Council, BAR in a tangle over Mall\’s scale

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“Why do we never get an answer/When we’re knocking at the door/With a thousand million questions/About hate and death and war?” So goes the first verse of the Moody Blues’ 1970 song “Question.” Replace the last line with “About Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall,” and you’ve got an accurate description of last Thursday night’s special City Council meeting convened to talk about development issues related to the Mall—in particular, the conflict between the zoning ordinance and Board of Architectural Review (BAR) guidelines.
    Joined by the City Planning Commission, the discussion seemed provoked by a proposed nine-storey hotel to be developed by Oliver Kuttner in the old Boxer Learning building at First and Main streets. Jim Tolbert, director of neighborhood development services, reminded everyone that the City had set the building height in 1975 at 175′, but had lowered that figure in 1983 to 101′, or nine storeys. Then Tolbert presented the approximately 25 people gathered with three topics to discuss. The first—what is the proper scale and mass for the Downtown Mall?—caused a massive ripple effect of query after query.
    “If nine storeys is approved, how can we ensure sunlight for pedestrians and flora and fauna?” Planning Commissioner Craig Barton initially asked. Questions were answered with more questions: “If the building goes all the way to the sidewalk will we lose the chance for cafés?” “How aggressively do we enforce historic preservation?” “Should we move development to Water Street to keep the volume low on the Mall?”
    Despite Mayor David E. Brown’s repeated attempts to manage the discussion, the work session only served to underscore the confusion surrounding the regulation of the Mall’s architecture.

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