An October update on the “Cultural Landscape Report”

For several years, many in the historic preservation  community have sought a study of Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall that would review its past as a way of preparing for its future.

At the October 11, 2018 meeting of the PLACE Design Task Force, the first topic was related to an update on the “Cultural Landscape Study” from Jeff Werner, the city’s historic preservation planner.  City Council approved $50,000 in the current budget for such a study, which PLACE has been calling for for a while.

Kayli Wren reported on their August 2017 request for Charlottesville Tomorrow.

One of the themes expressed in Wren’s article is that there is a stand-off between differing bodies and entities within City Government related to the future and current maintenance of the Downtown Mall, which was created in 1976 when a portion of the street was bricked over according to the design of landscape architect Lawrence Halprin.

The Mall is not currently listed as its own separate entity on the National Register of Historic Places, and some in the community such as University of Virginia landscape architecture professor Beth Meyer have argued too many deviations from Halprin’s plan could affect its ability to qualify.

At the PLACE meeting, the group got an update on the study from Jeff Werner, the city’s historic preservation planner. He has been in the position for over half a year now, and said he has the bandwidth to try to get the study moving. He has been working with many stakeholders in city government to get a request for proposals together for the study, but he is uncertain that $50,000 will be enough for everything everyone wants to accomplish.

Rachel Lloyd, a landscape architect and PLACE member since the group was formed in 2012, said the study needs to have a correct foundation for maintenance guidelines, and that requires including being informed by ideas of what the original idea for the mall would be.

Werner said he has been through a lot of that, but that there are other stakeholders who want to ensure that the Mall’s future includes a recognition of social segregation in the past. He said there is also interest in weaving in how the events of August 12, 2017 become part of the cultural and historic fabric going forward.

But he can say, in the meantime, there are practical elements that the city needs to address as soon as possible. For instance, what is the process for removing a dead tree? There needs to be a process to remove dead trees.

(as an aside, Wren wrote about the health of the trees earlier in the summer of 2017. This article also contains downloads of several studies about the health of the trees)

Lloyd asked if Werner had seen her scope document for the cultural landscape report. He said he has seen it and knows what a cultural landscape report is, but there’s a bigger issue. There needs to be a process for how decisions are made about the maintenance and infrastructure. He’s not sure that’s his role to take on, but that something needs to be done to answer that question.

Lloyd said they don’t want to call it a cultural landscape report anymore. When she was drafting her scope, she wanted to accomplish the same goal Werner wants to accomplish.

Mike Stoneking, chair of the PLACE Design Task Force and member of the Charlottesville Tomorrow Board of Directors, suggested matching up the scope with what the Parks and Recreation Department wants the scope to be. But he added PLACE doesn’t want the study to be just a maintenance document. It needs to recognize the important of public space is important. Seating is important, and different stakeholders want different outcomes. For instance, the Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville has championed removal of benches in the past, such as the ones taken away in 2013 at Central Place.

For two years, the Board of Architectural Review and the Parks and Recreation Department have been at odds about replacing the original chairs. Parks and Recreation have purchased backless benches designed to discourage long periods of sitting. That is anathema to some on the BAR and some in the preservation community.

Lloyd suggested that students at the University of Virginia could help produce the request for proposals. She also wants a PLACE member on a steering committee to further discuss the matter.

Alex Ikefuna, director of the Department of Neighborhood Development Services, said he will get together with parks director Brian Daly to see where they are, and he would report back to PLACE. 

Stoneking asked who the client who will be served by the RFP and the resulting report? Who gets to direct the answers to the questions?

Galvin said anything having to do with policy should go to Council. Ikefuna said Parks and Rec are working on the project, they’re the client. Galvin said this is a process and a project that is beyond purview of one department. City manager should appoint a steering committee to get the topic off of the ground.

Werner said at the very least there has to be a decision about who decides what. That might be a City Council led discussion. Galvin said she was confused and said the study would be looking to include government (she was late to the meeting and missed the discussion at the top)

[This paragraph to serves as an observation that the 2009 renovation of the mall had not yet come up in conversation. Wasn’t some of this covered then? Would that be part of the literature review? I recall that was supposed to include a maintenance effort, but I guess it did not resolve the underlying process review?]

Werner said a goal of this is to determine who makes the decisions. He said that may not be able to be done by $50K. Galvin said multiple departments have purview over the mall – public works, police, P&R, fire, NDS, economic development. That’s why this is a city-manager discussion level. Maybe next step is for Werner, Daly, Oberdorfer to meet with Murphy.

Galvin said there have been two previous attempts to create a business improvement decision to raise additional tax money to pay for upkeep of the mall. She said these were done in part because there was no point person for who is responsible for the mall. Stoneking said there needs to be a curator.

Werner said he has heard that he should not narrow the scope of the document as he continues work on it

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