On January 28, 2008, the City of Charlottesville held a stakeholder meeting and design charrette related to the Downtown Mall renovation project for business and nonprofit representatives.  Two additional meetings are being held tomorrow [ morning & evening ].

Jim Tolbert , Director of Charlottesville’s Neighborhood Development Services, told the nine community members in attendance that the City wants to hear their ideas about the future of the Downtown Mall.  “We haven’t made any decisions yet….Keeping businesses viable and open is our goal,” said Tolbert. An online survey is also available to collect citizen feedback on the Downtown Mall project .

Facilitator Becky Clay Christensen said the goal of these meetings was to describe the emerging design concepts and to collect additional feedback on design elements that are missing, are a concern, or that have the support of the community.

Bob Stroh , Co-Chair of the Downtown Business Association, said, “I see a system under stress from every conceivable direction.”  Christensen said that the design team had been meeting with business representatives on the Mall since last October.  Christensen acknowledged that there had been “extreme tension” around the construction period and the phasing of the project in her meetings with the business community.

Chris McKnight , a consultant with MMM Design Group, said his firm had been hired by the City to complete a renovation plan that would honor the original 1974 design by Lawrence Halprin, but also integrate ideas from the City’s 2001 Master Plan for the Mall prepared by Wallace, Roberts and Todd.  McKnight said the project would involve a tree replacement program, new pavers for the walking surface, improved lighting, new fountains, Art-in-Place displays, and enhancements for Mall cafes.

Participants in the stakeholder meeting were asked to note their likes, their concerns, and suggested missing features in the design concepts .  New water features anchoring both ends of the mall received positive feedback, and questions about maintenance issues and the use of recycled rain water.  One concept shows a staircase of pools between the ice rink and the Omni Hotel (illustration above).  At the East end of the mall in front of Bashir’s, the plan shows an interactive splash water feature that will be activated by pedestrian movements.  The water nozzles will be integrated into the new mall surface.  The design concepts also feature new information kiosks, seating, and new trees.

The Mall’s willow oaks would normally have a life span of 100 years.  However, in the harsh urban environment, the trees are expected to only last 40-60 years. Taylor Gould , Senior Landscape Architect with MMM Design Group, told the audience that the new willow oaks would be phased in as part of a tree replacement program.  The ginkgo trees on the side streets would be maintained.  Existing red maples would be replaced with another more tolerant species that strengthens the mall’s green canopy.

How much “green” will be seen by mall businesses during the construction was a key concern in a recent Business Impact Survey.  Both Christensen and Tolbert emphasized the importance of a marketing program that supports businesses during the two to three year construction period.  “The City is committed to working with downtown businesses on increased advertising and special events to ensure the public knows they are open for business,” said Tolbert.

According to Tolbert, construction is expected to begin in 2009, but the exact staging or phasing of the project has not been decided.  “We don’t know yet… Until we bring in a construction management team and finalize the design, we won’t know the [construction schedule].”

Brian Wheeler

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