Former Charlottesville mayor Maurice Cox, now Detroit’s director of planning and development, talks about managing growth, recovering from a crisis, and the power of telling the right story.
There was a time when Maurice Cox couldn’t escape being recognized in Charlottesville. In August 2012, almost a decade after he served as mayor, he sat with a reporter at a restaurant on the Downtown Mall, on the eve of his departure to New Orleans to become dean of community engagement at Tulane University School of Architecture.
“The Honorable Maurice Cox!” a passerby yelled, and Cox responded with a wave and a smile. “Once a mayor, always a mayor here,” he said. “I’m going to miss that.”
More recently, the man who served as Charlottesville’s mayor from 2002 to 2004 again joined a reporter for lunch on the mall. No one called out to him, and Cox enjoyed a bacon cheeseburger in quiet anonymity. But if brilliant city planners commanded the cultural pull of movie stars, the paparazzi would have been swarming.
Now the director of planning and development in Detroit, Cox was in town for final reviews of students’ work at the UVA School of Architecture, where he was an assistant professor from 1993 to 2012. Cox, who received his degree in architecture from New York’s Cooper Union in 1983, has also been design director at the National Endowment for the Arts, spent six years teaching architecture in Florence, Italy, as part of Syracuse University’s Italian program, and, while in New Orleans, was director of Tulane City Center. Architect Magazine has noted that Cox “is considered to be a phenomenon within urban planning circles: smart, passionate, and inspiring.”
Given all of this, and Cox’s record as a public official in Charlottesville, we were eager to get his take on how our city has evolved—and dealt with adversity—since he left.
He knows dire situations. He arrived in New Orleans while the city was still reeling, albeit years later, from Hurricane Katrina. And he answered the call in Detroit in the wake of its historic population decline and declaration of bankruptcy.
Cox also faced a major crisis when he was in office in Charlottesville. In fact, if he and a group of fellow activists hadn’t stepped up, the city may have become a town in Albemarle County as part of a “reversion” movement. But Cox not only prevailed in the face of that existential threat, he laid the groundwork for Charlottesville to develop a dense urban core, become navigable on foot and by bicycle (his trademark form of transportation to this day), and combat sprawl and displacement of city residents.
The latter is still a challenge, and some of his projects (like his quest for a trolley along Main Street) never came through. But to the extent that Charlottesville exudes a sense of “urbanity” (his word) it can be traced back to Cox.
A skilled multitasker, the pin-thin former mayor, dressed in a slim gray suit and bright green shirt on a sunny day in May, managed to share his views of Charlottesville while also polishing off that fist-sized cheeseburger.
C-VILLE Weekly: Among the issues you faced as city councilor and mayor was reversion—the idea that Charlottesville would revert back to being part of Albemarle County. Why do you consider that a crisis moment?
Maurice Cox: It was ultimately an excuse to sprawl. We recognized that moment and saw an opportunity to think about how we grow in our own footprint.
The city needed to replenish its tax base. Housing, middle-class housing, was just nonexistent. So, reversion was a way of annexing effectively all of the commercial property that is the sprawl of Route 29. But it wasn’t going to address the sprawl, per se, or create urbanity—to have Charlottesville grow up.
We started looking at our commercial corridors and zoning ordinances, and we said, You know what? Let’s throw the sucker out if it’s not going to produce the kind of city we want, and look strategically at where we can absorb density.
The density you speak of is arriving on West Main Street now. Is that what you envisioned?
At the time, the goal was to give West Main Street enough density to support transit and a vibrant public realm. So, yes, the emerging density is consistent with what we had envisioned. But the goal was also to promote a density sensitive to its immediate context. Any misgivings I have today pertain to the scale of the development and the architecture of many of the new buildings.
The architecture developing towards the university hospital end of West Main appears to be of good quality and scaled for pedestrian use. The new construction beginning to intermingle with the existing buildings between the Amtrak station and Ridge McIntire Road also looks extremely promising—in large part because there was enough historical context for the architects to respond to. That end seems to be producing what I call “gentle density,” which is sensitive to its context and pedestrian in scale.
On the other hand, The Standard and The Flats are completely generic, architecturally dated, and insensitive to the scale of the neighborhoods to the north and south, Fifeville and Westhaven. The monolithic nature of The Standard effectively—and intentionally, I believe—creates a wall denying residents of Westhaven pedestrian access to West Main, and should never have been allowed to happen. The Flats student housing, which was supposed to transition down to the single-family neighborhood of Fifeville, according to the zoning, does the opposite, growing taller towards the neighborhood.
This happened because special density variances were granted, and I’m sure the council that approved the exception wishes today that they had followed their own rules. Just proves that it’s possible to get the density right and the form and the scale completely wrong.
The most obvious recent crisis the city has faced was brought on by the Unite the Right rally and its fallout. What is your opinion of how the city has handled that?
It was an enormous opportunity. But the statues are still standing, which suggests that we haven’t dealt with the crisis.
But it’s part of a larger issue that Charlottesville has dealt with for many, many years. Monticello, anyone?
It’s fascinating, because during the ’90s, the first thing Monticello had to address was the relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. At first, they didn’t embrace this, but the evidence was so compelling that they had to acknowledge it. And it’s become a part of the incremental recasting of Monticello as a plantation, as opposed to a presidential retreat.
It is incremental, as you say.
On my way here, I walked past the memorial being built about UVA and its relationship to slavery. That’s another incremental step—the university coming to grips with that legacy. But the bigger issue right now is the city itself. And I think that until the city constructs another narrative, it is going to be known for that day in August.
In Detroit, the popular press wrote the narrative for 50 years. And it’s only through the force of a collective will that a new narrative is starting to emerge. I can take some ownership of that, but it does require a kind of collective courage. Individual courage, no, because you don’t do these things alone.
I presume that the narrative for Detroit is that the comeback is real. But people have heard that story before. Why is it different now?
When I arrived [in 2015], the city had just gone through bankruptcy. Without having gotten rid of that debt, I don’t think we would be able to attract the investment that’s being attracted now. We have an administration that can actually perform the duties expected of government, like getting lights to come on at night, picking up trash, demolishing burnt-down houses, getting emergency vehicles to arrive. That’s been the precursor to my being able to engage residents in a conversation about the future, because the present was being tended to.
We’ve had hundreds of meetings with residents. We’re listening, and we’re talking about the character of their neighborhoods, and what the future should look like. It’s a very empowering experience, for anyone who was normally preoccupied with the basics, to have enough mental space to talk about the future, and have some hope.
So what else could Charlottesville do?
You think about what other generations did, how they used civil disobedience. They got arrested for things they believed in. This notion that the courts, the Virginia courts, would cart our city council off to jail if they defied the order that the monuments could not be removed—I’d be curious to test that. I think it would be a national story. It’d be an international story.
There are other cities that removed the statues, and they did not face the legal impediments that Charlottesville has faced. But you don’t deal with these issues by soft-pedaling. That’s where civil disobedience comes in. I’m afraid that ultimately that’s what it’s going to take. Every day [the statues] sit there on the plaza is a reminder of unfinished business.
Let’s return to the issue of development in Charlottesville. Is what you’re seeing now a fulfillment of your ideas? Where do you think we stand?
We clearly made the argument that there are places that could and should absorb higher density that would create a kind of context for a pedestrian-oriented development with character. And so, the density is landing in the right places, but the character is questionable.
There’s also the challenge of unintended consequences. When you create the density that could potentially support transit and walkability, you make something of value that can create displacement, which has happened. The question is, how do you offset the fact that you created something of value? The answer is generally in the realm of affordable housing.
In Detroit, the city has made a commitment to 20 percent affordable housing in any development that receives public resources, and a commitment to retain 10,000 units of federally regulated housing. That includes Section 8 housing like Friendship Court in Charlottesville. Affordable housing has to be grafted onto the market-rate housing.
You invest in the public realm, and you protect the existing inventory of affordable housing so that people don’t get displaced. You do one without the other, then you’re going to get displacement, and that seems to be the challenge that Charlottesville faces. Put in the density and investment in the public realm, but also don’t forget to put in the policies and mechanisms for robust pushback in the area of affordability.
What we’re talking about for Detroit is a growth strategy. It stems from the basic notions that everyone who stuck it out with the city through thick and thin deserves to benefit from the opportunity that growth presents, and that the city should follow public policy that assures it’ll happen.
We were talking earlier about sprawl. Have you noticed the development along Route 29, out Fifth Street Extended, along Route 20?
Yeah, there’s a lot of it.
What does that signal? For most people those places are not affordable.
It’s all feeding off of the success of the urban core and the proximity to a thriving urban center. It’s a symptom of the city’s success that the county sprawl may be a little more tidy, but the quality is really, really low. Maybe in 50 years we’ll look back and [the new developments] will have provided the massive amounts of affordable housing that we need—that’s what it’s going to become, because quality has not been a factor in its development.
There is also the issue of public transportation. What are your observations about that in Charlottesville?
It’s still a fundamentally car-dependent region that’s not pushing hard enough on the alternative transit options. This is where the governmental structure inhibits the kind of regional cooperation that you need for transit. There’ve been fits and starts, but mostly fits and stalls.
That’s not unlike other areas that have a divide between the city and county. We always said, ‘Well, let’s try to jumpstart a pedestrian-oriented, transit-oriented core.’ And that’s where a streetcar down Main Street was a very viable scenario. It would have been an important demonstration that we can weave other modes of transportation into this small city.
Is it really any different in Detroit?
There’s a similar reluctance to embrace alternative modes of transportation in Detroit, the Motor City. But we’re pushing hard by making protected bike lanes a part of all the street improvements. Detroit is wonderfully flat and the streets are wonderfully wide, and you can get a lot of different modes of transportation in them. Detroit laid more protected bike lanes, which are the ones up against the curb with a buffer, than any city in America last year.
What else is Detroit doing to support alternative transportation?
We’ve identified 30 different areas where we can make Main Streets, slow the traffic down, integrate more modes of transportation, and create a public ground. We call them micro-districts. What we’re going for is not unlike the ambiance here on the mall, where you can shop and recreate within a 20-minute walk of your house.
Charlottesville is a great example to consider, because the mall is only eight blocks long. This is about as far as you are probably willing to walk for a couple of restaurants and your favorite coffee. And so, most of the micro-districts we are conceiving of in Detroit are no more than six, eight blocks long. But can you create that kind of mixed-use, retail Main Street in every single one of the neighborhoods? We think you can in some, and that’s more or less what’s happening.
It also involves increasing density, but it’s much more gentle density than even what we’re seeing here. Most of the buildings are three or four stories, maximum six, and we’re conferring with the public to set the tone and address the question of quality. We’re not just letting the market do what it wants to do, which is to be kind of status quo and mediocre. We want excellence. We’re pushing publicly commissioned work to an extreme, and then asking the private sector, can you top it?
Given the sheer size of Detroit— 139 square miles, as opposed to Charlottesville’s 10.4 square miles —is there an acknowledgment that some parts, and perhaps even some very large parts, are going
to have to be fallow?
Or that some parts are going to have to wait, which is what interests me about Detroit. It’s a laboratory for slow, sustainable urban growth. We’re experimenting with what it’s like to create an urban environment where you can walk and bike, but at the same time, we recognize that the same set of tools won’t work in neighborhoods that have lost significant populations.
We are now getting to those neighborhoods where you have to have a different maintenance strategy for vacant land. It might be a reforestation effort. It might be intersecting reforestation with commercial nurseries, tree nurseries. We are testing that idea. It might be hundreds of flowering meadows, and we have a place where we’re testing that idea, too. We acknowledge that you’re going to have to shift to a landscape-based strategy in areas that feel more rural, so it would be a mistake to try to force them to be urban.
You get that cross-section of neighborhood types in Detroit to explore. It’s a wicked problem. Every day we attempt to address it. I see why no other city in America that went through extreme population decline has succeeded. But we do have an appetite for experimentation. We acknowledge that one size doesn’t fit all. And so, the exact opposite of uniformity is what’s going on in Detroit.
Speaking of empty space, was City Yards an issue when you were mayor? How would you deal with it, with the benefit of hindsight?
I think with City Yards and a few other places near downtown, you could afford to do some unconventional experimentation. I don’t think it’s about high-density development. It’s probably about landscape as a framework. Yeah, I think it’s too valuable to stay fallow, but it’s too big and difficult to use a conventional set of tools. And there’s no shortage of fantastic landscape thinkers right here in Charlottesville. A very intentional bridge has to be made between city government and the academy, and it can be figured out.
Of the problems that you saw and addressed when you were here, which ones still exist, and how should they be handled?
These things can’t be approached in the abstract. Racism exists. Where does it exist? Does it exist in our housing policy? Does it exist in the economic opportunity given to entrepreneurs? It has to be grafted onto something real. So getting together for a kumbaya conversation about racism, while it may temporarily make you feel good, produces very little lasting impact. When you say we’re going to address the displacement of people by changing our housing policy, that’s tangible. When you say we’re going to build a cultural center to make sure that the history and the legacy of urban renewal is forever understood, like the Jefferson Center, that’s a tangible example of addressing an issue.
Even an effort to have minority businesses on the mall would be a good start. In Detroit, we have a program that matches entrepreneurs to real estate opportunities—and everything from business planning to getting the bricks and mortar—to open up a shop. Sixty-five percent of the people who receive grants are women, 70 percent are people of color. That’s a direct answer to, will economic opportunity on these Main Streets that we’re creating look and feel like the communities they exist in?
Where does your experience in architecture come in?
The power of design is its ability to convene people around a project, not an abstraction, and that is one of the reasons why design is so engaging even for the laypeople. At the end of it, there’s something standing there that’s a built environment, that’s a natural environment as a result of your hours and hours and hours of meeting. I think those are tangible ways to address issues of equity and inclusion. That’s been a mainstay. At least it’s been a mainstay in my career to use the imperative to build, to shape, as a way to have a larger conversation about what kind of community we want, who belongs in it, and how do we all get access to it.
In Detroit, we do it by culturally tagging infrastructure that is unifying the city. The Joe Louis Greenway, which unites dozens of neighborhoods, was purposefully named so that for the next hundred years people will think of this iconic sports figure as someone who unites the city. Or we do a park, and we bring a renowned African American artist, Hubert Massey, to work in the infrastructure of art, in this case a 160 foot-long mosaic tile wall that turns into a community build with kids and adults. It’s also in a park named after Ella Fitzgerald, another cultural icon. And so, these are ways to bring in a creative impulse that tells people…that this belongs to them.
So, you’re still commuting by bicycle in Detroit, as you did here?
I am. I live a commutable distance from work. I’ve always insisted on biking, and hiking and walking, ever since Charlottesville. I can see the city with all of my senses, and it helps you pay attention to detail and to the feel and the character of a place. It’s my way of doing some research even in the most banal act of going from home to work.
Do you think Detroit will ultimately be a success story?
Well, in some ways it already is. Let’s not forget that it’s also the largest African American city in America. So when a black city builds more protected bike lanes than a city like Portland, that in and of itself is newsworthy, and what does that mean? I’m always mindful that it’s not like we’re just doing this in any city. We’re doing this in the blackest city in America. Majority African-American cities have long been equated with dysfunctionality, corruption, and poverty. We have a chance to defy that stereotype and write a different narrative about a progressive, exploratory, inclusive, African American-majority city.
We are mindful that it’s a narrative that is very, very powerful. And that’s what I mean by Charlottesville has to find a way to snatch back its public narrative. Detroit did it with an onslaught of positive, affirming, forward-looking, progressive stories.
All of a sudden people feel like we’ve cured something. But we still have poverty. We still struggle with vacant land and home abandonment. But the counter-narrative is so compelling that people are not writing exclusively about Detroit’s decay and decline. I’ve seen that happen in a matter of four or five years, so I know that Charlottesville can do that.
It’s not going to happen just by the passage of time. People are not just going to forget, and I think that’s the issue: What willful actions can your public leaders and civic leaders take to snatch back the narrative of Charlottesville?
Highway blues: losing the battle for McIntire Park
When Maurice Cox was elected to the City Council in 2000, debate over the proposed road then known as the Meadowcreek Parkway had ground on for decades. The road, eventually christened the John W. Warner Parkway, is now a reality, but it looks the way it does (“a beautiful parkway rather than a highway,” as Cox puts it) in large part because of efforts by Cox and other local activists.
The parkway, first proposed in the 1960s, aimed to connect East Rio Road with McIntire Road, easing traffic on Rio and Park Street, and providing more direct entry into the city of Charlottesville from suburban northern Albemarle County neighborhoods.
“I was convinced then and still believe today that the Meadowcreek Parkway was Charlottesville’s greatest gift to Albemarle County,” Cox says. “Charlottesville sacrificed the city’s largest park, McIntire Park, in order to relieve traffic pressures from the county’s out-of-control growth along 29 North.”
Plans were coalescing by the time Cox was elected, but opponents, who challenged the then-prevalent idea that building more roads would ease traffic on existing ones, had laid out a set of demands for keeping it circumscribed. Among other concerns, they sought to ban truck traffic, limit speeds, and reduce the number of travel lanes from four to two.
“We never had the votes to kill the darn thing,” says Cox, “so instead I spent eight years of my political career trying to ‘defang’ a four-lane divided highway, aimed straight through the heart of downtown.”
Cox fought successfully for design restrictions that kept its interchange with the U.S. 250 Bypass relatively compact and its footprint narrow, so future leaders wouldn’t easily be able to widen it.
“Being a designer, I figured if you couldn’t kill it then perhaps I could use the power of design to resize the threat and remake it into one of the best two-lane parkways Virginia has built in a generation.”
But he adds, “we shouldn’t forget that we lost out on a great opportunity to gift to the next generations a world-class McIntire Park.”