By Charlotte Rene Woods | Government & Climate Reporter
Brian Pinkston has experience in leadership and collaboration through his position as associate director for planning, project services and facility management at University of Virginia, but it’s his passion for philosophy that is informing his campaign for the Charlottesville City Council.
Running on the platform of the “common good,” Pinkston aims to focus on the myriad ways communities can be improved.
The idea of “common good” stems from Catholic social teaching. While Pinkston is Christian, he is not Catholic. But he said he admires the teaching from a philosophical standpoint.
“You can’t get a Ph.D. in philosophy and not have dealt with Catholic thought — everyone from St. Augustine to St. Thomas Aquinas,” Pinkston said. “It’s not rocket science. Most people get it once you say it, but it’s realizing that for a community to thrive, there are certain conditions that need to be met. It’s thinking of a city as less of a system or moving parts and more like an organism.
“Humans do have a nature, and what is in the best interest of humans and the best interests of the communities in which they live. Part of thriving is having good relationships with each other, material prosperity — from roads to downtown businesses — and justice issues as well and another key component of it is recognizing the inherent worth and dignity of each person in the mix.”
That said, Pinkston said he feels his more technical background in project management could make him a helpful addition to the council.
“Project managers put people, resources and ideas together to get things done,” Pinkston said of his background in collaborating with others and building relationships. “Relationships are like plants. You have to water them and tend to them.”
Originally from Albany, Georgia, Pinkston said he was raised in a more conservative environment than what Charlottesville embodies. As an adult, he moved around the country for various jobs and his education. Throughout that process, he evolved into a Democrat and found an easier time acknowledging what he calls the “soft racism” he encountered in his childhood, where implicit and explicit biases sprinkled into a lot of conversation.
Pinkston asserts that he will support the removal of the statues of Confederate Gens. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Robert E. Lee. He also wants to help continue the work that is being done to address racial inequities in schools.
He credits his time spent at a seminary in Southern California obtaining a degree in philosophy and theology as having an impact on expanding his world view. More technically, he also opened up.
“I mean, living there was the first time I had been in a place where I recognized the importance of sidewalks,” Pinkston said. “Where I had grown up, it was all R-1 zoning in a neighborhood that didn’t need sidewalks or public transportation. But in a place like [ the San Diego area], a sprawling metropolis, that’s how a lot of people get around. That just shows how frankly ignorant I was still at 30. It was such an eye opening experience to live there.”
On affordable housing, he has some technical insight in terms of the procedure of development and workflow.
“What a project manager and a person who’s worked in the industry for 30 years brings to it is a strong sense of skepticism,” Pinkston said. “Not pessimism, because I care deeply about those in poverty and I want renovating Crescent Hall to be one of the things at the top of my list that we get done.”
He said that he has a sense of caution on grand plans or utopian ideas. He asserts that he is ultimately a hopeful person, but grand plans can often fail. But he is not without ideas for plans.
“I want to underpromise and overdeliver, and I’m not sure that is a politically astute way to manage a campaign, but it’s important to me,” Pinkston said. “It’s also important to me to be honest with people about what’s involved in, for instance, the affordable housing nut. To crack that.”
He cites the lure of Charlottesville as a tech center, a bioresearch center and the university as bringing in more professionals and students, which impacts the housing market. Being an employee of UVa, he advocates for the university being a stronger partner with the city when it comes to affordable housing and other topics.
One such suggestion is also a stance fellow candidate Lloyd Snook supports, which is the university requiring that first- and second-year students live on campus, rather than renting apartments off campus. While Pinkston doesn’t support complete removal of R-1 zoning, he supports restricting the geographic area of single-family homes and the idea of triplexes and quadplexes.
What inspired you to run for city council?
I’m running because I want our City to catch a vision of the Common Good. To understand that we are all connected, that what affects one, affects all. To realize that for our entire City to flourish, each individual within it needs the opportunity to do so as well.
I’m a project manager with 30 years’ experience working in manufacturing, construction, and higher education. Project managers put people, resources, and ideas together to get things done. I’m able to dive into complex problems and come up to speed quickly. I listen to a diversity of voices and find common ground. I know how to be decisive and to move forward.
I believe Council needs someone with both my skills as a project manager and my hopes for the Common Good. I hope to combine empathy and compassion with technical expertise and proven leadership.
What do you see as the top three priorities should you be elected?
Building strong personal relationships among Council members so that it can function well.
Fully engaging the University to be a strong partner with the City. This would mean, in accordance with the UVA Community Working Group’s recent report, partnering around: Jobs and wages; affordable housing; public healthcare; and education for our children.
Remaining committed both to the School Board’s vision for a consolidated Middle School and to rehabilitating our existing public housing stock.
Given your background, what do you think you can bring to the table if elected?
I trained originally as a mechanical engineer at Georgia Tech. I’ve mentioned my experience as a project manager. My career has provided the opportunity to work in various locales — the Deep South, Southern California, Northwest England, and the Mid-Atlantic. I’ve worked with a range of people: from asbestos abatement workers to research scientists, and from pipe welders to process engineers.
My job at the University has involved facility renovations across the entire spectrum of functions there. If you can imagine a context at UVA, I’ve likely worked there doing building or space improvements.
My work means that I’m good at listening to stakeholders, at managing complexity, at navigating constraints (e.g., budget or schedule), at finding common ground, and at moving forward.
I also have graduate degrees in the humanities. That education provides balance to my technical and managerial skills. It keeps me grounded in what’s ultimately important: people and their well-being.
Affordable housing is an ongoing local topic in Charlottesville. What are some things you think need to be done to address it in the short and long term?
I believe we should avoid both nostalgia about the past and simplistic answers about the future. We should be clear-headed and realistic about what we can do. We need to be honest with ourselves, and with each other, as to what cracking this particular nut may involve. This will require flexibility and a willingness to compromise.
This is a regional issue; Charlottesville can’t solve it alone. So we need to coordinate closely with the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission on the needs and strategies for the entire region. This in turn means we need to work closely with the surrounding Counties.
I do believe that rehabbing existing public housing stock is essential. It’s unethical to require people to live in housing that doesn’t meet modern standards for safety and health.
We should continually remind the University of the role it plays in the housing crisis (as laid out in the report noted above). One suggestion is that the University change its housing policy to require both first and second year students to live on Grounds.
I believe that a root-and-branch overhaul of NDS and the permitting process is overdue, to be implemented according to the recent NDS efficiency study.
What role do you see private developers playing in your affordable housing strategy? How can city zoning rules and policies improve affordable housing and what ideas do you have?
The strategies being explored by the Housing Advisory Committee assume that private developers and builders will play a major role in constructing or renovating units. So it makes no sense to alienate that community. They have both the financial heft and the technical expertise necessary to enable the HAC’s vision.
We need to adopt a Comprehensive Plan and zoning laws that are modern and forward-looking. Tons of good work is being done on this right now by members of the Planning Commission. I think we’ll find ways to increase density without damaging the physical character of existing neighborhoods.
Some have called for a total elimination of R-1 zoning in the City. I don’t agree with that. I do, however, believe that R-1 should be both reduced in geographic area and “softened” by reducing requirements around, for example, lot sizes and on-site parking. The idea of permitting triplexes and quadplexes in these contexts should also be explored.
Other ideas are to incentivize Accessory Dwelling Units and sub-letting (by on-site homeowners, not absentee landlords). We should make the approval process for these easier.
In what ways would you like to see transportation evolve in the city? What about city/county cooperation?
We should strengthen the Regional Transit Partnership (JAUNT, CAT, UTS) as recommended by the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission.
We need to change the mindset around public transportation. It needs to move from being something primarily for folks who have no other way to get around. It should instead become so reliable and prompt that everyone will want to use it. The key here is to increase the frequency of routes, which will require financial investment.
Obviously, whatever we can do to increase multi-modal transportation is important. One concrete proposal here is to fund and complete the Greenbrier Greenway Trail System. This won’t just benefit folks in Greenbrier. It will provide a way to get from Bodos on Emmett up to Greenbrier Elementary and then down to Downtown. Refugee children who live in Hearthwood Apartments will be able to safely get to school. And folks who’ve lost their licenses will be able to ride a bike to get to work.
How do you see yourself fitting in with and interacting with the existing council?
Obviously, the next Council will be comprised of three new members and only two existing members, Mayor Walker and Vice-Mayor Hill.
Vice-Mayor Hill and I are similar in many ways. We’re both engineers and have a background in business. So I believe we’ll both emphasize practical ways to move the City forward.
I respect Mayor Walker and her perspective. She’s an authentic, bold person who speaks the truth as she sees it. I’d say she and I are similar in that way. I look forward to working with her.
Honoring people and their personal story is a core value for me. I intend to build strong relationships with everyone on Council — existing and new — so that Council and the City function well.
What can you contribute to racial healing and reconciliation in the community?
I am a son of the Deep South. Where I grew up it’s not implicit racial bias that’s the issue; it’s explicit racial bias. So for all our City’s tragedies — and they are many — I am heartened that people here have an awareness of, and a desire to overcome, the sins of the past in a way that so many other communities lack.
The 2012 University Community Action for Racial Equity (UCARE) report was a starting point for recent discussions. It spoke of seeking: truth, understanding, repair, and authentic relationship. I believe we as a community should dust off that report, see what progress we’ve made, and continue to move forward.
For my own part, if I am elected, I would prioritize these three things:
- I would recognize that probably the best thing I can do is to listen — not try to “fix” things. This will involve conversations across a range of contexts – churches, front doors, and neighborhood forums. I’m already doing this, now, as a candidate.
- I would acknowledge that authentic racial justice requires addressing inequities in housing, education, and income. I would advocate for the funding / budget priorities that this entails.
- I would lobby the General Assembly to permit us to remove the Lee and Jackson statues. The case for their removal is — especially after 2017 — compelling.
What are your thoughts on what the school system can do to address and improve equity in city schools?
It is clear that our Schools can’t do everything for our children …. But they can and should do more. The New York Times article last Fall highlighted significant disparities in educational outcomes between African-American and white students. That wasn’t “news” to observant parents, of course.
I believe that modern, up-to-scratch school facilities — for all children, no matter what part of the City they come from — will improve equity. The School Board has proposed (for quite awhile now) that we renovate Buford and make it a true middle school (6th through 8th). This will reduce the number of transitions during these crucial years. Pre-K would be centralized at Walker with a wrap-around learning center. 5th grades would then be moved out to the elementary schools.
While surrounding jurisdictions have invested over $500M over the last decade, we’ve gone decades without significant facility investments. This seems unacceptable to me. I realize this is a heavy lift: a $60M to $80M investment.
Operationally, we need to think about class sizes, teacher and staff salaries, and the impact of housing costs on these public servants. This too will require significant, ongoing funding.