Over two hundred people took advantage of an important opportunity to comment on the near final design for the proposed renovation of Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall. They crowded into the CitySpace meeting room overlooking the Mall to view details of the plans created by MMM Design, and to give feedback on key details of the Mall redesign.

Plans for an expanded West End Plaza have been scaled back in the latest iteration of the design

Beginning in July, the public input phase will move into two different directions, according to Becky Clay Christensen, a facilitator hired by the City to shepherd the process. First, on July 14th Mall businesses and residents will be invited to participate in a “block captain” system wherein they will be directly involved with timing of construction. Second, a construction marketing plan will be developed with business input to convince people that the renovation will not close the Mall completely during the five months estimated for construction.

Jim Tolbert, the City’s Director of Neighborhood Development Services, presented a history of the project to date. He also introduced employees of Barton Malow, a construction management firm that the City has hired to oversee the project. Tolbert also reviewed the direction received by MMM Design following the June 16, 2008 City Council meeting.

One of the last remaining issues to be firmly decided is the size of brick to be used. Tolbert said that Council has conditionally agreed to go with a brick closer to the original 4” by 12” paver envisioned by Lawrence Halprin, the Mall’s original designer. Council will go with something roughly that size if they are available at an affordable price, and if they can be proven to work in a sand-swept joints, as opposed to being fixed in mortar.

The renovation will install several dozen more single-seat benches to the Mall

Taylor Gould with MMM Design took the public through a block by block walk-through of the Mall, and pointed out that Halprin originally called for granite banding as opposed to the concrete banding that was installed in the 1970’s. At the time, the City could not afford to go with the more expensive granite. He also said the new design adds about 20 new steel planters as well as dozens more benches.

Joe Schinstock, project manager for MMM Design, addressed how the construction would be timed to take place over five months. Previously, Council had been told the project could be accomplished in four. Schinstock said the City was committed to sticking to that target, especially given the delays associated with the bricking of 3rd Street NE.

“With that in mind, they recognize that the conventional design-bid-build project delivery method is probably not going to be appropriate for this project,” Schinstock said. That’s why Barton Malow has been hired to serve as the “construction manager” for the renovation. The full construction plans are scheduled to be ready by October, and Schinstock said materials are already being lined up so that they are available as soon as construction begins in January.

When construction begins, the plan is to balance the phasing based on the schedules of various business. This is where the system of block captains will come in. The goal is to keep the Mall open for business throughout construction, though individual businesses may be closed at certain times.

“We recognize that access to the adjacent properties is critical and access through the construction zones to non-construction zones is important as well,” Schinstock said. “We recognize that the micro-phasing, how each particular piece of the puzzle will be constructed is very important. We need to maintain access to businesses, to residences, and to offices.” Schinstock added his office is on the Mall, and that he will be affected as well.

To get the project done in five months, Schinstock said multiple crews will be working at once, perhaps starting as early as 7 in the morning and working past 5 o clock. “We can’t expect to come and work a 9-to-5 job and get this project done in that ambitious a time frame,” he said.

Several citizens had questions and concerns about the switch from mortar joints to sand. Roulhauc
Toledano of South Street asked why the City has not done more to preserve the existing mortar joints, and asked the City to consider a procedure called “tuckpointing” to repair them. Schinstock said that these are failing in part because the City has used salt to de-ice the Mall during winter, and that tuck-pointing will not work. He added that laying the bricks in sand will allow the project to be completed on schedule, whereas using mortar would take a lot longer.

Rebecca Quinn asked if it were possible to put in more seating for take-out restaurant establishments. Schinstock said City Police have advised against doing that out of a fear the homeless will use the space. Later, another person asked why benches were not permissible, and Tolbert responded that the police requested they be removed to prevent the homeless from sleeping on them.

City resident Tim Keller asked what the revised cost of the project would be, given that the fountains and the Sister City Plaza originally proposed by MMM Design have been taken out. Tolbert said that discussion has not been held, and that he could not give an answer.

City resident Joan Fenton had two questions. First, what is the City planning to do with the bricks removed from the Mall? Second, how long would individual businesses be shut down during construction. Tolbert said the bricks will not be sent to the landfill, but a decision has not been made yet on what to do with them. He raised the possibility they may be given away to the public. On the construction question, Tolbert pointed to Barton Malow’s track record in completing projects on-time and under budget, such as in the case of the John Paul Jones arena. Tolbert said Barton Malow will also be present during the block captain

“Our ultimate goal is that we’re not disrupting anybody’s business to the point they have to close,” Tolbert said.

Several people spoke during the public comment period. City Resident Richard Lang said he was pleased with what he had seen so far, but implored the City to add more bike racks.

Another City resident who did not give his name said that he thought the City should do as little as possible. City resident Maria Chapel was concerned that the City seems “hell-bent on tearing up the Mall and replacing the brick” and said the City should take the time to find a mortar joint that will last. Chapel also took issue with police concerns about the homeless, and said that the City should spend the $7.5 million on a homeless shelter.

A side by side comparison of how the two brick-laying procedures would look. Mortar is on the left, sand-set is on the right (Source: MMM Design)

David Repass said without the mortar joints, Halprin’s vision would not be upheld. “Unless the bricks are outlined or framed by mortar, no pattern or design can be seen,” he said. “All you see is a blah, red expanse: Sterile, boring, and well, pedestrian.”

Downtown business owner Cynthia Schroeder asked if there was a contingency plan in place if the project takes longer than five months, and specifically wanted to know if businesses would be compensated for any financial losses incurred as a result of construction delays. Tolbert said that would not be part of the plan, but the block captain process would seek to minimize any business shut-downs. He said comparisons to the delays associated with 3rd Street were not valid, given that bricks had never before been laid there.

Morgan Perkins, the owner of the Sage Moon Gallery, said she thought it was time for the renovation to take place, and that patching the bricks is no longer a viable strategy. “We have to look to the future, and we have to look at what is the Mall going to be like 30 years from now, and if we’re making this kind of investment, then we it to be something that is going to be long-term,” she said.

Beth Myer said the true vision of Lawrence Halprin was not necessarily about the size of the brick or the type of banding, but rather is about creating a social space. She called for the removal of outdoor seating areas for restaurants around the fountains.

Council is expected to make a final decision on the plan at its meeting on July 21, 2008.


Sean Tubbs