On Tuesday night, local firm Bushman Dreyfus Architects awarded a total of $8,000 to four of the 80 entrants in a competition to reimagine a part of downtown Charlottesville.
The focus of the competition was the west end of the Downtown Mall — what used to be Vinegar Hill, a predominately African-American neighborhood that was bulldozed in 1964 in the era of urban renewal.
“Just as cities are continuing with acknowledging lynching, it would be so powerful for Charlottesville to recognize the era of destruction that urban renewal placed on American cities,” said Maurice Cox, a former mayor of Charlottesville and the current planning director for the city of Detroit.
Cox served on a jury of five that chose one grand prize for $5,000 and two finalists for $1,000 each. The designs will not necessarily be built.
At a panel discussion at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, attendees submitted ballots for one community choice award of $1,000. The event was co-hosted by the Tom Tom Founders Festival.
Submissions came from countries ranging from South Korea to Venezuela.
“We were really moved by being so far removed from [the white supremacist rally that] happened here in August and seeing it happen on TV. Having the opportunity to be part of the conversation, even from afar, was really important to us,” said Lauren McQuistion, of Detroit, who won the Grand Prize Award alongside A.J. Artemel and Tyler Whitney.
The team proposed building an 80-foot wall to match the dimensions of the Freedom of Speech Wall at the east end of the Downtown Mall. The new wall would be composed of layers of metal maps of Vinegar Hill.
The jury lauded the team for building community with a series of rolling benches built perpendicular to the wall. Visitors could push the benches to create more seating on either side of the wall, as needed.
The element of participation ran through all of the winners. Susannah Cramer-Greenbaum won a finalist prize by asking the community to help build the park.
Cramer-Greenbaum, of Zurich, Switzerland, suggested removing bricks from the mall to create cracks. Community members would then plant flowers in these “scars” in the ground. The third phase of the project would place lights in the cracks and layer glass on top, “forming a scar that gives off a soft glow at night in memorial and remembrance.”
“This was not a project where the site’s blocked off, the construction happens,” University of Virginia professor Beth Meyer, who also served on the competition’s jury. “We’re in a community that does not have authentic community engagement processes.”
A second finalist, Ian Watchorn, of New York, offered a grid of large vertical poles. At the center, the poles were placed diagonally to suggest that they had fallen over.
“As you penetrate that labyrinth, you encounter disorder, and something is not right. We thought that that was a really interesting commentary on stability,” Cox said. “Somewhere down deep, there is something going on.”
The winner of the community choice award was local architecture firm Waterstreet Studio. The entry started as a study of Preston Avenue for Stony Point Design Build, which is redeveloping the former Monticello Dairy building into a mixed-use complex.
The entry had been a point of long discussions for the jurors, because it broke the competition rules by redesigning the whole area that used to be Vinegar Hill.
“I was thinking of them as time travelers. They went back in time, when Vinegar Hill was razed and all possibilities were open,” said juror Scot French, who teaches history at the University of Central Florida and directed a documentary on Vinegar Hill. “Well, they’re not time travelers. They could do that now.”
As the panel wrapped up their comments, Cox encouraged the public to push to make the competition ideas reality.
“This is a moment when that end of the mall is going to go through an extraordinary transformation with a new building,” he said, referring to the redevelopment of the Main Street Arena and adjacent buildings into office space. “I just think that the community owes it to those at Vinegar Hill to take this moment with something very, very tangible and very realizable and just get it done.”
The goal of the competition was to generate conversation and ideas for Vinegar Hill Park. Charlottesville City Council’s process for creating Vinegar Hill Park is independent from the competition.