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Preston Avenue exercise prompts community engagement questions
Eugene Ryang of Waterstreet Studio, January 11, 2018
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Credit: Emily Hays, Charlottesville Tomorrow
Eugene Ryang of Waterstreet Studio
Sean Tubbs | Friday, January 12, 2018 at 4:49 p.m.

When should community members be brought in to express their thoughts on changes to public infrastructure?

That question emerged Thursday at the January meeting of the PLACE Design Task Force at which representatives of Waterstreet Studio were invited to present a preliminary concept for how Preston Avenue might be reconfigured in the future.

“As designers, planners, engineers and concerned citizens, a lot of us have thought about Preston Avenue,” said Eugene Ryang, a co-founder of the landscape architectural firm.

Waterstreet Studio has been hired by Stony Point Design Studio, a firm that is redeveloping the Monticello Dairy at the corner of Preston Avenue, Grady Avenue and 10th Street. The president of the latter firm is Chris Henry, who is also a member of the PLACE Design Task Force.

In recent years along Preston, Riverbend Development has redeveloped the Coca-Cola building from a vacant structure into a commercial property with several tenants, including Kardinal Hall and the University of Virginia Licensing and Ventures Group. Other projects have included redevelopment of the vacant King Lumber Building.

“There’s a lot of private development happening on Preston Avenue,” Ryang said.

PLACE Chairman Mike Stoneking, an architect who has done design work on the street, wanted the advisory group members to draw out their preliminary ideas for how the four-lane section of Preston from Grady Avenue to McIntire Road might be configured to support new development and to address pedestrian safety concerns. (Stoneking is a member of the board of directors of Charlottesville Tomorrow.)

Some PLACE members questioned the timing of the exercise. Planning Commissioner Genevieve Keller said any planning work on Preston Avenue must be approached with caution and respect.

“The history of this area is so much more complicated,” Keller said. “I feel uncomfortable in participating in this if background [historical] studies aren’t done.”

Stoneking said he would like to hold the exercise in a large space with as many people who could attend but added that he wanted PLACE members to give their ideas as a starting point.

“If I were going to go to a neighborhood and have this conversation, I would want to bring them something they could chew on,” Stoneking said. “All this is about is taking a group of people on PLACE who have a certain assignment to think about some of these things to begin that process.”

For their conceptual plan, Waterstreet Studio looked exclusively at the street and not the parcels of land through which it passes.

“A lot of these streets were built and altered in a different era, and what are we doing now to revision these places?” Ryang asked. He said design is an opportunity to create public spaces, revitalize business areas and install stormwater management systems that take advantage of the ecosystem.

The road was converted to four lanes in the 1960s. That disrupted a street network that previously had seen roads such as Booker Street connected to Preston Avenue. At one point, Preston was lowered underneath the railroad tracks, cutting off Albemarle Street.

Henry said he saw the visioning exercise as a way to begin reconnecting those neighborhoods.

“A lot of these road projects, like when Preston Avenue was widened, disconnected neighborhoods,” Henry said. “They tore them apart. Roads were closed.”

City Councilor Kathy Galvin made clear that there are no active planning projects for Preston Avenue and that PLACE members need to think about how to bring the public into the process if the council decides to invest public dollars in upgrading the road.

“This is a seam between two historically African-American neighborhoods,” Galvin said. “Is it a seam that separates or is it a suture that connects people? What are the kinds of engagement processes that would need to be put in place if something like this exercise actually happened on the ground?”

Stoneking said the idea was to have the exact same exercise in the neighborhoods.

“This is one of a thousand of these if we’re doing it right,” Stoneking said.

PLACE member Clarence Green agreed that multiple exercises should be held in a large community group but he could understand and support the need to have an initial conversation at the advisory group.

“We’ve already had this conversation,” Green said. “Now we are erasing the board and will have the same conversation with residents and community members.”

Henry said he thought it was a good idea to begin the conversation given the redevelopment happening along the corridor.

“It’s at such a conceptual level that even the comments we’ve had so far are extremely valuable,” Henry said.

Stoneking said the purpose of the exercise and those to come in the future would generate ideas to begin the design process.

“Maybe this is design think, but you draw and you throw most of your ideas away, but it’s after you’ve done all that messy thinking, some of which is horrid, but you inform yourself by doing the work,” Stoneking said. “It might seem like it’s prescriptive but it is nothing more than exploring.”

Galvin noted that the first corridor that PLACE looked at was West Main Street in 2012.

“The infrastructure was not ready to handle all those people who were going to be biking and walking on West Main Street,” Galvin said. “There were also other issues involved. There was an understanding that the buildings going up were an affront because of their scale and their towering effect on adjacent neighborhoods.”

Galvin said the study conducted by Rhodeside & Harwell recommended a reduction in the size of buildings that was codified in a March 2016 rezoning. That was too late, however, for buildings like the Standard, which is currently under construction.

The streetscape design for West Main put forward by Rhodeside & Harwell is still not completed and has cost the city more than $2 million to date. There is a $31 million cost estimate associated with the project’s implementation. The City Council has put aside $10 million in city taxpayer money for the streetscape and is applying for grants from the Virginia Department of Transportation to fund the remainder.

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