Building a better city
New Year’s is a time for resolutions, but this year, we decided to focus our attention on city improvements, not self-improvement. So we asked a bunch of community leaders about their hopes for Charlottesville (and added a few of our own). Here’s to a new year, a new decade, and new visions for a community that’s bigger and better than ever.
Kari Miller, executive director and founder, International Neighbors
1. That employee income increases as fast—or faster (imagine that!)—as housing costs rise.
2. That each resourced resident (most of us) connect with one neighbor in need (many of us) in order to make Charlottesville/Albemarle the best place for all of us.
3. That special immigrant visa holders, or SIVs, receive the official status of U.S. veterans of war for their service and sacrifice for the U.S. military during conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many SIVs live in Charlottesville—they are our neighbors—and deserve our respect and support. The presence of these people of unparalleled patriotism makes Charlottesville/Albemarle a stronger community, and yet they struggle to survive, despite having put themselves at great risk to protect our common values.
Deborah McLeod, Chroma Gallery
1. A pedestrian bridge across the Rivanna joining River View with the Darden trail on the Albemarle side.
2. A better designed bus system that responds to the needs of the users (present AND potential) that is hub based rather than the current over long circuits that make commuting take so absurdly long—and add more buses.
3. Create a charming enterprise business zone at the Friendship Court stretch along Second Street leading toward IX.
Michael Payne, City Council member
I love Charlottesville, but I can hardly afford to live here! Three improvements:
1. A more robust public transit system with more frequent stops.
2. Achieving carbon neutrality and local climate resilience.
3. Expanding affordable housing opportunities, including public housing and community land trusts.
Sean Tubbs, resident and public transit advocate
1. The creation of a Charlottesville Karaoke League.
2. The establishment or promotion of an all-ages social gathering space to break down generational silos.
3. More reporting from more sources on more issues. There are so many stories that need to be told.
Stephen Hitchcock, executive director of The Haven
1. More affordable housing.
2. More affordable housing.
3. More affordable housing.
Peter Krebs, community outreach coordinator at Piedmont Environmental Council
1. A Connected Community: I would love to see safe and comprehensive bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure that links homes to jobs, schools, shopping, and recreation, and that supports area-wide transit. Progress to date has been much too slow and I would like to see it accelerated.
2. A Thriving Community: I would like to see everyone, regardless of age, ability, or any other factor be able to move about and pursue their dreams in a vibrant urban area that is healthy, sustainable, rich in opportunity, and surrounded predominantly by intact forests, farms, and ecosystems.
3. A Community that Works Together: I would like to see Albemarle, Charlottesville, and UVA working together systematically and methodically on transportation, housing, economic development, and environmental protection and conservation. The existing memoranda of understanding are a great start but I’d love to see a much more ambitious level of cooperation.
More than a parking lot
The City Yard, a 9.4-acre municipal works lot in the heart of Charlottesville is, as we wrote last year, “large, central, under-used and under government control”—so why hasn’t it been developed?
The yard, home to black and mixed-race residents more than a century ago, was also the site of the city’s gas works. For decades, concerns about possible contamination kept its use limited to public works vehicles and maintenance facilities.
But faced with a growing population and an increasingly urgent affordable housing crisis, the city is taking a second look.
“I think with City Yard and a few other places near downtown, you could afford to do some unconventional experimentation,” former mayor Maurice Cox told us this spring. “I think it’s too valuable to stay fallow, but it’s too big and difficult to use a conventional set of tools.”
In November 2018, City Council awarded $500,000 to New Hill Development Corporation, an African American-led nonprofit group, to study redevelopment in the Starr Hill area, which includes the City Yard. This fall, they presented their plan, proposing to develop the City Yard into a mixed-use area with 85 to 255 majority affordable housing units and flexible business/commercial spaces focused on workforce development.
It’s part of a larger push to revitalize the area and, with the proposal’s emphasis on open, pedestrian-friendly streets and the transformation of the Jefferson School into a “public square,” it feels like a way to right some of the city’s historic wrongs. After the razing of Vinegar Hill and the walling off of 10th and Page, a redevelopment of the area would reconnect one of the city’s last remaining African American neighborhoods with its increasingly vital downtown. So while many big hurdles remain—most notably whether the site needs environmental cleanup, and if so how much it will cost—it’s a vision worth pursuing. –Laura Longhine
Hunter Smith, founder and CEO, Champion Brewing Company
1. Elimination of food insecurity in the greater Charlottesville-Albemarle area. We have way too many restaurants per capita and disposable income in this community to have hungry neighbors. In 2020, I’d like to challenge myself and fellow restaurateurs to find a way to fight food waste and instability together.
2. More public/private initiatives. As long as the Dillon Rule stands, there are many things the city can’t do that residents expect it to do when it comes to affordable housing and other community priorities. With more projects like New Hill Development, the city can leverage its resources and staff to support not-for-profits that are capable of doing the work the city often cannot.
3. Dewberry Hotel (formerly the Landmark). Good lord, what an eyesore. It’s kind of amazing that the Downtown Mall is still such a destination with that hulk looming
around. There’s a lot of opportunity for a decade-old, derelict structure to be put to better use.
Alan Goffinski, executive director of The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative
My wish for the city is that Charlottesville might institute an Office of Getting Sh*t Done within city government that supports individuals and nonprofits with good ideas by identifying resources, connecting like-minded folks, streamlining procedures and application processes, and navigating the intimidating aspects of government bureaucracy.
Heather Hill, City Council member
1. Public meeting spaces that are welcoming and respectful of different perspectives, inviting collaboration versus division.
2. A community commitment to investing public and private resources in our schools’ infrastructure.
3. A more regional approach to taking tangible steps that address priorities, including connectivity and housing.
Walt Heinecke, associate professor of Educational Research, Statistics, & Evaluation at UVA
1. I would like to see the new City Council replace the watered-down bylaws and ordinance for the Police Civilian Review Board recently passed by council in November with the original bylaws and ordinance submitted by the initial CRB in August. The latter bylaws and ordinance provided the strongest model for community oversight and complaint review allowed by state law.
2. I would like to see all racist statues in Charlottesville, including the George Rogers Clark statue at UVA, removed.
3. I would like to see UVA establish a Center for the Study of Race and Social Justice and acknowledge that the university exists on stolen Monacan land; establish a formal and respectful relationship with the Monacan Nation; establish a fully funded indigenous studies center with adequate faculty hires, a substantive effort to increase Indigenous student enrollment, and a physical building for the center.
Jeff Dreyfus and partners, Bushman Dreyfus Architects
1. City Council devises a proactive, achievable plan for increasing affordable housing in the city.
2. The city and county begin incentivizing the production of solar energy.
3. City and county governments merge services and programs that overlap or are redundant to better utilize the limited resources we have.
Devin Floyd, founder, director, principal investigator at the Center for Urban Habitats
1. Environmental education: I would like to see schools not only put a greater emphasis on the arts and sciences, but also afford our youth opportunities to leave the classroom and learn more about local natural history. The more they get the chance to explore the plants, animals, and ecosystems that they share the land with, the more informed and compassionate they will be as stewards of the natural world. Children must be allowed the chance to get close enough to a salamander to see their own reflection in its eyes.
2. Daylighting streams: Natural springs, creeks, and rivers are the heart of our region’s biodiversity. I want the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County to ban the practice of burying streams for development. Furthermore, I call for action toward creating a strategic plan for daylighting all springs and creeks that have been buried, and restoring a portion of the wetlands, grasslands, and forests they should be associated with. This will have the effect of creating a network of urban and suburban wild spaces, with associated parks and trails.
3. The new all-American lawn: I want to see our city and county governments take more responsibility for supporting sustainable landscaping practices. To this end, I dream of a new type of lawn, one that is beautiful, handles its own storm water (slowing it and cleaning it before it reaches local streams), requires but one trimming a year, supports wildlife, keeps its fallen leaves, and inspires young and old to explore. In this vision lawns become extensions of nature, and urban areas become bastions for biodiversity. I want people to have hope again. All is not lost; not even in an urban landscape. Nature is resilient, and powerful. We can each have a positive impact on the environment, even in a tiny lawn.
Patsy Chadwick, outgoing president, current board member, Piedmont Master Gardeners
1. Eliminate invasive species throughout Albemarle County. As I drive around the area, I am mortified by the vast numbers of invasive species along our roads, including ailanthus trees, Russian olive shrubs, English ivy, and kudzu, among others. It would be a herculean effort to eradicate these plants and replace them with more environmentally beneficial plantings, but we could begin to address the problem with a cooperative effort of state, county, and city government, private homeowners, and groups such as Piedmont Master Gardeners, Master Naturalists, PRISM, local garden clubs, and others.
2. Greater emphasis in our communities on planting trees—particularly, native species—to absorb carbon from the atmosphere and provide more shade during heat waves. I don’t think people realize just what an impact trees can make in helping to offset the effects of climate change.
3. Wiser management of water resources, including: 1) capturing rainwater in barrels and cisterns; 2) planting drought- and heat-tolerant plants that can survive with less water; 3) using drip-irrigation systems to put water where it is most needed; 4) not wasting water on lawns that have gone dormant.
Sunshine Mathon, CEO, Piedmont Housing Alliance
This next year could have remarkable impact if we come together with common purpose. Yet this work cannot be accomplished in a single effort or a single year. The strata of power, the scaffolding that frames our systems and institutions, took us 400 years to construct. With layer upon layer of root, flesh, and stone, we have laid beaten paths of opportunity and exclusion. And yet, though we may be overwhelmed by the scale of what must be undone, or what authority we must emancipate, this work is made imaginable when we laugh and breathe together, when we sweat hand in hand as we yoke ourselves to the labor, and when we cast our gaze to what we can accomplish in this single year.
1. Redevelopment begins: For years-decades-generations, community members from historically excluded neighborhoods have called for investment in their communities…but on their terms and in their interest. Within this next year, all the activism, the tears, and the planning will culminate in a remarkable, near-simultaneous achievement—the ground-breaking of redevelopment for three communities: Friendship Court, public housing, and Southwood. By this time next year, their foundational aspirations will become manifest in the bones of buildings, the homes they themselves designed.
2. A Strategic Housing Plan: Over the coming year, Charlottesville will develop a new strategic housing plan, a community-based process that can and will dig deep into our history, preparing us for future interventions. This housing plan will inform and guide the completion of the city’s comprehensive plan and a land use zoning code revision, culminating in a plan of action. Some aspects of the implementation will require strong political will, and a willingness to look inward to fulfill our collective responsibility, reprioritize resources, and redress past trespasses. These actions cannot be incremental. The accrued legacy is too deep and pervasive. Only bold action will enable our convictions.
3. A Common Analysis: Centuries of policies, incentives, and race-based decision-making have calcified the strata of power and advantage across the nation with people of color accruing the least of it. In the coming year, if our community is to accomplish some authentic progress, we must engage the work with a common analysis—specifically, an analysis of the institutional racism that permeates our systems, by intention and by neglect. By this time next year, our community could achieve a critical threshold. Research suggests that only 3.5 percent of a population must become actively engaged on a singular goal to reach a cultural tipping point. Through shared trainings, deliberate conversations, and active partnership, just 5,000 of us could lead our community to the fulcrum of change.
The biggest joke in town
I’ve read a lot about John Dewberry recently and, man, he is a funny guy. Not funny “ha-ha,” but funny, like, “Dude, really?” For the uninitiated, Dewberry is the do-nothing developer who owns the largest urinal in town. It’s eight stories tall and holds down the corner of Second and West Main on the Downtown Mall.
The vision for a boutique hotel on the site reportedly originated with developer Lee Danielson, all the way back in 2004. Construction ceased in 2009, and Dewberry swooped to the rescue, or so we thought, in 2012. But so far, all he’s done is change the concept from luxury hotel to luxury apartments (just what we need) and the name from The Landmark to The Dewberry and, recently, The Laramore—an insult to the late local architect Jack Laramore, who designed the black granite street-level façade.
I wasted about 25 phone calls and six emails trying to contact Dewberry so he could tell me his plans for the vacant property in 2020. A spokesperson replied on behalf of the busy boss: “Hello, Joe. No updates at this time, but thank you so much for reaching out.”
Brian Wheeler, our fair city’s director of communications, indicated that Charlottesville has given up on trying to rectify the blighted blunder. Citing Dewberry’s “personal property rights,” Wheeler said, “He can own that structure [and] as long as it’s not a harm to others, he can keep it in that condition for as long as he likes.”
Whether Dewberry will ever do anything with the downtown carcass is unknown. But history isn’t comforting: Bloomberg Businessweek chose the headline “Atlanta’s Emperor of Empty Lots” for a 2017 profile of Dewberry, who has sat on valuable vacant land on that city’s Peachtree Street for 20 years. In Charleston, South Carolina, he bought a vacant government building and waited eight years to transform it into the luxury hotel that bears his name.
It’s funny, because the Bloomberg story quotes Charles Rea, who was once Dewberry’s director of operations, as saying: “He’s not going to put his name on anything that’s not superior, in his point of view.” Another former colleague said that Dewberry “…used to talk about Dupont Circle, Rockefeller Center. He wants his projects to stack up against the best.” You see? John Dewberry really is funny. –Joe Bargmann
Wilson Richey, partner and founder, Ten Course Hospitality
1. Double down on support of local businesses: Charlottesville’s small, independently owned businesses—shops opened and operated with great passion, meaning, and thought—are collectively one of the city’s most defining and important assets. As a local small business owner, I am worried that our current leadership has not been able to grasp this as they struggle to handle the many challenges of guiding a city that is growing so quickly. I believe our elected officials must show greater support for existing small businesses, and incentivize startups, so that these entities can make our city a stronger, more wonderful place than it already is.
2. Ditto, support for local artists: I grew up in a sleepy suburb of Washington, D.C. When I arrived in Charlottesville, I quickly realized the importance of the local artists and musicians. They lift our spirits, strengthen our cultural fabric, and make our city a happier, livelier, and more colorful place. In 2020, I’d like to see more support for the arts, both by Charlottesville’s leaders and each and every one of us.
3. Double-ditto, support for local agriculture. This is such an important issue, culturally and environmentally. It is a global issue in which Charlottesville has historically been a regional leader. But I believe we need to renew and increase our commitment to supporting sustainable, local agricultural efforts. We would all be healthier and happier for having done so!
Matthew McLendon, director of The Fralin Museum of Art
1. I’d love to see an expanded, more robust, efficient, and reliable public transport system in Charlottesville that ties the surrounding counties to the city and makes getting around Charlottesville easier. Reliable and efficient public transport is the thing I miss most from my experience living in major cities. If done right, it is an important tool for greater equity, accessibility, and inclusion.
2. Following on with this theme (holiday traffic is on my mind, I guess), I wish that there would be a wide-scale overhaul on the timing of the traffic lights. I never feel that they are synced in the most efficient manner.
3. Finally, I am continuing to work with my colleagues on the vision and realization of a new center for the arts at UVA that would include greatly expanded university art museums, co-locating The Fralin and the Kluge-Ruhe to better serve not only UVA but also Charlottesville and central Virginia. With the intellectual and creative resources of UVA and the wider communities invested in our work, we have the ability to lead in creating the dynamic museum of the 21st century—a convening space for all who are curious and want to be engaged in the discussions art and artists can help to ignite.
Jody Kielbasa, Vice Provost for the Arts at UVA, director of the Virginia Film Festival
1. I would like to see the city and the county make a greater investment in the arts so that our arts organizations and artists can continue to enrich and bring us together as a community while serving as a catalyst to drive tourism and economic development.
2. I would like to see our public schools fully embrace the acronym S.T.E.A.M. over S.T.E.M. to recognize, foster, and celebrate the arts impact on our children’s well-being, learning, and self- expression. The arts make the world a better place.
3. I look forward to the development of a creative nexus on the Emmet/Ivy corridor as part of UVA’s 2030 strategic plan that would welcome the Charlottesville community to better engage with the arts at UVA.
Beryl Solla, gallery director, Piedmont Virginia Community College
My big issue is climate change. I would love to see the city make young trees available for people to plant in their yards. I know the city is working on this for public spaces, but we need to use every space available to help turn climate change around.
I would love to see all city buildings outfitted with solar roof panels and/or green roofs.
I would love to see our city make decisions based on a better, healthier quality of life for all of our citizens, with an emphasis on inclusion and sustainability.
If allowed another big wish, I would move the questionable sculptures in town out of public parks/public spaces and replace them with beautifully made, figurative sculptures that tell everyone’s story. The agenda would be historical accuracy, racial inclusion, and fair payment for the artists.
Brian Wimer, Amoeba Films
Before we start changing anything, it might help for us to understand who we are. A cohesive vision for the future would certainly be beneficial, if not just pragmatic. But not the future of five days from now. That’s parking lots and like buying stock in Blockbuster. How do we want to live 50 years from now? A hundred years? Can we use our collective imaginations and make the bold, innovative choices that bring our community closer? Sure, I can name three things we could work on: multi-modal transportation, multi-cultural programming, and a new Charlottesville identity (can we please drop the “World Class City” nonsense and try to be a world class village?).
Part of that identity is pride. Ever arrived at the Amtrak station and wondered if you were home—greeted by a concrete tunnel and a chain link fence? Not much pride there. Do I hear someone say “mural?” Something that shouts welcome.
But regardless of what projects and programs we initiate, they won’t be effective if we don’t start at the basic foundation of what makes community: trust and gratitude. I think we have a long way to go there. Some folks don’t even want to discuss such esoteric and sticky principles. But without trust and gratitude you might as well shut down this whole social experiment—Netflix and Trader Joe’s will likely not provide what our souls are searching for. Nor will more parking lots or business incubators or beer festivals. We have an opportunity to promote a new paradigm based on unifying principles. Failure to do so would demonstrate not only bureaucratic sloth and a wasted potential—but also a lack of collective imagination. If we want a better city, we need to ask “What if?”
Editors’ note: Since publication, some readers have rightly called out the fact that none of the respondents in this piece are people of color, and that there are far more men than women represented. While we reached out to a diverse range of sources, many did not respond to our repeated requests (or said they would get back to us, but didn’t). And in a shortened production week due to the holidays, I didn’t notice how skewed the group we ended up with was until it was too late.
While this was meant to be a fairly casual survey (unlike, for instance, our 8/12 anniversary feature), we regret that the responses don’t reflect our entire community. As editor, I’m particularly sorry to have made such a careless mistake, which is not typical of our sourcing or our work in general, as I would hope any regular readers would recognize. We try hard to elevate marginalized voices and stories, and we will continue to do so.