More than forty people attended the first public meeting of the Water Street Design Competition, an “open ideas” event to get bold thoughts on what to do with the downtown area’s last remaining open space. Input from the public will shape the competition’s search for entrants who may create designs for uses including commercial space, housing, parking, the City Market, and new parks.

“This is exactly why we have this design center, to have an open forum for public input on projects in Charlottesville,” said Jane Fisher, the new director of the Charlottesville Community Design Center . The CCDC won a contract from the City to conduct the competition, which is being funded with City dollars. They also handled the Sunrise Trailer Court competition, which received 164 entries from all over the world.

John Semmelhack, CCDC’s competition coordinator says the competition is open to anyone, professional or non-professional. While the winning entry will not necessarily be built, the finalists will receive a cash award. The exact guidelines for the competition will not be finalized until after a second public meeting in mid-May.

The area under the scope of the competition consists of the two blocks between the east-west corridors of South Street and Water street, and between the north-south corridors of 2nd Street SE and 2nd Street SW. The first block contains a city-owned parking lot with just over 100 spaces, a small private lot owned by Charlottesville Psychological Associates, and a building on the lot that is currently occupied by H.R. Block.

The second block is wholly owned by the Charlottesville Parking Corporation, which operates a 125 space parking lot. Last year, media reports that CPC was considering selling the lot prompted community members to request City Council proactively develop a community vision for the area.

“It became very apparent that people have a lot of ownership over the city lot, and what’s going to happen with it,” said Tim Michel, a Realtor with McLean-Faulconer.

The city turned to the design competition approach out of a recognition that the community is highly vested in the outcomes of development of the spaces. “These are incredibly important blocks,” says Aubrey Watts, the city’s director of economic development.

Watts says the City Council is primarily concerned with two elements. What will happen with the City Market, and what will happen the parking spaces?

“The council has always felt that in taking a look at a solution to this, they did not want to jeopardize the ability of small businesses to have access to parking for their customers,” said Watts. He added that council wants to see some fresh ideas.

“Everybody that’s involved in this is really looking to try to say what can we do that would be a little different that would really make this an exciting part of downtown,” Watts said.

Semmelhack says the CCDC hopes to get submissions from all over the world, and staff are preparing a multimedia package to help designers who are not familiar with Charlottesville appreciate the site’s importance. The animation places the two lots in perspective, including the slopes involved between South and Water streets.

After viewing the animation, the forty or so attendees at the event broke into three focus groups, each of which was tasked with giving feedback on one of the three challenge questions.

First, entrants will need to design an urban mixed-use development that fits in with the context of Charlottesville’s downtown. That is, it will need to serve as a bridge between the pedestrian mall and the rapidly developing area south of the railroad tracks.

Second, the design must use green building principles, and should plan for both affordable and market rate housing.

And finally, entrants will be asked to create a plan that “actively engages the community life of the city.” In other words, the CCDC wants plans that factor in the fate of the City Market, provides places for pedestrians, while coming up with opportunities for public and private parking.

These questions lead to spirited discussions over the future of the whole downtown core, and not just the two blocks in the scope of the competition. The questions lead to other questions and possibilities, such as: how to add a north-south orientation to a downtown where east-west pedestrian access is the norm? Could the city lot become a park with underground parking? And, might the streets that currently end at the mall become a new home for the City Market, or possibly, multiple City Markets?

One of the concerns raised by attendees is over the market value of the private lots. For instance, What happens if CPC decides to sell the lot before the competition is over?

“All of the individual component owners know that they all are better off and gain by having a really coordinated design for the entire area,” said Watts. But, he also said that he can’t make any guarantees.

CCDC staff will now collate the feedback received at the meeting and use it to help shape the final entry guidelines and questions. A second public meeting will be held in mid-May, and the competition will open in early June. Entrants will have three months to create their submissions in time for an early September. A jury consisting of designers, architects, citizens and Realtors will then pick three finalists, which will be on display in October.