Like in Austin, Sparking the Needed Changes in Charlottesville

Charlottesville, VA

When city council, and the Albemarle Board of Supervisors, approved funding in December to send local officials down to study Austin, there were many who considered it an unfit use of public money. But to me it seemed like a good one, since it finally addressed a question that this city has long faced: “what should Charlottesville become?”

This question is one tied intrinsically into discussions about growth. Since 1990, Charlottesville’s population has increased by only several thousand, but its metro area has by 40%, to over 200,000. This has forced the city to decide either between resisting growth, and instead letting it sprawl; or receiving it, while trying to preserve local culture in the process. Funding this trip to Austin seemed like an endorsement of the latter approach, since it will mean studying a city that’s already handling this well.

Austin, after all, was once sleepy itself, serving as little more than a transitory base for state legislators. But, particularly in the last four decades, it has become a boomtown for UT and Mexican immigration, and for a tech sector that’s earned the city the nickname “Silicon Hills”. Rather than defiling it, though, this growth has burnished Austin’s reputation for vibrant urbanism.

One reason for this is that, like elsewhere in Texas, it has maintained a stellar business climate, with low taxes and regulations. But it has separated itself from other Texas cities by also maintaining a tolerance—towards artists, gays, and others of alternative lifestyle—that has nourished this culture. Such tolerance, writes Richard Florida, is valued by “creative class” industries like education and technology that drive much of today’s innovation. And these industries have flocked to Austin, remaking it into a city not only with music bars, festivals, and fish tacos, but with one of America’s highest per capita rates for patent production. This creative ethos is summarized by local t-shirts instructing passersby to “Keep Austin Weird”.

Such creativity also extends to its attitudes about land use. Visit Austin today, and you’ll find a place flush with murals, food trucks, and vibrant public spaces. More importantly is that the city, rather than just talking about density, actually allows it. Several new skyscrapers have arisen downtown, and condos are filling nearby neighborhoods with pedestrians—while easing the pressure on surrounding farmlands.

But I still have qualms about this trip to Austin, and not just because it includes a stay in the $259-a-night W Hotel. It’s because I know these officials may return from there filled with new ideas, only to run up against a city hall that refuses to implement them. My basis for thinking this is because of recent decisions that make Charlottesville seem as reactionary as Austin is open.

Take, for example, the Board of Architectural Review’s treatment last year of a prospective mural on West Main. The rendering, by Ross McDermott, would’ve covered a fading mural on a privately-owned building. But the board rejected it because of its colorfulness, before approving a smaller and more muted version. This scenario—and others involving murals in Charlottesville—was an example of bold art being squelched by a bureaucracy that strives for consensus, and thus favors projects which satisfy the lowest common denominator.

Another impediment is the ordinance requiring live music to be below 55 decibels on neighborhood corridors after 11pm, effectively making it quieter than passing cars. This certainly won’t help attract talent to Charlottesville, and underlies a broader reluctance by the city to allow music outside of select areas. Last year, for example, city council denied a music permit to a saloon on Meade Avenue even after the owner accommodated for noise concerns. The permit was rejected on legal technicalities, despite being just blocks away from a louder and more crowded bar.

But the biggest impediment is Charlottesville’s lack of density, which is discouraged by zoning. In many areas, the code allows only for low-rise, suburban-style residences. Sometimes developers seek relaxations on this, but are denied by a council prone to channeling neighborhood resistance in their decisions. This was summarized in December by one council member, who voted against putting mid-rise student housing along West Main because the buildings would “loom over” nearby areas.

Had her logic been applied previously, Charlottesville would never have erected UVA hospital, or the Monticello Building. If it’s applied in the future, the city can forget about becoming a creative hub. Because becoming this means not only learning from outside hubs; but actually allowing the tangible measures—from new buildings, to looser permits and regulations—that spark culture from the inside.

Update: the trip to Austin was reportedly cancelled the day of this article’s publication, because of controversy over the cost to taxpayers, and lack of citizen participation.

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2 Comments

  1. Great article, Scott. What you write about sounds a lot like fear: fear of the unknown, which is what Charlottesville decision makers run up against, in their own minds, whenever anything different is proposed that might fly in the face of previous NIMBY protestations. When is next local election? Or are the county board and city council members appointed?

    • The Democratic primaries for city council–which are basically the same as an election since Charlottesville is a one-party town–occur on June 11. The current term for two councilors–Dave Norris and Kristin Szakos–are ending. According to the local party chairman, it’s unclear whether either will seek reelection, and who are their challengers.


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