The head of an appointed group that advises the Charlottesville City Council on urban design issues briefed officials Monday on the group’s continuing mission.
“We seek to shape the environment that we live in for all the activities of our citizens and to create beautiful, functional, safe and inspiring places,” said Mike Stoneking, head of the PLACE Design Task Force.
The group was created in 2012 and has made several key non-binding recommendations to the council, including one in 2013 to consider routing Avon Street under the railroad tracks rather than replacing the Belmont Bridge.
Since then, the task force has been looking to identify areas in the city where infrastructure under the city’s control might be improved.
“We have lots of situations in Charlottesville where streets come into each other and create forgotten and abandoned space,” Stoneking said. “With careful thinking and a little ingenuity we can turn those into positive opportunities.”
Mayor Mike Signer, a former president of the Fifeville Neighborhood Association, said he knows of one such example.
“There are planting strips at the end of Fifth Street Southwest that were put in to control traffic, but they’re not planted,” Signer said. “They just have weeds growing in them.”
But how would such a situation be fixed? And who would be responsible?
The PLACE Design Task Force supports the creation of a position in the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development Services that was authorized in the fiscal year 2018 budget. The council agreed to spend $110,699 on a “community engagement/placemaking/design position” but has not yet agreed exactly on what the person’s job description will be.
“We see [this as] someone who would be the curator of a long-range plan and a visionary way of thinking about places and urban design that could work with enough jurisdictional authority to get the job done,” Stoneking said.
Councilor Kristin Szakos asked how that was different from the urban designer position created in 2014 and filled with the hiring of Carrie Rainey.
Stoneking said the department has been overwhelmed with reviews of plans and that Rainey has had to focus on that work instead of urban design.
“NDS is incredibly overworked,” Stoneking said. “We kind of feel this position or department needs enough weight to get the job done.”
City Manager Maurice Jones reminded councilors that Rainey has been playing a large role overseeing the West Main Streetscape, a project that has cost the city $1.37 million so far in fees to consultant Rhodeside & Harwell.
A final plan, complete with construction documents, is not expected to be ready until next spring, and that will incur another payment to Rhodeside & Harwell. The city has set aside $10 million in its Capital Improvement Program for the streetscape, which has been in preparation since 2013.
Galvin said she thinks the new position could help to coordinate the city’s small area plans, but council first has to reach consensus on what the new employee will do.
“There’s not quite unanimity on council about which need is greatest within all of the needs [at NDS],” Szakos said.
In April 2016, the council agreed to create the position of redevelopment manager, which was filled by the hiring of Brenda Kelley in December.
The task force has been working with the University of Virginia to create a 3-D model of the Strategic Investment Area, a redevelopment plan for a 330-acre section of the city south of the Downtown Mall. Stoneking said the goal is to eventually create a virtual model of all of Charlottesville.
“What’s great about it is that if you have a model, and you have proposed new developments, we can all see it and see how it’s going to play out in our town,” Stoneking said.
But Stoneking said one of the main keys to urban design is community engagement, and PLACE wants that process to be improved.
“You can’t get urban design and placemaking right if we don’t involve all the people in our community and understand how each neighborhood and node is unique,” he said.
Galvin said there are sections of Charlottesville that are changing as new companies seek places from which to operate.
“Harris Street is starting to become repopulated with a new kind of industry, and a lot of it is alternative energy and its biotechnology,” Galvin said, but added that those new business owners want safer streets with more crosswalks so employees can walk to work.
The council did not take any actions on these matters at the meeting. In the future, councilors will be asked whether the task force should be expanded to include representatives from the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority and the Human Rights Commission.
“The thinking there was that by having those folks at our meetings and being part of our group, that we would have a conduit to the work that they do,” Stoneking said.
Galvin said she thinks that would be a good idea.
“What I’m hearing is that a lot of confusion about the SIA and form-based code might have been somewhat addressed before it became an issue if there were members of the housing authority and the Human Rights Commission involved with the discussion to open up the conversation,” Galvin said.
Stoneking is a member of Charlottesville Tomorrow’s board of directors.