An award-winning team of architects and economic development specialists from Washington were in town recently to begin a six-month study that will shape the future of central Charlottesville.
“This is an opportunity to create a new neighborhood that can re-weave the city back together,” said Lee Quill of Cunningham Quill, a firm hired by the City Council for $145,000 to develop a neighborhood plan for the area between Avon Street and Ridge-McIntire.
Quill’s trip to town concluded Friday with a meeting with the project’s steering committee.
The study area — dubbed a “strategic investment area” — includes potential sites for redevelopment such as the Ix building, Friendship Court and several Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority properties.
The boundaries also extend to include Ninth Street Northeast up to the former Martha Jefferson Hospital.
Previous Cunningham Quill projects include the refurbishment of the Roanoke City Market; an affordable housing development in Arlington County; and a plan for mixed-used development in Mount Rainier, Md.
On Thursday, Cunningham Quill staff toured the area with members of the steering committee.
“There are some natural features like a creek that are there but are not being utilized very well,” Quill said. “We think it could be an amazing resource.”
The project has drawn the concern of Brandon Collins, a former City Council candidate who works with the Public Housing Association of Residents.
“The [ strategic investment area ] has the potential to make some great things happen, or it has the potential to be a complete disaster for residents of public housing,” Collins said.
Joy Johnson, vice president of the housing residents group and a member of the city housing authority’s board, said her community’s buy-in is essential for the project to succeed.
“It’s not about the new neighborhood,” Johnson said. “The minute you say it’s a ‘new neighborhood,’ you create a lot of [questions about] gentrifying the neighborhood.”
Johnson said Quill and his team must convince residents that their recommendations for redevelopment of the area will be beneficial rather than a detriment.
“Everyone wants something improved and I don’t know one person who doesn’t want something nice,” Johnson said.
“How about new and improved?” Quill quipped.
Quill said he heard loud and clear in a two-hour meeting that some public-housing residents are concerned about the reasons for the study, and its potential outcomes.
“There is a big concern that came out, that this is the last African-American community and neighborhood in the city that is cohesive,” Quill said. “So the challenge is going to be how we hold the community together.”
Quill said that implementation of his firm’s recommendations will be just as hard as crafting the plan.
“But at least we will have a framework or a blueprint of sorts that will help decision-making of elected officials and appointed officials and people that live there … so everyone has an understanding of expectations of where they would like it to go,” Quill said.
Last year, the city of Mount Rainier adopted a mixed-use development crafted by Cunningham Quill that seeks to revitalize a section of the Washington suburb. The Congress of New Urbanism selected the plan for an award in 2012.
Quill acknowledged that planning can be frustrating to people who are not architects and designers.
“[The strategic investment area] sounds very complicated and very technical and kind of scary,” Quill said. “But it’s really about where people in the city make their investments and how should they direct their investments to make the community together.”
Steering committee member Greg Jackson, a resident of the Belmont neighborhood, asked for a website to be created to help be a central source for people to view the plan as it progresses.
City Councilor Kathy Galvin suggested the idea of a permanent display somewhere of the study’s materials because not everyone has access to a computer.
The Cunningham Quill team will be back in Charlottesville in mid-March and will hold a meeting that will feature a mapping exercise.
“We’re going to get people from different backgrounds at different tables so that everybody can hear other people,” Quill said.
Collins said he remains cautious, but said he has an open mind about the process.
“I get the feeling of broad public participation from the design team, and this will hopefully be the norm moving forward,” Collins said.
After the March visit, the team will develop three scenarios for potential redevelopment strategies. A final report is expected in August.