Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Ex-mayor Mitch Van Yahres passes away

Charlottesville, Va.—On February 8 Mitchell Van Yahres died from complications due to lung surgery (“Mitch Van Yahres dies” by Dave McNair, The Hook, Feb. 9, 2008). He retired after 24 years in the House of Delegates. He was personable and well-liked by everyone, including his political opponents.

But Van Yahres is best-known for his service on City Council 1968-1976. No stranger to controversy, his legacy includes the mall, annexations, and urban renewal.

Downtown Mall

Van Yahres was at the center of the most infamous abstention controversy in city history. Only 2 of the 5 city councilors voted for the Mall in Feb. 1974. Charles Barber also voted for it. But Mayor Francis Fife, Jill Rhinehart and George Gilliam abstained. The mall was bitterly opposed by downtown businesses and the clear majority of the public. The Virginia attorney general issued a legal opinion that the vote was legal and binding.

In 2006, at a forum commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Mall, city manager 1971-1995 Cole Hendrix remembered: first two department stores left, then little by little they all left downtown. Alvin Clements, a banker who led the commission to design the mall, said the Mall’s goal was to transform downtown to a boutique district with residences on the upper floors—economic cleansing of the existing businesses.

At the forum the Mall’s founders claimed the pedestrian Main Street saved downtown when, in fact, the Mall killed downtown. The Mall came before all the businesses left.

Annexation Abuse

At the same forum, Mitch Van Yahres said he was the last mayor in Virginia to lose an annexation suit. The city had wanted to annex Pantops Shopping Center and Fashion Square Mall. Some remember that Fashion Square was built in the county after the city planning commission denied zoning, but others point out that the commission didn’t reject but simply didn’t approve the 2 applications. The county agreed to pay the city not to take away its revenue tax base in a Feb. 1982 revenue sharing agreement. In 1983 annexation became illegal in Virginia, in part, because of Van Yahres’ attempted annexations.

Eminent Domain Abuse

It was easier for Mitch to acknowledge his role in the statewide annexation issue. Because of his support of the Garrett Street Urban Renewal Project, history remembers Van Yahres’ as a civil rights opponent. In various eulogies following his death, Van Yahres has been called a civil rights leader for supporting some civil rights for some people. Van Yahres even claimed to be upholding civil rights while a community mobilized to prevent him and his colleagues from repeating Vinegar Hill, which had happened a decade earlier and was fresh in everyone’s mind.

In his final campaign for Delegate in 2003, the past came back to haunt Van Yahres. Mitch knew my campaign against him was not personal, just as he meant nothing personal by supporting a progam to destroy a neighborhood. But to my knowledge, Van Yahres never denied his involvement by saying a different project happened before he took office. He never apologized for his unstated opposition to due process protection for some city residents. He just remained silent and allowed people to assume nice things.

I remember the hostile responses I got when I exposed Mitch for being a civil rights opponent. Some people said urban renewal is history…that the Omni Hotel, Westhaven and Friendship Court public housing exist only as an old photo. Others were unfamiliar with the notion of an issue campaign, telling people your message to persuade them to change their mind (“To set the record straight: Blair Hawkins to Fight Windmills”, Aug. 14, 2006). Of course I’ve been shouted down a few times. A friend of mine was once shouted down for saying Belmont was originally in the county. Politics is a rough business.

In 2005 Van Yahres was a little older and the nation was waking up to eminent domain abuse and the cavalier attitude of the abusers. Rather than explain at some forum why he supports eminent domain to seize and sell real estate given his own record, Mitch chose to retire. But still he could not escape history. He gave his retirement speech on my birthday March 5 in my childhood neighborhood torn down while he was on Council.

Van Yahres was a nice guy in personal interactions. But in local politics he helped leave a legacy that no one is proud of. I’m part of that legacy…a kid from public housing who grew up, stood up, and stood alone against the great institutions of Charlottesville.

Alvin Clements, Cole Hendrix, Mitch Van Yahres, Shane Edinger, Satyendra Huja, Charles Barbour, Mayor David Brown June 30 2006. ”The men behind the mall: We did it to save downtown”, July 1, 2006.

New home for Portico Church of Charlottesville. Where Van Yahres delivered his retiremnet speech March 5, 2005.

“After five and a half years, [Dolores] Johnson decided it was time to close the doors on her first big business venture. The center, on Monticello Avenue, shut down Dec. 31. Johnson blames the effects of a waning economy for the demise of her business, but other area conference spaces aren’t reporting cancellations like Johnson had. If the Omni Charlottesville Hotel and the Boar’s Head Inn are any example, it would seem that conference space in a high-end hotel setting is gaining steam” (“Monticello Event and Conference Center shuuters its doors” by Tasha Kates, January 29, 2008, page C-7, The Daily Progress).

Downtown ACAC on W. Garrett Street

1960 photo, site of downtown ACAC to right of (E)

Eminent Domain — Your Property Rights Subject To “The Common Good”, Feb. 15, 2008

Here’s an example of a politician clear in his opposition of civil rights.

“I think that the public good trumps private interests” - Maurice Cox quoted in “Democracy in design: Maurice Cox champions a traditional ideal to solve modern urban problems” by Will Goldsmith, Jan. 15, 2008, C-ville Weekly. Cox, who happens to be black, was city councilor 1996-2004 here in Charlottesville, Va.

My blog documents examples of extreme media bias locally on eminent domain issues and holds people accountable by snitching on them. Why don’t newspapers give sources and dates anymore? So you can’t verify the info, because the info is urban legends told by officials. They all believe everybody’s equal–of course, some are more equal than others. They all support civil rights for themselves and their loved ones. In a twist of history, the politicians fall victim of the One Drop Rule: one drop of black blood means you’re black, the group most at-risk of eminent domain abuse (due process violation).

If you oppose one right for one person, that makes you a civil rights opponent. You don’t have to say you oppose equal rights. Let your actions do the talking. One bank robbery means you oppose having a safe place for people to store their money.