1

Future of Charlottesville urban design group being examined

The Charlottesville City Council created the PLACE Design Task Force in 2012 as an advisory body made up of urban designers and architects who would make recommendations on how public infrastructure should look.

City officials are certain to discuss the task force’s future in 2016.

“A task force is not permanent so it is up to this group to decide if its charge is over,” Councilor Kathy Galvin said at the group’s meeting in December.

The PLACE Design Task Force was charged with advising the council in eight specific areas, including urban design, landscape improvements and other elements of public infrastructure.

However, some of the group’s members wonder if their charge should become more focused.

“There are so many ideas that we’ve come up with in every two-hour meeting, and I think getting from our discussion to some kind of implementation process is our big grey gap right now,” said Rachel Lloyd, a landscape architect who has been on the task force since it began.

Over the past four years, PLACE meetings have been an opportunity for a group of professionals who don’t work for the city to weigh in on perceived flaws or problems in the built environment.

For instance, the task force discussed in December what it deemed as unsafe crosswalks on Water Street. The group’s chairman said many are not well-marked and are hard to see after dark.

“Somebody’s going to get killed,” said Mark Watson. “Making the city walkable is one thing, but making it safe is really more important.”

The meetings also give the chance for city staff to respond.

Amanda Poncy, the city’s bike and pedestrian coordinator, suggested that other street changes, such as curb extensions, would make it safer for people to cross the street by lessening the distance.

That same issue is also covered by the Streets That Work steering committee.

The city has hired the Toole Design Group to oversee the initiative to create new guidelines for how Charlottesville’s streets can be redeveloped to make them safer and welcoming for bikes and pedestrians.

“There’s some overlap with Streets That Work on how all the crosswalks will get integrated [into that plan],” said Lloyd, a member of both groups.

Galvin suggested that maybe PLACE could shift its focus away from street design.

“The last thing we want to do is duplicate effort, especially when Streets That Work was born out of PLACE,” Galvin said.

Planning Commissioner Genevieve Keller said she thinks the commission could benefit more from PLACE’s input. For instance, she said she would have liked the group’s recommendations or feedback on the rezoning for West Main Street.

“I was sort of yearning for the expertise of this group in terms of the setbacks on the street and the point at which to measure height,” Keller said.

Galvin said she hopes PLACE can be involved with the next Comprehensive Plan update, as well as future small-area plans. She also wants the group to work with other groups to hold a place-making summit for Charlottesville.

Mayor Michael Signer said he believes PLACE has played a “valuable role” in planning the city’s future.

“After its next meeting, I will be looking forward to hearing from PLACE’s members about the group’s potential continued role and specific policies it will support,” Signer said.

Councilor Kristin Szakos said she believes the council should talk about the task force’s charge, but said she supports the group’s continued existence.

“We have an amazing resource in our community of people who have expertise in these areas and it behooves us to take advantage of that,” she said.

The PLACE Design Task Force meets next Thursday in the Neighborhood Development Services conference room from noon to 2 p.m.