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April 23, 2012

Charlottesville residents evaluate downtown connectivity, diversity, and equality

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DailyProgressBy Courtney Beale
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Monday, April 23, 2012

Issues of connectivity in downtown Charlottesville remain a hot topic for planners and residents.

Following up on a grassroots design competition for the Belmont Bridge — which brought new ideas for connecting West Main Street, Belmont and the Downtown Mall to the surface — community members gathered recently to hear a panel discussion on the area’s future.

Gisweb-belmont
Belmont Bridge area in 2009 photo via Charlottesville's GISWEB

“A community is a place where you encounter differences, and the place tends to socialize you,” said Maurice Cox, former city mayor and University of Virginia professor. “Charlottesville is very fortunate to have a downtown, a former main street, that became an even stronger place for people to encounter each other — the Downtown Mall.”

City Councilor Kathy Galvin compared a healthy community to a healthy ecosystem.

“There’s an ecology of a place,” Galvin said at Tuesday’s discussion, held at The Bridge, Progressive Arts Initiative. “It’s predicated on diversity and I do think that’s something that echoes throughout human history, as well.”

Galvin said diversity and density have enhanced communities throughout history.

“Those cities, those societies, that wound up being innovators were also the most cosmopolitan,” Galvin said. “It’s almost like you need that collision of culture to give you a spark of innovation that gives you the promise of a different day, a different tomorrow.”

As part of the Architecture Week event, panelists and community members also discussed the places where the Downtown Mall has room to improve. Galvin pointed out that there is a disconnect between the people who live downtown and the people who work there.

“There are about 12,000 people who commute out of the city every day to work. They get higher-paying jobs elsewhere,” Galvin said. “And another 12,000 people commute every day to work here and because they can’t find affordable housing.”

Galvin stated that the city needs to address housing needs.

“There’s still a lot more to do in terms of getting that jobs/housing connection really tight,” Galvin said. “More and more people are wanting [affordable housing] and demanding it.”

Former City Councilor Holly Edwards brought attention to the fact that the mall is not accessible to everyone.

“I’m puzzled at how we can get people from all over the place to come here but we can’t get people from across town to come here,” Edwards said. “What is it that we need to do differently to make different social classes, economic classes, feel welcome?”

Edwards said she recently met a family who lives in the West Main Street area and has never been to Spudnuts, a donut shop near the Belmont Bridge.

“Been here all your life and never had a Spudnut! I was just appalled,” Edwards joked. “But it represented the divide.”

Colette Blount, a city School Board member, questioned the levels of economic success that many say the mall has achieved.

“If [being economically viable] is what it means to be a success, then it is. But if it means diversity and a variety of attitudes, outlooks and perspectives, then it is not,” Blount said. “We have people here who are not partaking in this community.”

Brian Wimer, a local filmmaker who initiated the Belmont Bridge design competition, asked that people think of the planning issues facing downtown in terms of equality, not diversity.

“Equality is the common denominator,” Wimer said. “Think about equality in terms of access ... Anybody can walk somewhere, not everybody can drive somewhere … It’s hard to enforce diversity. It’s easy to enforce equality.”

Peter O’Shea, landscape architect for Siteworks Studio, emphasized how planning can help alleviate this problem.

“What we need to identify are the places where people don’t have the infrastructure supporting [equal access],” O’Shea said. “And the patterns that public housing creates don’t support that. They isolate people.”

Galvin responded by saying that it is time to revisit areas of the Charlottesville community and use urban planning to make the positive parts of the community more available to everyone.

“This is a moment to begin a different kind of planning effort, a different kind of orientation to how we chart the future,” Galvin said. “Let’s think of other places that could create those public moments that could also generate business and entrepreneurial activities, because I don’t want to accept the fact that there are whole segments of our community being left out.”

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