The city of Charlottesville has begun moving ahead with changes to the city’s Downtown Mall, which will turn 50 in the year 2026. Last week, the Board of Architectural Review weighed in on one change intended to make parts of it a little safer.
“This is a request from the city of Charlottesville to install metal grates at the three small fountains located on the Downtown Mall,” said Jeff Werner, the city’s historic preservation planner. “The situation we have is that because of issues related to pedestrian safety and ADA accessibility concern, the decision was made to install grates.”
The mall was designed by landscape architect Lawrence Halprin and a multimillion renovation was conducted in 2009. The city’s Parks and Recreation Department oversees the mall’s maintenance, including street furniture and trees. The BAR is often asked to weigh in on whether new features are consistent with Halprin’s vision.
“This is a must-do situation as far as the decision from the city goes, that something must be done,” Werner said.
Werner has also been working on a nomination to recognize Halprin’s design itself on the National Register for Historic Places. There’s also a new downtown committee to look at various issues related to the Mall.
“The work of this committee will help us move away from kind of piece-mealing our approach to the various issues as they come up,” said James Freas, who serve as Werner’s boss as Director of Neighborhood Development Services. “And that we can move towards a more proactive stance and a coordinated stance, something that looks like a management plan for the future.”
The fountains are currently turned off, but they are operational according to Parks and Recreation’s Deputy Director Riann Anthony.
“I know because previously before COVID you had a few gentlemen that actually put soap in it so every day you would see bubbles coming out of the big fountain,” Anthony said.
Two of the fountains are within close proximity of outdoor cafe spaces rented by restaurants. There’s also Central Place, which has barricades with chains intended to keep people out. Grates are being recommended to still allow people to interact and touch the water in the fountain.
“In my conversations with the ADA coordinator, what he’s referred to in particular is the concern about a change in grade with no notification to somebody that’s visually impaired,” Freas said.
Anthony said it will be about two to three months before the grates can be designed and installed. After that, the fountains can be turned back on.
Members of the BAR suggested that the grates be considered temporary until a greater solution to the ADA issues be worked out.
“I am really skeptical about the claim that this is an ADA issue,” said BAR Chair Breck Gastinger, himself a landscape architect. “There’s really nothing in ADA that I can point to that this would be in violation of. There’s very clear visual difference before the drop. There’s a textural difference. If you want to the Virginia Building Code, even that drop is allowable by the Virginia Building Code.”
Gastinger said he thought the barriers that delineate cafe space near these fountains are much more serious impediments to accessibility. He said the purpose of these fountains is misunderstood and putting grates on them would be against Halprin’s intent.
“This is a fountain that has several parts,” Gastinger said. “It is a lifted up volume of stone, a really massive piece of stone that is hovering above the ground. The water doesn’t shoot out of it. It spills out over the edges and it’s given a texture by the shape of the stone and it falls into a basin. The basin is actually part of that design feature. Seeing the water land in the basin is the way that it was designed and I feel it was designed to be sat next to, for people even to be encouraged to put their feet into.”
Gastinger said the fountains are a sign that open space belongs to everyone.
“The promise that was made between the city and its citizens with the construction of the Downtown Mall has been compromised and the fact that the fountains have not even been on I feel is a failure of the City to live up to that promise,” Gastinger said.
For many years, there were no outdoor cafe spaces on the Downtown Mall. That practice began as City Council began to rent out space to restaurants on an individual basis. The Board appeared headed toward deferring a vote rather than voting to deny the grates altogether.
Werner said there would be opportunities to talk about those bigger issues, but the city needed an answer to proceed.
“If you all defer it, and you can, some very, very clear direction needs to be sent in what you’re thinking,” Werner said. “It can’t just be ‘go try again.’”
BAR member Cheri Lewis suggested a compromise of allowing the grates at the two smaller fountains on a temporary basis.
“Only because of the access when people cut through and I’d still like them to be opened but I can see that design solution working there,” Lewis said.
However, Werner said the request from city management was an up or down vote. Lewis made a motion to deny, and that motion passed unanimously. The Parks and Recreation Department can appeal the decision to City Council.
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