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Charlottesville City Council updated on Play the City grant

The executive director of the Bridge Progressive Arts Institute this week briefed the Charlottesville City Council on what his organization has accomplished in the first year of a two-year grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

“We’ve planted some good seeds, and we’ve made some good relationships,” Matthew Slaats said at the council’s meeting Monday.

The city was awarded a $50,000 Our Town grant from the NEA last year with the Bridge and Piedmont Council for the Arts as partners.

The goal of the Play the City project is to help “activate” the city’s Strategic Investment Area, a 330-acre section of Charlottesville south of downtown. The area includes two public housing sites, as well as Friendship Court and the Ix property. There are approximately 3,000 residents in the area.

The properties are expected to be redeveloped in the coming years, and the SIA plan was commissioned to serve as a guide for public infrastructure and private development. The council added it to the city’s Comprehensive Plan in February 2014.

“How do you connect people together?” Slaats asked. “We’ve been using art to do that.”

One councilor noted the written report lacked feedback from area residents served by the grant.

“I couldn’t find anywhere [in your report] about what we were getting,” Councilor Kathy Galvin said.

Slaats acknowledged that the Bridge has a lot of qualitative data it has not yet shared with the city. He said he measures success in the number of relationships he’s formed over the past year.

“We haven’t done a great job of evaluating, mainly because we’ve been so focused on running the programming, but as we move forward, the metrics are going to be driving forward the programs,” Slaats said.

Galvin asked if Slaats has worked with city officials to develop a new community engagement strategy. Slaats said he has not.

“A big goal of community participation from our end has been how do you make change acceptable and how do you get folks to understand what’s going on,” Galvin said, adding that she wants to quantify the data that the Bridge has collected.

As part of the grant, the Bridge sponsored several events, including a monthly open mic night called Push Play that sought to showcase arts events in the neighborhood. The final event over the summer drew more than 100 attendees, up from 15 who attended the first event in January.

Another event involved getting students at Clark Elementary School together with Crescent Halls residents to make a memory quilt. Another was a mural program called “Waterwise” that used art to educate people about stormwater sewers.

“We worked with kids once a week to study the creek,” Slaats said. “We paired them up with an urban ecologist.”

A temporary mural was on display recently at the corner of Monticello Avenue and Sixth Street, close to the location of Pollocks Branch, a natural waterway that is currently piped through much of the city. The SIA envisions opening up the stream as part of a linear park that runs through the area.

Several different groups are also working on getting residents engaged in the SIA.

Earlier this month, the city gave the Piedmont Housing Alliance $350,000 to help create a master plan for redevelopment of Friendship Court. Part of that money will go to hiring a community coordinator.

The Public Housing Association of Residents has also begun a series of workshops to engage its residents.

A public-private consortium is creating the Walkable Watershed plan to develop better pedestrian infrastructure that also mitigates the effect of stormwater on the watershed.

Last week, a representative from the Center for Cultural Landscapes at the University of Virginia told the city’s PLACE task force about a project they are doing to map the Pollocks Branch watershed.

Slaats said there have been challenges implementing the grant, such as the departure of two executive directors of the Piedmont Council for the Arts during the grant’s first year.

The grant also was put together when Jim Tolbert was director of the city’s neighborhood development services department, but he left the city in February.

“One organization cannot do this alone,” Slaats said. “More partnerships need to happen.”

Slaats said the second year of the grant will see the Bridge focus on a few initiatives, including projects to help people better understand planning concepts such as zoning.

“For many people, that’s a foreign term,” Slaats said. “As it changes, how do we create opportunities for residents to know what that is?”