Paint the town: Massive development is in store for Charlottesville. How will an arts organization help guide the vision?

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The SIA Plan calls for massive development and a greenway following the Pollocks Branch creek that will stretch for blocks south between Garrett Street and Elliott Avenue. Photo: Jack Looney. The SIA Plan calls for massive development and a greenway following the Pollocks Branch creek that will stretch for blocks south between Garrett Street and Elliott Avenue. Photo: Jack Looney.

“To me, this is the heart of Charlottesville right here.” I am standing at the intersection of Monticello Avenue and Sixth Street SE with Matthew Slaats, executive director of The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative. We are talking on this wet, raw December day about community, growth, and the role that the arts can play to shape and develop it. This is not idle or esoteric chatter. Back in July, the Bridge and the Piedmont Council for the Arts, in partnership with the city, received a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The grant is the first installment of an ambitious $200,000 city effort to do community building through arts programs. Those programs will focus on the neighborhood where Slaats and I are standing.

“This whole Sixth Street corridor,” he says, looking up and down the street, “it’s really complex and varied. It’s residential” (he gestures up the hill to the single family homes on Sixth and Hinton and Belmont). “It’s industrial” (he gestures down the hill toward the Ix complex, once home to the largest non-academic employer in the area, the textile manufacturer Frank Ix and Sons). “It’s got low-income housing,” (he gestures up Sixth Street to the public apartment complex and down into Friendship Court). “And it’s becoming more and more commercial” (he nods over the rooftops of Friendship Court at the cranes working on the buildout of the Glass Building and at the flat, characterless facades of the new mixed-use buildings on Second Street SE).

He’s got a point. If there is a single spot remaining in Charlottesville and environs with a more layered history, a more complicated story to tell about commerce and class and race and progress, I’d like to know where it is. Development has brought, or is bringing, an upscaled homogeneity to most areas of Charlottesville. But not down here. Not yet at any rate. Here you still find a lot of the character and quirk of life on the other side of the tracks in a small Southern town: tiny corner groceries, backyard auto shops, blue-collar worker housing from early in the last century, re-purposed industrial and warehouse space, a substantial portion of the city’s public housing inventory and a church or two that still (quaint thought) primarily serve the neighborhoods in which they’re located.

Matthew Slaats, executive director of The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative, is overseeing implementation of a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to do community building. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto.

The clock is now ticking on all of that. With four rapidly aging clusters of subsidized housing, lots of underdeveloped real estate and a close proximity to the Downtown Mall, the whole Avon Street to Ridge Street corridor must look like a large red bull’s eye to developers. In a nod to the inevitable, and in an effort to lay down a guiding vision to shape the coming development, the city established what it called a Strategic Investment Area (SIA) in this section of town. The core of the SIA is a rectangle defined on the north by the CSX railroad tracks, on the east by Rialto Street in Belmont, and on the west by Ridge Street. It consists of about 330 acres—approximately one half square mile. Ground zero for the future of downtown Charlottesville.

At the end of 2013 the city published a long-range plan for the area. It is an audacious, eye-popping proposal. The SIA Plan suggests daylighting a stream called Pollocks Branch, which currently runs underneath the green space on the east side of Friendship Court and wends its way underground through the Ix property along the back of the public housing on Sixth Street. The stream then runs beneath some of the single family homes on Elliott Avenue before it surfaces behind the public housing on First Street. The plan envisions a new public greenway and ecological corridor along the banks of the daylighted stream. It also proposes an extension of Fourth Street SE along a path next to the greenway, which would take it straight through the back rank of housing units in Friendship Court. The plan suggests replacing aging subsidized housing in the area with an ambitious new program of mixed-income housing, in the form of apartment buildings and row-houses, arranged all along the greenway. To bring jobs to support the local economy, the plan proposes the development of Second Street SE as a commercial corridor running from the Downtown Mall to a new civic square in the place where the Ix Art Park now stands.

The city is quick to point out that all of this is tentative, provisional, and that there will be ample opportunity for public input. “This is a concept plan of the kind of thing that could happen over the very long term,” said Missy Creasy, Charlottesville’s assistant planning manager. “A good amount of decision making will go into anything that happens. It’s not going to be fast. It’s not going to be sudden, and it’s definitely not going to be easy. There will be many opportunities for folks to come to the table to talk about this.”

Which brings us back to my conversation with Matthew Slaats of the Bridge. Is there a role that the arts can play in getting people to the table and making sure that their voices are heard?

The ghost in the plan

The SIA Plan was developed with substantial input from the community—not just from developers, property owners, city staff and urban planners, but also from organizations that are active in the SIA and from residents of subsidized housing. And the Plan calls for much more of that input as the project develops.

It wasn’t always thus. There’s a ghost that haunts the SIA. It is a shadow that falls on every one of the 270-odd pages of the Plan. It is the ghost of the Vinegar Hill neighborhood redevelopment, one of the more spectacular tragedies of ’60s-era urban renewal in Charlottesville (or anywhere). It is the unspoken consideration that drives all of the outreach efforts built into the Plan.

In case you’re not familiar with the details, a refresher: Vinegar Hill was an African-American neighborhood that sat on the slope between Main Street and Preston Avenue. It ran from where the Omni hotel now stands at the west end of the Downtown Mall to the location of the Jefferson School City Center on Fourth Street. Hundreds of families lived there, many of them in badly dilapidated houses, many of which were rental properties owned and poorly maintained by white landlords. But this had been the heart of black Charlottesville for generations—a center for black social life and family life, and a center for black economic life as well. Miraculously, despite the strictures and injustices of life in the Jim Crow South, a black commercial class developed in and behind the stretch of Main Street that used to run where Ridge/McIntire and the Federal Courthouse now sit. The city made the catastrophic decision to raze the neighborhood to the ground, compensate homeowners and business owners for their property, and to warehouse poor residents in the new housing project at Westhaven, rather than selectively redevelop.

VinegerHill_AlbemarleCharlottesvilleHistoricalSociety
An aerial view of the razed Vinegar Hill neighborhood before construction of the federal courthouse, Omni hotel and the shopping center that houses Staples between McIntire Road and Fourth Street NW. Photo courtesy of Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society.

According to the book Urban Renewal and the End of Black Culture in Charlottesville, by Renae Shackelford and James Saunders: “By the time the demolition part of urban renewal had been completed in 1965, 29 businesses had been disrupted. They consisted of black restaurants and grocery stores, as well as furniture stores, barbershops, antique shops, an insurance agency, a clothing store, a shoe repair shop, a drugstore and a hat-cleaning establishment.”  A survey in 1960 found that those businesses generated a total of $1.6 million dollars in gross income in the previous year. Now all that history, all that social and economic clout, was gone. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the black community in Charlottesville never recovered. It had its heart cut out.

Since the pioneering work of urban planners and livability advocates like Jane Jacobs and William Whyte in the 1960s, the whole approach of inflicting top-down “solutions” on disempowered populations has begun to change. Here in Charlottesville that change is made all the more urgent by local memory. Nobody wants a repeat of Vinegar Hill.

You can sense that urgency in the SIA Plan’s focus on listening to the needs of the community. It’s there in the Resident’s Bill of Rights for Redevelopment placed prominently at the head of the report, which states that “meaningful and enforceable resident participation will guide all substantive decisions about process,” and which promises one-for-one replacement of any affordable housing that is redeveloped, with plenty of options for residents to stay on site or move to a better location. You can sense it in the emphasis that the Plan places on public meetings and listening sessions, both those that have already taken place and those that will.

You can also sense that commitment when talking to the institutional players in the area. I spoke to Frank Grosch, executive director of the Piedmont Housing Alliance (PHA), one of the non-profit, private sector owners of Friendship Court, the subsidized housing development that would see some of the biggest changes if the plan goes through as envisioned. Grosch was emphatic in underscoring PHA’s commitment to its residents: “What emerges there has got to be informed by the people who live there. I don’t presume to know what’s better for the folks who live there. I want to learn from them what they think is better.”

Building bridges

All that sounds great. But will community voices, especially those of low income residents who are most affected by redevelopment, have any real effect on what happens in the SIA? Initial signs seem less than encouraging. I spoke with Brandon Collins, organizer with Public Housing Association of Residents (PHAR) of Charlottesville, who said that, while PHAR and its residents were given significant representation on the SIA task force and in public hearings, many residents felt that their issues were “not reflected in the Strategic Area report.” He cited in particular concerns with “forced gentrification” and the failure of the plan to increase the stock of affordable housing options in the area.

In a piece of serendipity, as the SIA Plan was being developed, the Piedmont Council for the Arts was also in the process of developing its own plan to shape the cultural direction of Central Virginia. (Boy can we do plans around here.) Create Charlottesville/Albemarle: A Cultural Plan emphasizes, among other things, the need for “creative placemaking” and the power of the arts as a vehicle for outreach and empowerment in underserved communities. The SIA’s call for engagement and the PCA’s championing of outreach dovetailed nicely, and so, it was natural for the two teams to share ideas. According to Sarah Lawson, executive director of PCA at the time, a lot of the outreach language in the SIA Plan came from conversations between the PCA and SIA planners.

After the creative plan was written, Lawson from PCA and Slaats from the Bridge, with support from the city, looked for a grant opportunity that would allow them to try to implement some of the ideas they’d developed about art and civic engagement. They applied for a National Endowment for the Arts Our Town grant for a project they called Play the City that would engage “those living in the SIA to deeply understand” their neighborhood, and bring in or develop local artists “to produce artworks that respond to community concerns.” In July of this year, they learned that $50,000 to start the program had come through.

SIA Map
The Strategic Investment Area, also called the Urban Overlay District, covers approximately 330 acres of downtown Charlottesville and is bounded by the CSX Buckingham Rail Line, Rialto Street, Ridge Street, and Palatine Avenue, with an additional small area north of downtown bounded by East High, Eighth NE, and Tenth streets.

The focus of the grant is to do exactly what the PCA Plan and the SIA Plan envision—empower people to define and shape the future of their community. The first installment of the grant has only hit in the last month or so, but in meetings and workshops with members of the community, ideas are starting to emerge: community walks, community photography, the telling of neighborhood stories and regular exhibits of the art that comes out of those activities. Perhaps most significant is an ambitious idea for a Participatory Budgeting program—exploring the possibility of involving neighborhood residents directly in decisions about how government development dollars are spent in their neighborhood.

According to Lawson, the design of the grant program is to get people “engaged in almost an organizing capacity, rather than simply an arts capacity. So there’s this blurring of the lines between what community organizing and activism are and what art and culture are—which I think is really healthy.”

For Slaats, the process seems to be more significant than the direction or the outcome: “So much of what our society does is to work to fix negatives. There’s also value in finding out the positive, and in building on that.”

One way to do that is to find people from the community who know how to connect and get things done. The first time we talked, Slaats mentioned a woman from the neighborhood who had “great energy.” She had been introduced to the Bridge by Todd Niemeier of the Urban Agriculture Collective (known as Farmer Todd around the neighborhood). Three weeks later, she was formally working to do community organizing for the grant.

Miss Push

Toni Eubanks does have great energy, and an infectious smile to go with it. She moved to Friendship Court just over a year ago after her mother, with whom she used to live, passed away. Now Eubanks has a lot less help and support raising her young son, who’s in Pre-K at Clark Elementary. Eubanks works most evenings for a few hours doing child care at ACAC, and she does the same at Sojourners Church down at the end of Elliott Avenue. The rest of her time she spends “pushing”—stirring up action in the neighborhood. The good kind. She connects people to Farmer Todd and the Bridge. She organized a community bike ride for kids in the neighborhood. She talks with people about their needs and their ideas for the neighborhood. Her only pay was the nickname she earned in the community: Miss Push.

ToniEubanks_RammelkampFoto
Friendship Court resident and community organizer Toni Eubanks is concerned that the ambitious development of the Strategic Investment Area won’t benefit the area’s current residents. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto.

Until the grant, that is. The money she makes working in childcare is now supplemented by another bit she earns organizing for the Bridge. For Eubanks, the most promising artists to pursue for building identity in the neighborhood are musicians. She has already arranged for a gospel singer to appear at an Martin Luther King Day event in January. “I feel like, lyrically, there’s a lot to that, because we are actually hearing the people’s voices being put out there. You can hear it. You can hear the pain or the joy.”

Optimistic and energetic as she is about the Play the City grant, and connected and engaged in the community as she is, Eubanks still doesn’t believe that the SIA Plan addresses the concerns of her community, or has her best interests at heart. I talked with her about the plans—mixed income housing, businesses (and possible jobs) along Second Street. A stream and a green park, I said, are going to run right over there behind the buildings.

“But they shouldn’t,” she said. “I honestly feel that we’re comfortable with this. When I say comfortable, I mean, this is home for us. Though all that’s nice, it’s like, what are we actually getting out of it? To me, that’s just someone else’s idea, and it’s just something that we would have to deal with if they bring it here.”

There is a huge chasm of doubt and mistrust that needs to be bridged. But doubt and mistrust are among the things that Eubanks is pushing against. I spent some time recently picking up trash around Friendship Court with her and a group of residents, friends and neighbors she’d gathered to do a community cleanup. I spun off after about an hour, but the group was just getting started. They headed over to the public housing on Sixth Street to clean up a bit and spread some goodwill. As they walked away, I started thinking of something she had told me.

Eubanks is trying to enroll at PVCC, but she’s having some trouble with financial aid. Her plan is to decide once she’s there what kind of a degree she will pursue—“something to help me with my community organizing.”

It occurred to me that Toni Eubanks had gotten something pretty valuable from her work on the grant already. A little extra paycheck is only part of it. What she has now is a name, besides Miss Push, for what comes naturally: community organizer. And she also has a sense of the direction she wants to go with it.

The wave

On a sunny, quiet Sunday morning recently, I stood at the top of a little dead-end side street off of Elliott Avenue. All the houses here on Rayon Street, and spilling onto Elliott and away south, are modest little bungalows built as homes for workers at the Ix textile plant. Standing there looking north, with the leaves off the trees, I could see through a thin little stand of woods all the way up the neighborhood to the Downtown Mall.

From down here at the bottom of Pollocks Branch, looking a half mile north and uphill, all you can see of the heart of Charlottesville is the tops of the few tallest buildings: 500 Court Square, the SNL building, and the skeletal monstrosity left us by the Halsey Minor fiasco. They look a lot like caps of foam on the crest of a wave looming over this part of the city.

Unfocus your eyes and peer into the future and that’s exactly what you see from down here—a wave of money swelling and preparing to flop down and churn it all up. The tide is already washing through the warehouse district, upscaling it into condos and boutiques and offices. It’s lapping at the edges Friendship Court and the other subsidized housing in the area. It’s likely to wash away a number of the sketchy, fringe buildings that pepper the neighborhood and house grassroots organizations that do good creative work down here—like Fleaville on the Ix property, like Community Bikes and Farmer Todd’s Agriculture Collective in their re-purposed service station on Avon Street. Even the building that houses the Bridge near Spudnuts.

Leaving Rayon Street, I stopped to chat with an older gentleman sitting on the porch of one of the worker’s bungalows on Elliott. Jim Sprouse’s grandfather, who worked at Ix, first bought the place shortly after it was built in 1946 for $4,600. “Forty-six in 46,” he said with a smile. Pollocks Branch runs right under his neighbor’s house.

We talked about the SIA Plan for a while. I asked Mr. Sprouse what he will do if they knock on his door one day with a check and a deed for him to sign. Will he take it? Or will he fight and make them force him out?

“I’ll pick up my phone and call my lawyer and do whatever he tells me to do,” he said. “What would you do?”

His question set me back a bit, and I took a few awkward moments to gather myself before answering. “I guess… if I thought it would make for a better place I would go along with it. If not, I’d fight it,” I replied.

Mr. Sprouse smiled again. “How will it be better if they move people out of their homes that they’ve lived in their whole lives?”

The whole way home, an old adage was swimming through my head: “Change is neither merciful nor just.” It’s probably always been true, and it probably always will be. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to make it otherwise.

What would mercy and justice look like from down here beneath the crest of the wave? Do we even have any idea? Can it come in the form of ecological corridors and mixed-use commercial spaces and mixed-income housing plans? Who knows—maybe one of the Bridge’s arts programs will give a voice and a platform to some young artist who lives in this area and has something to say about what mercy and justice ought to look like.

Like Toni Eubanks and Jim Sprouse, I find that I’m not hopeful that development, no matter how carefully considered, won’t take its toll on the lives of those who live here. I asked Sarah Lawson how she would feel if, in the end, the arts grant didn’t soften any of the disruption of the redevelopment, if it only provided people with a way to express their grief and their rage and their powerlessness.

She answered very carefully. She wanted me to know that she was speaking as a private individual now and not a member of PCA or the Bridge. “I think if that were the outcome, then that would be a success,” she said. “It would be great for people to feel that they had a voice for that, the power to do it.”