he did not mind the existing boxes. Tolbert agreed to include the $50,000 project as an “add alternate” meaning that a decision on whether to proceed with the boxes could be made as construction bids come in. Huja said the money would be worth spending.

Councilor Holly Edwards said one person called her to request that she vote against the project because “it did not create a true sense of economic justice in all parts of the City.”  She said she was struck by a line in the staff report that “the good, the bad and the ugly is what makes the Mall successful. The bad is that the Mall was the result of the economic decisions made after the Vinegar Hill razing.”

“I’d like to believe that the renovation and rehab of the Mall will also create an opportunity to renovate and rehab the economic opportunities of the City,” Edwards said. She called on the City to partner with Piedmont Virginia Community Council to train homeless people and felons in the skills that will be required by the work crews.  Edwards also said the City’s public housing stock deserves the same level of investment as the Downtown Mall when it comes time to begin that project.

“We’re spending a lot of money on the project, and I’d like to believe that there will be some employment opportunities for a variety of people,” Edwards said. “Is that not possible with this?” Tolbert said with four crews working, there would be opportunities, but he did not foresee that as something which could be required.  Norris said Council needed to have a conversation about how to incorporate workforce development into the City’s many ongoing infrastructure projects.

Councilor Huja said the quality of the work should be “the top-most possible” so the Mall will still look good in 30 years.  Brown said he wanted to keep the issues of workforce development and the Mall renovation separate.

Councilor David Brown raised the concern that the LED technology being suggested for the new light fixtures might not be powerful enough. The resolution to move the project forward was altered to make the use of LED lighting conditional upon further review.

Mayor Norris relayed the concern of one merchant who had e-mailed a question: Will work continue past May 31, 2009 if the project is delayed? Tolbert said he did not know, but he was confident the combination of block captains, four work crews, a minimal amount of concrete pouring, and other steps would keep the project on deadline.

“We will work in thirds in any one area, so if we’re working between 4th and 5th, we won’t have all of that shut down, we’ll be working in the center, and on one side and then the other,” Tolbert said. He said that
would prevent businesses from needing to shut down.

One remaining issue for Council direction was for the size of brick to be used at the vehicular crossings. Tolbert recommended a 4” x 8” brick.  Councilor Taliaferro said he preferred a smaller brick because he thought they would be more stable under the weight of moving vehicles.  Mayor Norris and Edwards supported that recommendation. Councilors Brown and Huja both supported the larger 4” x 12” bricks to preserve continuity with the rest of the Mall. The Board of Architectural Review (BAR) will consider this item in August. The BAR also has to weigh in on the tree grates and the fountain design.

Work will begin on the mall’s runnels in October. They are the narrow channels set in a different fashion, as seen in this example from 3rd Street SE

Council voted 5-0 to move the project forward, and voted 5-0 to move $4.5 million from the Capital Improvement Program (CIP) to pay for the project in one year. Afterwards, Tolbert spent a few minutes explaining what will happen next.

“We’re not going to hire a general contractor. Barton Malow is going to manage that part of it, so they’ll be going out and finding contractors to do the runnels. We’ll start that work in October, but we’ll start gearing up for it right now. That will be the first real construction work anybody sees… The impact of that will be like when we do repairs now…. Immediately we’ll start ordering parts for the fountains: the plumbing supplies and the electrical supplies as soon as MMM turns out a sheet with the details and we have the quantities. The lights we’ll start reworking. One of the things we’re investigating is sometime in early fall start taking lights down and putting up some kind of temporary lights so the lights can be regutted, refixed, repaired… We’ll start implementing the project in the next few weeks. We go to the BAR in August, and will get the final approvals on most everything. I want to get the design committee going to talk about a few more of the design issues… We’ll order the pots, the bike racks, the benches… A lot will be happening, and we’ll hit the ground running on January 2, 2009.”

Tolbert went on to say that efforts will be made to minimize dust. Construction will be blocked by a four-foot high covered fence, which will allow pedestrians to see across the Mall at all times.


Sean Tubbs