UVa School of Architecture takes on Preston Avenue ‘trench’

More than 300 students in the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture will focus on Preston Avenue this week, more than 50 years after its current form was created by Charlottesville’s urban renewal.

Preston Avenue is the subject of the school’s fifth annual Vortex, a weeklong planning charrette that seeks to bring the school’s young minds and expertise into the community.

“One of the highlights of the Vortex over the last five years has been an opportunity for students and faculty to hear the multiple and often conflicting perspectives on an issue from members of the com-munity,” said Dean Elizabeth K. Meyer.

Previous years have focused on the Woolen Mills neighborhood, the U.S. 29 corridor and the area around the Belmont Bridge.

This year’s event challenges students to imagine “an inclusive, urban and connective space” in part of Charlottesville with a traumatic past.

“Preston Avenue at its east end is one of the African American population’s most painful urban scars,” reads the briefing to Vortex participants. “The trench that urban renewal of the 1960s created by ripping through the continuous fabric of well-established neighborhoods near Charlottesville’s downtown.”

As part of the urban renewal plan, Preston Avenue was widened to four lanes.

“It’s a site that was created as a transportation infrastructure improvement,” Meyer said. “It was a way to get fast from downtown to what was perceived to be the booming suburbs and Barracks Road shopping center.”

However, Meyer said plans to extend the wide highway all the way to Barracks Road were stopped by opposition from people who were more politically powerful than those who lived at Vinegar Hill.

City Councilor Kathy Galvin said Preston Avenue provides an opportunity to see if Charlottesville can become an “authentic, fair and healthy” place where new jobs can be created and affordable housing can be built.

“Our economic future today depends on our ability to attract, retain and grow talented people in innovative industries like bio and info-technology,” Galvin said. “The new residents of the Coca Cola Building, the Silk Building and start-ups along Dale Avenue are the vanguard of that future.”

Planning Commissioner Genevieve Keller grew up in Charlottesville and is now one of the organizers of the Vortex in her capacity as an adjunct professor of architectural history. She said Charlottesville voters approved a referendum on urban renewal in 1960.

“Are we at a point in time again now where it’s 1959 again?” Keller asked.

Keller has worked with students to document the demographic history of Charlottesville in order to provide context for current redevelopment.

“By World War II, almost all the white residents had moved to other areas of the city making the Tenth and Page neighborhood almost exclusively African-American,” Keller said. “Many of these families were able to buy their homes with the result that many residences have stayed in their African-American families for three and even four generations.”

The group also heard from Sarad Davenport, the executive director of the City of Promise. The nonprofit’s service area will be affected by redevelopment on Preston Avenue and beyond.

“There will be social consequences as a result of community design,” Davenport said. “I would argue it is as important, if not more, to consider the impacts of the social policy as you do with community de-sign.”

Davenport said apprehension about impending redevelopment dates back to urban renewal.

“With the initial urban renewal there was this sense of community, and people felt like they were uprooted and people feel that same pressure again from development,” he said.

Davenport said to avoid that outcome, community design must take the existing social fabric into ac-count.

“Otherwise we will continue to make the same historic mistakes that we’ve made before,” Davenport said.

The group also heard from Mark Green, one of the developers of the King Lumber Yard.

“We think the value of Preston Avenue as a transportation corridor will only grow as downtown continues to develop,” Green said. “The gentrification we see on Preston is being driven by demand.”

The guest leader of the exercise is Croatian architect Hrvoje Njiric, a visiting professor in the School of Architecture this semester. He’s not willing to refer to the street as an avenue.

“I would say Preston Motorway,” Njiric said. “I like it much more, to be honest about it, not to flatter it as an Avenue.”

The projects will be judged at an event held beginning at 11 a.m. Sunday at the Carver Recreation Center in Charlottesville. The results will be on display at CitySpace during the month of February.