Rotunda to Rivanna: the future of our urban core

Like the palm of your hand, our city, if you were to look at it from high in the sky, has a similar pattern of lines that time has carved out. One of those lines, running east to west from the Rotunda to the Rivanna River, and parallel to the Buckingham Branch railroad, has local "palm readers" looking to the future. 

"In 50 years, I hope someone can walk from the grounds of the University all the way to the

Rivanna River, or even beyond," says City Councilor Dave Norris, "and be reminded at every step that this is a community that values urban design, socioeconomic diversity, healthy living, green infrastructure, and quality civic space."

Of course, as Norris points out, if you were to take that walk today, you'd likely have a mixed experience, roasting on West Main on a summer day due to the lack of trees, windblown and shivering in the fall and winter due to all the open space. You'd pass undeveloped parcels, buildings and store fronts that don't seem to belong, and confront challenging pedestrian crossings.

"It's never going to be the yellow brick road," Norris concedes, "but then again, we're never going to be Oz. And I'm okay with that."

Oz, no. But a thriving urban corridor? A corridor primed to welcome visitors to one of the best downtown areas Virginia, or even the country, has to offer? It's possible.    

"The density will be at least three times the current density along West Main Street," predicts UVA planning guru Bill Lucy when asked to envision the corridor in 50 years.  "And no ground level parking," he continues, "just wide sidewalks with condominiums, stores, offices, and restaurants."

Indeed, Lucy imagines a corridor that looks much like the Downtown Mall, only many times bigger. But there are risks and challenges inherent in bringing that vision to fruition, he says. 

"One key to the Downtown Mall working is that entrances average 25 feet between them," says Lucy. "That's a good goal for West Main, but it will be a challenge. New buildings tend to be bigger with fewer entrances."

Indeed, as Lucy and other planners will tell you, when it comes to walking, perception is everything. The distance from the Lewis & Clark monument at the intersection of Ridge/McIntire to the Ntelos Wireless Pavilion at the east end of the Mall is about the same distance as it is from 10th Street and West Main to the monument. Yet whereas a stroll down the Mall feels effortless, a stroll down that stretch of West Main feels like a major trek.

Another key to a successful corridor, says Lucy: trees.

"The Downtown Mall works because there are large trees which shade one-half of the Mall, including intersections, and provide terrific outdoor seating areas," he says. Indeed, one obstacle to making West Main pedestrian-friendly is the shadeless sections of the street, where there's little protection from summer heat or wind-whipping winter chill.

Now, West Main is mostly one-story buildings, but Lucy imagines it will one day be more like the Mall, which is mainly lined by three story buildings with a few much taller buildings like the Omni Hotel, the Wells Fargo Bank building, the Miller and Rhoads building where Five Guys and Coran Capshaw's offices are, and what will someday be (we hope) the Landmark Hotel, now called The Dewberry.

Speaking of that now years-old eyesore, Dewberry Capital representative Sally Brakebill says that any focus on the Downtown Mall hotel will have to wait until a similar building they are constructing in Charleston is complete. She declines to offer a timeline on that project.

"When the appropriate time arises," says Brakebill, "I will be in touch."

Oh, the torture. After nearly four years of having to look at that steel and concrete skeleton, we'd all welcome even a giant duvet cover over it.

So is there any chance Lucy's vision will be realized? As luck would have it, the City just created the PLACE Design Task Force, whose members will focus on these big picture ideas.

"As part of the Comprehensive Plan, we've adopted a small area planning approach," says City Councilor Kathy Galvin, a professional design planner herself, and a member of the new design task force. "And that's the approach we're taking with West Main, to focus all the city's resources on that area."

Indeed, the task force has convinced the City to spend $350,000 to develop a set of West Main streetscape guidelines designed to improve walkability and give developers a clear sense of what's expected of them.

Already, some big changes are coming to West Main and beyond including the new $141 million children's hospital expected to be finished next year,  an eight-story, 219-bedroom apartment complex, known as the Plaza on West Main, on the 800 block of West Main due to break ground later this year, and the planned 133-room Marriott Residence Inn at the corner of West Main and Ridge/McIntire. And lastly, the Coran Capshaw-backed CityWalk condo development near the Coal Tower at the end of Water Street.

Overall, there are nearly 30 development projects and potential sites for development in different stages along West Main Street, past the Downtown Mall, and on towards Carlton Road and beyond. They are the pieces of a puzzle that will take years to put together. Meanwhile, as Galvin says, for now the focus is on just one part of that puzzle.

Some streetscape ideas for West Main include wider sidewalks and bike lanes, improved

stormwater systems, more trees and landscaping, places to sit, and even underground utility lines. And get this: eliminating on-street parking.

Unlike Lucy, however, Galvin doesn't envision a car-less West Main, as it doesn't really fit the character of the neighborhood. Instead of an extention of the pedestrian-only Downtown Mall, Galvin envisions West Main as a pathway that connects sections of the street and their diverse neighborhoods in a way that preserves the character of each.

"I'd like to see a beautiful but functional pathway that connects to great destinations, like a necklace of jewels," says Galvin. "I want you to be able to walk a half-mile and not even know it. That's the sign of good urban design."

Of course, that's easier said than done. As Galvin admits, all that big picture thinking can snag the process of actually getting things done. And West Main Street is a puzzle board of narrow sidewalks, irregular lots and building types, places where more density and trees would help, but also places where the views of the mountains need to be preserved.

"We've got to get specific, get real," she says, "and get things done on the ground."

Hence the Comp Plan's focus on small areas, like West Main.

"I hope it becomes our great promenade," she says, "but it's going to take a lot of work to get there. It's going to require a lot of engagement from the neighborhood residents to come up with a shared vision."

Galvin likens a vision for our great urban promenade, connecting the Rotunda to the Rivanna, to creating an experimental jazz composition without falling into chaos.

"Right now we have fragments of this vision, and even those fragments are fragmented," says Galvin, who hopes the new design task force will help everyone– architects, developers, city planners, and residents– to get on the same page when it comes to envisioning what our city will look like in the future.  

As for the part of the corridor from the Mall to Carlton Road, that section of our urban dreamscape is already becoming a reality. The Coran Capshaw-backed project, being built by Atlanta-based developer Metzger and Co. Construction and designed by Birmingham, Alabama-based Davis Architects once did have Oz-sized ambitions, calling for nine-story buildings and retail and restaurants to go along with the condos. Those ambitions were scaled back, and today the plan calls for 301 multi-family condo units and a parking deck. However– and this is key– the plan also includes a road connecting the end of Water Street with Carlton Road, as well as a pedestrian trail that does the same thing. 

Galvin, though, wonders what kind of road will eventually connect Water with Carlton, as the zoning there doesn't require developers to put in trees along the sidewalks. And as a by-right development, what's the incentive to convince developers to embrace the same kind of streetscape vision they have for West Main?

While we're at it, what about fragmented Water Street, with the back of most of the Mall's southern buildings butting up to it, its impossibly narrow sidewalks, those city parking lots so long discussed as sites of development keeping City Market's location in limbo, and the empty store fronts under the Water Street parking garage?

And what about the Belmont Bridge? Although the winner of a city-sponsored design contest envisioned doing away with the bridge altogether, that seems unlikely to be the ultimate solution. Will it be a 1960s-style highway bridge passing over this envisioned east-west promenade, or an underpass flowing into it?

No, that deep crease in the palm of our city may not indicate a yellow brick road in our future, and there are no wizards behind the curtain, only regular folks moving the levers, trying to find the best route home. 

DEVELOPMENT KEY: A SAMPLING OF PROJECTS ALONG THE CORRIDOR (See image number 7 above for development map. You'll need to zoom in to see project locations.)

1:    UVA Battle Building. Status: under construction
2:    10th Street Property. Status: no proposals
3:    Sycamore 10.5 Status: proposed mixed use
4:    Ten Center. Status: UVA property, project withdrawn
5:    West Haven. Status: possible CHRA redevelopment project
6:    Plaza on West Main. Status: mixed use, soon to be approved
7:    U-Haul lot. Status: no proposals, home of Sweet Haus
8:    Union Station (at the Amtrak station). Status: on hold
9:    Potential multi-family apartments
10: City Yard. Status: potential site, environmental remediation needed
11: The Crossings at Fourth (SRO) Status: completed
12: Jefferson School. Status: just opened
13: Marriott Hotel. Status: approved
14: Waterhouse. Status: top story being finished
15: Downtown parking lots. Status: no plans, yet
16: The Station. Status: mixed-use, approved
17: ACAC. Status: can build on north corner, could be big project
18: Crescent Hall. Status: no plans
19: Ix Building. Status: no proposals, but ongoing redevelopment
20: Sixth Street. Status: no plans
21: 550 East Water Street. Status: 4-story mixed-use, approved
22: 201 Avon Street. Status: no plans
23: City Walk. Status: 301 apartments, extend to Carlton Road, under construction
24: Wright's. Status: potential site
25: Cycle Systems Scrap. Status: potential site
26: Timberlake Place. Status: 28 multi-family, under construction
27: HT Ferron site. Status: adult day care, residential, permit filed
28: Sunrise Court. Status: 66 residential, under construction


well, grand ideas, but why did they approve that city within a city complex for uva students that fails to provide street level commercial spaces that would be of interest to people walking by. The thing they approved is the opposite of all this. They are building a giant warehouse for rich college kids that seeks to protect them from the city and keep the city out.

well, grand ideas, but why did they approve that city within a city complex for uva students that fails to provide street level commercial spaces that would be of interest to people walking by. The thing they approved is the opposite of all this. They are building a giant warehouse for rich college kids that seeks to protect them from the city and keep the city out. Talking about West main, down from the other giant UVA buildings which each take a chunk out of the strolling through the urban environment experience.

won't matter where you walk when all you see is walls

parking garages underground? incredibly unsafe, awful concept for everyone except criminals, i hope this doesn't happen!

Build it and they will come! Dream it, and it will be built.

Don't let anyone ever tell you this is a small town in central Virginia. This is a world class city and the city council is right to plan for a future of immense growth. Heck, they should start issuing municipal bonds now! Interest rates are low, borrow NOW to lock in those low rates!

Dave Norris is right. There is no way residents of Charlottesville should ever have to be uncomfortably hot in the summer or experience a chill wind in the fall or winter! We should all be grateful that city council will be fixing this.

Ugh... have you ever been to a city larger than Charlottesville? Parking garages underground are how every large urban core functions without looking horrible.

Underground parking in large cities? Having lived in Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago & Dallas, all larger than Charlottesville, I can tell you that they all have a lot more above ground than underground parking. Underground parking may look nice, but it's a lot more expensive to build sufficient spaces for an urban core, and yeah, criminals just love the dark.

Elkman, this isn't a city larger than Charlottesville. Why are the people responsible for planning in this city pretending it's larger than it actually is?

How about making plans for Charlottesville that are appropriate for a town this size?

the developer for the Marriott on W Main never took ownership of the land from Mr. Mooney. Not likely to happen.

elkman, it is precisely because i have spent most of my life in cities larger than this (u.s. and europe) that i am sorry to see the future plans for charlottesville

You all could have fooled me, under most modern buildings in DC, NYC & Chicago, you park UNDER the buildings (if you want to pay enough). Above ground garages don't work because it's a waste of space to occupy the space above ground with just a parking garage.

Hahahahaha that Norris quote is classic, classic doublespeak. I can't believe what a empty stuffed shirt he is. Guess when you take "consulting" bribes and trade them for political favors as your career you don't really need to say anything constructive.

If you don't want a place where pedestrians roast in the summer and freeze in the winter, you best be thinking of someplace else, cuz this is Virginia and that dog don't hunt.

AngelEyes, I guess we could all go live with the gays in places like Kalifornia or South Beach, but this is real 'Merica round these parts. If you don't like it, you can geeeit out

Don't kid yourselves cities love high rises and parking garages because they get so much more in property taxes to spend on pet projects.

They create gridlock and then beg for state and federal money to relieve it.

Think about it. If they build a one story building on a 1/2 lot they get about 10k in property taxes, if they build a 5 story building they get 5 times that amount for the same land and only have to plow the same stretch of road once.

It sounds like a good idea but in the end your way of life is compromised by the gridlock.

go to that sweet little town of tysons corner virgina just outside the DC beltway,,, or look at it on google maps satelite and you will see the future. it was RUINED by a city government with "vision"

If I was to "geeit out", what would I do without doofuses to twang on...