The Tomtoberfest Elliewood Block Party kicked off Saturday with a design challenge. How might the space around The Corner and the old entrance gate of the University of Virginia be re-imagined as a plaza of arts and innovation?
The brainstorming session featured Charlottesville City Councilor Kathy Galvin and Iñaki Alday, the chair of the UVA Department of Architecture. They examined the space between The Corner’s railroad bridge and the entrance to the old Medical School.
Paul Beyer, co-founder of the Tom Tom Founders Festival, said he was intrigued by the opportunity to do something “immediately feasible” and with long-term implications.
“We are not talking about a lot of money initially,” Beyer said. “You could do some simple things like pouring two patios and eliminating some landscaping. That would transform this whole plaza.”
Beyer organized a day of live music, craft beers, dance and comedy centered on Elliewood Avenue. But the block party also took advantage of UVA’s new OpenGrounds facility, a forum designed to network students, faculty and community members.
Bill Sherman is the founding director of OpenGounds. He says the facility focuses on building cross-disciplinary connections at the university, and with outside partners, to collaborate on solutions to society’s problems.
Sherman’s immediate challenge, however, is the space outside his front door. It was the view of the bus stop and bushes that sparked his creative thinking with Beyer.
“How could we recover the idea of this building as the entrance to the University?” Sherman asked. “We could make it far more visible and identifiable to the university and Charlottesville. Art and multimedia presentations could be incorporated.”
Sherman suggested much could be accomplished by resurfacing the roadway through The Corner, and perhaps changing the schedule of vehicular use.
“It’s both interesting and tricky,” Sherman said about the cars on The Corner. “There are many places in the world where they don’t design around the car. If you design everything around the car then you are missing opportunities.”
Sherman suggestion was that cars could be allowed at certain hours and excluded at others when pedestrians would be able to take over the space.
“It might not be as extreme as the Downtown Mall,” Sherman said. “It could be more subtle by changing the ground surface and limiting the schedule for cars.”
Alday suggested vehicular traffic should be “rethought entirely” and the green spaces connected.
“This could be an amazing piazza, but today it’s an enormous area of [pavement] and temporary parking,” Alday said. “It should be rethought from Jefferson Park Avenue to the Lawn.”
“All the things that are not giving life to this place, we should find another place for them,” Alday said.
Paul Collinge, the owner of nearby Heartwood Books, said he has seen plenty of vehicular challenges since his arrival in 1975.
“Whatever gets designed has to be functional and allow large trucks to be able to back up,” Collinge said about the approach to the low railroad bridge, which snags many trucks. “It happens every week that someone needs to turn around. Sometimes its inadvertent, and other times they are regular deliveries.”
Collinge also had some creative suggestions to share with the planners. He encouraged consideration of a playground around the George Rogers Clark statue on the other side of the railroad.
Included among Alday’s brainstorms was the use of the side of the railroad overpass as an outdoor movie screen. Sherman talked about projecting images from the top of his building to a screen above the White Spot.
With tables in OpenGrounds covered with photos of the area, one resident used the colored markers to creatively paint the University’s four coal storage towers, transforming one of the more challenging backdrops in the area.
Zhou Ding, a visiting industrial design student from China, posed a series of questions to OpenGrounds staff that quickly found their way onto the room’s continuous white boards.
“I like to begin with the questions,” Ding said. “What kind of experience do we want to create for people?”
“Sometimes we need to think about more than just the building,” Ding added. “We need to think about what people will do and feel in this space.”
There are no official planning efforts taking place yet by the City of Charlottesville or UVa. Beyer and Sherman both reiterated that some simple steps could start the transformation, and that some inspiration could be found close to home at Charlottesville’s own Downtown Mall.