Friday, December 26, 2008

Rebricking of Downtown Mall stirs memories

Charlottesville, Va.—A $7 million program to rebrick the Downtown Mall has begun and is projected to be completed 5 months later in May 2009. The original bricking of Main Street took 18 months and was completed June 1976 from First to Sixth Street East. It was expanded west in 1981 two more blocks (where Miller's and Mudhouse are now), and later farther west in front of the Omni Hotel to Water St. and east to the Pavilion, and now on some side streets and Court Square.

Some City Council video from the original debate is now available on YouTube. The video shows some newspaper articles where you can read the headlines. To my knowledge, the articles are not online anywhere for you to read in depth and confirm that they actually state the content paraphrased in the video uploaded by Steve Ashby.

Part 1: 8 min 52 sec
Part 2: 9 min 37 sec

Here’s my comment posted Dec. 26 to ”The Original Downtown Mall Debate”, Dec. 20, 2008

Selective history buffs won't like what I've said about the Downtown Mall. Before the Mall was even finished, the police confiscated my bike for 30 days when I was 11 years old. Now police routinely ride bikes on the Mall.

For some, the bricking of the Mall was strike 3 in Charlottesville's "Downtown Renewal." Vinegar Hill early '60s and Garrett Street south downtown clearance 1972 (other parts '76, '77), Mall vote 2-0-3 in Feb. 1974. (Charles Barbour & Mitch Van Yahres for; Francis Fife, Jill Rhinehart, George Gilliam abstain.) The vote itself indicates less than overwhelming support at the time.

In the video clips, Barbour hints at the intense opposition by saying some votes have been easy while others were controversial. Van Yahres hints at the 2 neighboring urban renewal projects by saying the Mall is in a broader context. Fife hints at the controversy of a minority vote justifying the project when he mentions the attorney general ruling.

Downtown businesses were charged a fee or special assessment of a half million dollars in addition to the $2.5 mil general funds. Barbour & Van Yahres wanted to spend $3.5 mil. I don't know the cost overruns and delays. As I recall but can't yet document, the oversized bricks were chosen to save money and were not part of the original design as peole are saying today. It's often hard to separate fact from legend.

The economic downturn of 2008 shows why the Mall was a bad idea. In the '70s the Mall had upscale restaurants and boutique stores. But there were also greasy spoons, department stores and Five & Dime stores. According to Alvin Clements, banker on the original commission to design the Mall, the goal was to tranform downtown into all boutiques stores with residences on the upper floors. When you reduce the economic diversity of an area, it's less able to weather changing economic conditions. When people stop buying luxury items, they have no option to buy more cheaply downtown. The reduced diversity of businesses is why the Mall is suffering so much in today's recession

It's interesting to go back and compare what was happening then with what people say today was happening back then. The Mall didn't save downtown. Most of the businesses and department stores left after the Mall. In the '80s Main St. was a ghost town. It found its niche in the '90s and came back but not to its former glory or importance.

Sometimes, decades later, the high rollers intimately involved with a project will remember how it really was, instead of what they were saying at the time. The June 30, 2006 forum at City Hall on the 30th anniversary of the completion of the Mall is such an example.

"The men behind the mall: we did it to save downtown", Jul. 1, 2006. Alvin Clements articulates the economic cleansing purpose of the Mall. Van Yahres talks about his contemporaneous, attempted annexation abuses blocked by the courts. Cole Hendrix remembers, when the Mall was built, first 2 department stores left, then little by little they all left downtown.

I saw the Young Men's Shop owner in the video. They stayed after the Mall, then finally moved out to the shopping centers, and in the last few years moved back to the Mall. So things go in cycles.

Did you notice "Jeremiah Johnson" was playing at the Paramount? Jeremiah was living way up in the mountains because civilization was so uninviting and unjust. Today the movie might be a symbol of the exodus of longtime residents. Of course beneficiaries of "civilization" and newcomers have a different perspective.


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