Bent on Preservation, a Design Board Stuck in Time

Like America’s other Main Streets, the one in my hometown of Charlottesville, VA, has long wandered in and out of relevance. In 1819 it helped connect downtown with the University of Virginia, which was founded that year by the city’s native son, Thomas Jefferson. In the years following several neighborhoods formed in between, and Main Street became a bustling retail corridor. But the city destroyed much of its surroundings in the 1960s for “urban renewal”, and this, along with suburban flight, has made renewing it back a longtime challenge.

One pioneering move came when its downtown portion was converted into a pedestrian mall, which is now nationally renowned, with a red brick layering that echoes another of Jefferson’s masterpieces—Monticello—just up the mountain. UVA, meanwhile, has experienced an enrollment boom, padding its reputation as one of the “Public Ivies”. But there are still problems with Main Street, and they lie mostly in this area between, which is called “West Main”, and is now a ragtag strip of empty buildings and lots, with a bridge that attracts muggers. Because of its location, the city has designated the area for growth, adding a trolley and renovating the train station; while private investment has followed, igniting its potential return as a link between economic hubs.

But several decisions, including two recently, by one city body, the Board of Architectural Review, show how such momentum can be stifled in a place like Charlottesville, where history and progress often clash. The first decision by the board this summer concerned a mural that would go on the side of a West Main building. The artist, Ross McDermott, already heads an organization that promotes local murals, and was painting this one for a developer, which would have wildlife renderings and a bright backdrop. The mural would have covered the one now on the building, which is chipped and faded, and brought color to a stolid block. But the BAR, observing West Main’s designation as a “design control district”, called the mural “entirely wrong”, and voted it down. It wasn’t until a discussion with the city council that the board compromised on a smaller and more muted version.

The second decision concerned two lots located at precisely the point across the bridge where West Main really falters. The lots once had car dealerships, but are now vacant. This month a developer introduced a plan to demolish them and build two buildings with Jeffersonian detailing that will be six and eight stories high, respectively, and have over 200 units of student housing. But the BAR, after recommending deferral, voted them down, again because they apparently didn’t fit historic character, and because together they would amount to a “super block” (a curious complaint given they’ll have street-level retail and a public plaza).

For this project, the final decision will be made by council. But the BAR’s input may still affect local sentiment, making its impractical logic all the worse. Not only is West Main now underserved, but so are the housing needs of UVA students. Because of this many students either move into the county, perpetuating sprawl, or into nearby neighborhoods, where they bring noise and price out families. This project, which is a short walk from campus, would help address both issues, a point that didn’t trump the BAR’s reservations about design. As a result potentially nothing will be built, and West Main, rather than becoming this strategic link, will remain, in the wording of McDermott, “decrepit”.

That the BAR votes like this on behalf of preservation is itself historically illiterate, given another factor of history—economic change. Such change has become crucial in Charlottesville, which no longer runs on five-and-dimes, but on knowledge industries like arts and education. Disallowing those industries from building according to their needs—especially when historic structures are already protected—ensures an architectural uniformity that’s regressive, and that drowns whole areas in formaldehyde.

Doing this can also hurt the integrity of historic buildings themselves. Such buildings exist across the nation, but whether they are maintained often depends on if they’re in declining areas (think of Detroit’s historic but crumbling houses), or vibrant ones (like Brooklyn’s brownstone neighborhoods). New buildings can add to this vibrancy by bringing foot traffic; but when they are discouraged those areas often empty out, and their historic buildings, now isolated from the normal workings of the city, just appear dated. In Charlottesville this datedness, along with worse maladies, now defines much of West Main—a condition tolerated, and even preferred, by some officials.

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