ONARCHITECTURE- Developing news: Jury picks winner for downtown lots

What will this Water Street parking lot look like in 10 years?FILE PHOTO BY HAWES SPENCER

Last Saturday, September 22, the Charlottesville Community Design Center allowed the public to inspect the designs received as part of a national competition organized at the request of the City to generate ideas for the future development of blocks facing Water Street.

According to CCDC director Jane Fisher, 63 entries arrived by the Friday, September 14 deadline, including three from international design firms. The designs were displayed at the Center's downtown studio, and members of the public were invited to vote for their "People's Choice" favorites. 

According to Fisher, more than 300 people voted over the weekend for their favorite. Designs range from a traditional town center to an ultra-modern cylindrical-shaped building on its side as well as an amorphous array of purple pods that look like someone's DNA map with people inside.

Fisher says that the jury selected its winner and runners-up the following day, Sunday, September 23. All will be revealed October 5, after which they will be on display at the design center.

Amid concerns about unchecked development on the valuable site– it has been estimated that one of the lots could fetch as much as $10 million– a group of influential citizens– including Mitch Van Yahres, Blake Caravati, Maurice Cox, and UVA architect Bill Morrish– sent a letter last year to Mayor David Brown asking that the City provide a "broad, highly professional urban design vision" for the sites. While no potential developer will be required to use the winning design, the City hopes the competition and public discussion might influence and encourage a thoughtful design.

Earlier this year, the design competition raised a few eyebrows when it was revealed that the CCDC planned to offer a $25,000 to $50,000 grand prize and charge the City $103,000 for running the competition. A particular irony is that half of the site is owned by a single private corporation.

After responding to a Request For Proposals quietly issued by the City in last December– indeed, the CCDC's was the only proposal the City received– former CCDC director and founder Katie Swenson appeared before Council on January 16. Despite concerns expressed by Councilor Dave Norris about the cost, and some skepticism from Councilor Kevin Lynch, Council approved the proposal as part of its consent agenda without a formal vote or any questions from the public.

"I'm appalled at the amount the city wants to award the winner of this design," North Downtown resident Marion Samuels told the Hook, "a design that probably will never be used. What's the City trying to prove?"

At the time, North Downtown Neighborhood Association president Colette Hall also criticized the expenditure. "Fifty-thousand for a prize is a lot of money in a time when Council is trying to aid people with affordable housing issues and rising real estate assessments," she told the Hook. 

Hall, who regularly attends City Council meetings, also said she was unaware at the time that the CCDC was charging the City $103,000 for its efforts. "I'm the only one who ever speaks about the ‘Consent Agenda,'" she responded, "exactly because City Council approves millions of dollars without any public comment or question."

At a City Council meeting on Monday, September 17, Hall again complained, saying she heard from neighbors upset over the "outrageous amount of our tax dollars for a design competition, especially if a future developer would not be required to use the design."

Hall also complained that no North Downtown resident had been appointed to the design jury, despite the neighborhood's request for inclusion, and she requested that Council make a last-minute appointment.

At the close of Monday's council meeting, City Manager Gary O'Connell admitted the invitation had not been sent, but said the oversight had been corrected.

"We've made an invitation to the North Downtown residents to participate and be involved," said O'Connell ".....it wasn't recognized until this weekend that they weren't."

As it turned out, Hall was handed the job "by default" because she couldn't find anyone to dedicate so much time on such short notice. "Friday night dinner, all day Saturday, and Sunday from 8:30am to mid-afternoon had to be dedicated to this project with only four days' notice," Hall sighs.

Although Hall says she can't talk about the voting Sunday night until the winners are publicly announced October 5, she will be happy to tell the story later.   

Beta House blues? Council blocks $21 million bond issue

Contrary to a front-page headline in the Daily Progress September 19, "Council Blocks Sale of Beta House" (they have since corrected the headline online, although Google cached the original), Council did not block the sale of the property on which the Robert Compton House (a.k.a Beta House) sits; the Jefferson Scholars Foundation bought the property in February for $3 million. Council did, however, block the Foundation's access to $21 million in bond financing already approved by the County's Industrial Development Authority.

As explained in the September 20 On Architecture column ["Scholarly debate: Will Bradbury house become history?"], preservationists are concerned that the Foundation plans to demolish the house to make way for its new $21 million headquarters. According to UVA architectural historian Daniel Bluestone, Foundation president James Wright has known about these concerns for some time; indeed, Bluestone says he informed Wright about the importance of the house, designed by famed local architect Eugene Bradbury, shortly after he learned of the sale in February.

However, at Monday's City Council's meeting, September 17, Wright showed little concern for the building, saying, "We are not, as a foundation, in the business of historic preservation," according to an archived video of the meeting. Wright, who appeared agitated by Council's decision to block the low-interest financing, said the Foundation has not yet decided what to do with the building, or even if preserving it would be a priority.

Initially, Brown had thought there was little the city or county could do to stop the Compton House demolition, considering it has not been designated historic or located in a historic district. However, as the Mayor and his fellow councilors learned, the city held veto power over the bond financing.

"It's definitely a significant historic structure," says Brown. "And we want to know what they plan to do before we approve the bond issue."

Bob Moje of VMDO architects, who will design the new 23,000 square-foot headquarters, told Council that without an investigation into the "viability" of the house, it was too early to say if it should be saved.

"They said they didn't know what they were going to do," Mayor David Brown told the Hook. "And we said, well, come back when you do know."