ONARCHITECTURE- Sand bagged? Foes toss brickbats at Mall plan

Mall designer Lawrence Halprin has said the herringbone pattern of the bricks "establishes the character for the Mall." If City planners get their way, replacing the existing bricks with new sand-set bricks, one Mall maven says the result could be "sterile, boring, and... well, pedestrian."

With the two-week deadline that City manager Gary O'Connell has given City Council to decide on funding the Mall renovation project, the "biggest open issue," according to chief planner Jim Tolbert, is the same one the project began with years ago: what to do about the bricks. 

As City planners have admitted, years of neglect have left the bricks in serious disrepair. Now, instead of patching them, planners want to pull up every one of them– approximately 375,000– and put down new ones set in sand. And they want to do it between next January and May. They've also told City Council that they have until July 15 to decide whether to appropriate $4.5 million to jump-start the project– or else "it won't get done," according to Tolbert. 

However, at a packed public meeting June 30 at City Space (Tolbert said it was the biggest crowd that had ever assembled there. City Space organizers put the figure at 130), there seemed to be a clear consensus: why not leave the bricks alone?

While the question of what size bricks to use has been settled– Tolbert says that the original 4" x 12" size is both available and "economically feasible"– and MMM seems to have gotten Council's message about keeping it simple– no widening the West end, no new fountains, no new lights, no café bollards, no newspaper corrals, no Sister City Plaza, no new public art– City planners and MMM are continuing to insist that the existing bricks must be replaced.

However, more than three-quarters of the people who made public comments wondered why only the damaged mortar around the existing areas of brick couldn't be fixed. Only four people spoke in favor of MMM's plan to replace the existing bricks with new ones set in sand.  

By their own admission, City planners and MMM have never seriously studied the idea of preserving and re-mortaring the existing bricks.

Why not? MMM's Joe Schinstock said it was because the mortar around and under the bricks has deteriorated, 10 to 15 percent of the bricks are damaged, the existing bricks are unstable, and it would be impossible to re-mortar the bricks in the planned five-month construction time-frame. He characterized re-mortaring as a "cosmetic" fix similar to "putting a band-aid on a very sick person." 

Recently, Schinstock used another first-aid analogy to characterize the decision to get the job done in the tight, five-month timeframe: he called it "quickly pulling off a band-aid."

Comically, one speaker extended the metaphor: "To tell you the truth, I'd be happy with a $500,000 band-aid that lasted 10 years," as opposed to the estimated $7.5 million to replace the bricks.

The biggest applause of the evening, along with a few hoots and hollers, went to City resident David RePass, who questioned the basic rationale of the project. 

"We have been told that the Mall renovation, quote, 'will preserve the original design.' Well, that's not true," he said. "A fundamental part of the design has been discarded: the mortar between the bricks."

As RePass pointed out, using recently re-bricked Third Street as an example, one can't really see the pattern of the bricks when they're set in sand. All that's apparent is a pattern-less surface.

RePass said that the idea of replacing the entire Mall with sand-set bricks "should make everyone in Charlottesville bristle" because it would make the Mall look "sterile, boring, and– well, pedestrian. Why are we racing ahead with this design?"

Other speakers wondered why the City was "hell bent" on on tearing up the Mall and replacing the bricks and expressed dismay that the existing bricks would not be preserved or re-used. Still others wondered why the idea of using technologically advanced mortar products to fix the Mall hadn't been seriously studied. 

"Why not simply find the right mortar to fix the bricks?" suggested one, who said the project is simply too expensive. "These are hard times. Why not build a homeless shelter with this money?" the speaker suggested, triggering the second largest applause of the night.

Another speaker encouraged the City to think about helping needy people on the Mall before spending millions on new bricks. 

"I like plan C," said one concerned citizen, "Oliver Kuttner's plan." Downtown developer Kuttner has said the City could hire some professional masons to repair the brickwork one tiny section at a time, and for a fraction of the cost of the proposed renovation

"It scares me that you didn't think of reusing the existing brick," said another speaker, his voice rising in indignation as he pointed out that over 70 percent of the bricks, according to Schinstock's own figures, are in good condition. 

 Finally, some suggested that the plan to re-brick the Mall in five months is unrealistic, and perhaps impossible. 

"If you think you're going to get this done in five months," said City resident Jay Oschrin, "you're insane."

Downtown business owner Joan Fenton seemed to share Oschrin's worries.

"Why should we believe this will be completed on time?" said Fenton.

Tolbert replied that to manage the construction project, three weeks ago the City engaged Barton Malow, the company that finished the John Paul Jones Arena on time and under budget. In addition, MMM's Schinstock reassured the crowd that multiple crews would be working in multiple work areas in multiple shifts– early in the morning, late in the evening, and possibly on weekends– to make sure "this ambitious project" would be completed on time. 

UVA architecture professor Beth Meyer, who criticized the proposed renovation for threatening Lawrence Halprin's original design, praised City staff for the concessions they had made in the last few weeks.

Although in addition to nixing additions that Council didn't like, Tolbert said they were forming an advisory group composed of historians, preservationists, and designers to advise MMM on the design project, others in the crowd continued to demand that the City preserve the "historical and architectural gem that was designed by a master."

Apparently, that message has started to sink in. According to City spokesperson Ric Barrick, MMM has decided to leave Halprin's design for the drainage runnels untouched. That unique design, however, is entirely dependent on the 4" x 12" brick size– the one that MMM found impossible to spec until concerns were recently raise. 

And the rest of the Mall?

"At this point, the ball is in Council's court because they hold the purse strings," says Barrick. "It looks like we will need to wait until that Council meeting."