Art, nature leading the way in redevelopment zone

A central element of the city’s Strategic Investment Area plan is to build a greenway anchored by the return of a long-buried stream that today collects stormwater from much of Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall.

The future public plaza already is gathering creative members of the community who want a place for art and nature in the redevelopment of 330 acres around the Ix warehouse complex, Friendship Court and several public-housing sites.

“The idea behind that is really to somehow move forward by integrating things that were there in the past,” said Ludwig Kuttner, one of the owners of the Ix property, underneath which Pollocks Branch flows.

The waterway, a tributary of Moores Creek and the Rivanna River, was placed underground sometime in the 1960s, the final blow to a natural ecosystem that had been blighted by decades of industrial development.

“There were probably direct pipes that were coming out of the industrial activity centers that were along this stream, taking cleaning chemicals and who knows what else,” said Devin Floyd, an archaeologist and naturalist who lives in the city’s Belmont neighborhood and runs the local Center for Urban Habitats.

Earlier this year, Floyd responded to a request for proposals for artists to participate in the Ix Art Park. Kuttner and his partners agreed to match money raised through a crowd-funding campaign organized by filmmaker Brian Wimer to create a civic play space where people could gather in what the Strategic Investment Area designates as an eventual public plaza.

“As soon as I stepped on this site, I knew Pollocks Branch was down there and it struck me right away that this was what I was going to do,” Floyd said. “I wanted to try and mimic what might have been the historic meander of this stream when the landscape was open.”

Plants have been installed on a serpentine path that curves along a 200-foot-long stretch of the Ix property. To the north are the major installations of the art park, including a massive graffiti wall and an interactive exhibit called “Before You Die.”

The goal of Floyd’s project at the Ix Art Park is to install an ecosystem that may not have existed for well over a century. Floyd said that eventually he wants to have at least 100 species of herbaceous plants and another 50 shrubs at the location.

“The idea is to build a plant community that can maximize the wildlife that is here,” Floyd said.

For now, most of that wildlife consists of insects, valuable members of a diverse ecosystem that includes more pollinators than just honeybees.

“When the insects realize this is a nectar source, they’re going to make their home here,” Floyd said. “A lot of these bees, the native ones, are solitary bees that live in the ground and they are responsible for pollination.”

There also are several varieties of milkweed to help provide food for what may be an endangered species.

“The Monarch butterfly is having a hard time as it’s losing its habitats to agricultural practices,” Floyd said. “We have 400 milkweed plants.”

Floyd said undergrounding the stream took away important natural habitat.

“Without the sun, you don’t get flora or fauna,” Floyd said. “The waterway was the heart of this watershed, and it would have been the heartbeat of the food web.”

There is no timetable for when daylighting — a term used to describe restoring the stream to a more natural condition — might occur.

Kuttner hopes it will happen soon, but it will be up to the city to make the first move.

In February, the City Council voted to incorporate proposals for the Strategic Investment Area into the city’s Comprehensive Plan. City Manager Maurice Jones is expected to give an update on implementation to the council in October.

“We hope that the city is planning for that and will make these kind of contributions to remake the city,” Kuttner said. “We know that any city that has some flowing water is very attractive, and we would be excited to participate in that.”

In the meantime, Floyd’s installation is building an urban habitat right in the middle of Charlottesville in an area that many consider prime urban land ripe for development. One vision of the city is to build densely. Floyd said he thinks that could be sustainable if development is planned, monitored and maintained.

“We can never underestimate the power of nature to regenerate,” Floyd said. “You can create beauty in urban areas but you can actually instigate situations where the natural system begins to regenerate.”

“In urban areas, with just a little bit of help, it can be easy to create green space with locally adaptive native plants, and it can be easy to bring biodiversity in,” he added.

The only place where the buried portion of Pollocks Branch is visible is through a metal grate on a street that passes through the property. Floyd hopes to eventually install listening stations to allow visitors to hear what’s going on underground.

“We’d place one here, and one there, and you could sit on a bench and hear it really loud and clear,” Floyd said.

Kuttner said he doesn’t plan any development in the short-term because there are existing rental spaces available on the Ix property.

“Long-term, I think we need some attractive urban living,” Kuttner said. “We need probably some health-care there, probably some art spaces, we need some affordable housing, and we need some spaces where craftsmen and young people who start a business can have some attractive workspaces.”

For now, much of the area has been turned over to the art park.

“It has become safe for kids, people with dogs can go, their families, and we have outside seating available,” Kuttner said. “The idea is that art connects people and art brings people together. Art is a good communicator and people like to live in art.”

For more images of the Ix Park, visit the Daily Progress for a slideshow