Sunday, April 25, 2010

Downtown Mall gives up secrets

(Photos Albemarle County Historical Society)

Charlottesville, Va.—At an April 12 forum, former City Councilor George Gilliam remembered when half a city block burned down at Central Place on the Downtown Mall. A central park a block away was being considered but the fire burned with it the need for condemnation.

The fire occurred Thursday evening Aug. 9, 1973 and consumed five businesses: a restaurant, Hallmark Card Shop, Carmichael Shoe Repair, Kirby’s Jewelers and McCrory’s variety store. The offices of WVIR-TV and WELK radio were temporarily evacuated.

The 3-alarm blaze raged from 8:25 p.m. until 12:30 a.m. with 80 firemen from 8 engine companies and 2 truck companies, some overcome by smoke and heat. Flames leapt 50 feet into the sky. It was the worst fire since 1968 when a furniture store burned, according to Fire Chief Julian Taliaferro. A crowd estimated in the thousands watched the action from behind rope barricades (“Five businesses in Charlottesville destroyed by fire” (AP) Friday Aug. 10, 1973, Page 11, The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, Virginia).

“John Graham McCrorey opened his first store in Scottdale, Pennsylvania, in 1882… Born with the last name "McCrorey", the owner legally changed his name, dropping the e, to save money by not paying the cost of the extra letter in store signs… McCrory had only 200 remaining stores in December 2001, when the company announced that all stores would be shuttered permanently by February 2002.” (Wikipedia)

At the latest mall forum, Beth Meyer asks about the reaction when Central Place burned down in the middle of architectural drawings. Another site was being considered a block away on the other side of Paramount Theater. No name of any business was mentioned in the exchange. Meyer commented, in the research of this story, many things don’t make sense.

Gilliam reacts: “There was a decision that was made very quickly and easily. It avoided any notion of having to go through condemnation or do any of that. So I think there was a small restaurant, kind of a greasy spoon there, there was a kitchen that started it.” Charles Barbour agrees in the background.

(Charlottesville Tomorrow podcast, Central Place question at Minute 53:40 || “Former Councilors share memories of early days of Downtown Mall”, Apr. 13, 2010, Charlottesville Tomorrow.)

The idea of a central place on the downtown mall must have evolved from plans for a park at each end of the mall. One park is cheaper than two. Those sketches are on display at the Downtown City Space, the old Social Security offices in the Market St. parking garage. The controversial vote to approve the mall came six months later in Feb. 1974. The first 5 blocks were completed June 1976.

It seems, at every forum, a little more history comes out. At the 2006 forum commemorating the Mall’s 30th anniversary, the public opposition and economic cleansing aspect were talked about. It was news because it hadn’t been talked about for so long that the public came to think the mall had always been popular.

At the latest forum, the speakers, former mayors and councilors, Francis Fife, Charles Barbour, and George Gilliam made it clear they were aware that most downtown businesses would leave within ten years but it took 20 years for the mall to become successful with new tenants.

One reason downtown was failing is the population drop because downtown neighborhoods were “redeveloped.” There’s not enough foot traffic to make a grocery store profitable.

Among other things, the Mall was an abstention controversy. It’s now easier to say “not able to vote” than “abstain.” The conflicts of interest, according to then-Attorney General, were bona fide conflicts. The three unable to vote served on banks, which served as trustees for the Downtown store owners.

The controversy is that a minority vote by Council moved the project forward. The same attorney general ruled the minority vote to be a legal mandate. Of course to the common man, it looks like there was not majority support in or out of Council. Descriptions like “heated public opposition” by Gilliam seem to confirm.

It’s also easier to say “scattered site housing” than public housing. Local public housing has most of its growth and opposition in the 1970s.

Remember the podcast is oral history. We all have a tendency to omit things that might make us look bad. Fife was not just a bank employee. He was the president of Virginia National which formed 1963 when People’s Bank (formed 1875) merged with a Norfolk bank. In addition to being trustees, banks also hold mortgages not just Downtown, but elsewhere. Peoples’ claim to fame was it turned a profit during the Great Depression and had many small account holders.

Barbour said great changes occurred in the 1970s. It was a transformational decade. He listed the mayors responsible: Van Yahres 1970-72, Fife 1972-74, Barbour 1974-76. This period (1970-78) was the demolition madness. More old and historic buildings fell than at any other time, not just Warehouse District and Midway School, but West Main and scattered about. During these years, Vinegar Hill was vacant except for McIntire Road.

In context, the Mall seems a distraction from much bigger changes. Thanks to the forum participants who asked tough questions and shared memories.

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

“Rebricking of Downtown Mall stirs memories”, Dec. 26, 2008.

Revenue Sharing Summit: More city-county cooperation

Charlottesville, Va.—The City Council, Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, and the two school boards and superintendents met Saturday to discuss revenue sharing. The county board members each represent an electoral district whereas the city boards are at-large and each member represents the entire city.

On July 12, city and county school board staff will meet to develop a “project charter” of ideas for greater cooperation, cost savings and how to move forward. The school boards will discuss the report at a meeting in early fall. Several small groups were formed to study consolidating schools and social services to address the problem of students moving back and forth between city and county and having to change school each time.

The four bodies will meet again in a year to discuss any progress or lack of progress. Even though the city and county share more services than most communities, the strategy is to increase cooperation instead of addressing the unfairness of the 1982 revenue sharing agreement and the state’s composite index for funding the schools.

Under the agreement, the county purchases the city’s annexation rights. This year the county paid $18 million, 10% of its real estate taxation, for the city not to annex. But when the state computes how much school funding to give each locality, the payment is not counted as city income. So last year the County School Board asked state representatives to change state law to make the school funding formula more fair.

The moderator of the summit, Delegate David Toscano introduced but later withdrew the bill when city constituents demanded the double benefit continue: revenue from county for general expenses and extra school funding. Toscano would not say if he would re-introduce the bill in 2011 if the county makes the request. He represents the city and county’s urban ring.

Delegate Rob Bell, whose district includes northern Albemarle, carried the bill.

Also at the summit was State Senator Creigh Deeds, who has kept a low profile in this debate. He said Virginia is the only state where cities are independent of the surrounding counties.

County School Board Member Brian Wheeler wanted to take off the table the possibility the county would seek to re-introduce the bill in 2011. But there were objections and no agreement.

The two sides of the issue were made clear late in the two-hour meeting.

Councilor Kristin Szakos said the issue is divisive because the county wants to take $2.8 million from city schools.

She was quickly rebuffed by Supervisor Ken Boyd and County School Board Chairman Ronnie Price. They said it’s a fairness issue. The city is actually taking money from county schools, in addition to the revenue sharing, which could be going to county schools.

The panel spent some time talking about how city and county schools could share purchasing. If they bought supplies as one customer, they could get a bulk discount. Then someone pointed out that they already share purchasing. And County School Superintendent Pam Moran confirmed.

There was consensus that similar meetings in the past were all show and talk but nothing becomes of it. That could be the outcome of this meeting.

The History

On March 21, 2010, three former City Councilors wrote an editorial in The Daily Progress to inform newcomers “a few facts” about the 1982 agreement. (“Revenue sharing—how it came to this: A brief history between Charlottesville and Albemarle”) The authors were Nancy O’brien (Councilor 1976-1980), Elizabeth B. Gleason (1980-88), and Virginia Daugherty (1992-2000).

(1) “First, the payment to the city is not a gift—it is a legal obligation in exchange for Albemarle maintaining jurisdiction over and receiving taxes from the income producing land adjacent to the city.”

Think about that for a minute. “In exchange for maintaining jurisdiction.” Is the revenue sharing a form of rent? The city really has jurisdiction but rents it to the county? If the county defaults on its legal obligation, it loses territory. The county exists at the pleasure of the city.

(2) “Second, the fact that annexation is no longer allowed is irrelevant to the current discussion.”

Isn’t it relevant? Since annexation is no longer allowed, the city no longer has a right to annex. The General Assembly eliminated that right. So this year the county pays $18 million for the city’s right to annex. But there is no such right. So the county is literally paying for nothing. They’re paying the city to allow them to exist even though the city has no power to take over the county. The city should look to the state to pay for the annexation rights the state has taken away.

(3) “Had it been successfully pursued, the city would be receiving about $25 million from the enlarged tax base.”

So the city claims 72% of the revenues from county land it could have annexed. But there’s a flaw in this logic. City and county taxation and regulation are not equal. Just as higher tax rates limit the tax revenue because people work less when taxes are high, it’s more likely higher city taxes would have meant less development and less value.

(4) “the amount shall not exceed 1 percent of the total locally assessed value of taxable real estate.”

Does that make you feel better in the county? Right now the total county real estate tax is about half of one percent. Yes, the revenue payment cannot exceed double the county’s total property tax this year.

(5) “So fair was it deemed to be that the county voters overwhelmingly approved the agreement in a referendum.”

The vote was 60%. So to end the agreement, all you need is a referendum.

(6) “It is similar to a bond, or, for an individual, a mortgage.”

Not really. Maybe a mortgage where the owner changes every two years, every time’s there’s an election. Each time a new person buys the house, they can negotiate new terms of payment and interest.

(7) “Annexation requests could not be made any more frequently than every ten years.”

That statement contradicts the chart and other evidence. The chart shows annexations in 1963 and 1968. Mayor Mitch Van Yahres was holding closed City Council meetings in 1971 to discuss how and what to annex. According to Van Yahres at a 2006 forum, his attempt to annex Fashion Square and Pantops Shopping Center was rejected by the courts, the last attempted annexation before the state-wide moratorium.

The three authors of this editorial reference a history book commissioned 1976 by the Albemarle County Historical Society, Albemarle, Jefferson’s County 1727-1976 by John Hammond Moore. Below are the pages that talk about annexations.

That section is in the chapter called “Race Relations, Annexation, and Rural Change.” The connection between annexation and rural change seems clear—where rural areas become urban, you have annexation. But what has it to do with race relations?

In the 1850s and 1860s, blacks outnumbered whites in Albemarle County including the town of Charlottesville. The 1870s and 1880s saw such rapid growth that the town incorporated as a city in 1888. Then things went downhill for blacks. The black vote was diluted with every annexation. Then as now whites settled the suburbs, which would soon be annexed.

A 1920 referendum approved the at-large city manager form of government ending the 12-member bicameral Council system with an elected mayor. Now the 51% white majority could consistently outvote the black minority with devastating results.

1982 Revenue Sharing Agreement, includes all 9 pages, table of payments, and the formula.

Revenue Sharing speech 2000 and summary of Blair Hawkins campaign for city council

City-County joint venture Jefferson Madison Regional Library ("Post Office Sale Signed," Oct. 11, 1977, The Daily Progress)

Friday, April 16, 2010

Second Tax Day Tea Party

Henry Lee of Nelson County creates disturbance

Charlottesville, Va.- The Jefferson Area Tea Party held its second annual tax day protest at the main post office on U.S. 29 North, the Cpl. Bradley T. Arms Post Office, slated to be closed.

Of the four counter-protesters, only one was asked to leave. Radio talk host Rob Schilling captured the verbal altercation on video. ("Free speech: Liberal hippie goes ballistic at Charlottesville Tax Day Tea Party")

Lee and Schilling face off

Carol Thorpe, President Jefferson Area Tea Party

Monday, April 12, 2010

Newspaper suppresses Jefferson School history

Jefferson School 1865-2002, this incarnation 1926

Charlottesville, Va.—Today’s Daily Progress updates the redevelopment and preservation of the traditionally all-black Jefferson School. The front-page article repeats, almost verbatim, the historical myth of a controversial 2007 article.

Despite a letter to the editor to assert 1865 as the earliest Jefferson School, a call to the editor where she rejected the letter as “fact-based,” and a speech to read the letter at City Council, the Progress continues to imply that the first Jefferson School dates back to 1894. Yes it does, but it goes further back than that. They never say 1894 is the first or original. By omitting the previous 29 years, the foundational years, the Progress official policy is to minimize the legacy of Jefferson School.

In 2007 the Progress could have claimed an omission or mistake, that they simply didn’t know about the 2006 Historical Society article or the 1976 book, both detailing the 1865 origins, or the blogs, speeches and pamphlets ongoing since 2000. Now that they know, it makes no difference.

The omission of history is clear. But what’s the motive? How does the Daily Progress benefit, how does anyone benefit by denying the first three decades of Jefferson School? Why are they doing it?

That piece of history is yet to be revealed.

“Jefferson School set for rezone” by Rachana Dixit, Apr. 11, 2010, The Daily Progress.

“The Jefferson School was built in 1926, adjacent to the old Jefferson Graded Elementary School that was constructed in 1894. The newer building functioned as an all-black high school until 1951, when it was converted into an elementary.

The school was closed 13 years later. It then was primarily used as classroom and office space, as well as for housing preschool and Piedmont Virginia Community College programs. The school shuttered its doors for good in 2002.”

“Jefferson renovations to begin in summer” by Rachana Dixit, Oct. 28, 2009, The Daily Progress”.

“The school was built in 1926, adjacent to the old Jefferson Graded Elementary School that was constructed in 1894. The newer building functioned as an all-black high school until 1951, when it was converted into an elementary.

Thirteen years later it was closed, and then was primarily used as classroom and office space as well as housing preschool and Piedmont Virginia Community College programs. The school shuttered its doors for good in 2002.”

“City mindful of preserving Jefferson School legacy” by Seth Rosen, July 5, 2007, The Daily Progress.

“The Jefferson School was built in 1926, adjacent to the old Jefferson Graded Elementary School, constructed in 1894. The newer building functioned as an all-black high school until 1951, when it was converted into an elementary.

Thirteen years later it was closed, and then was primarily used as classroom and office space, as well as housing preschool and Piedmont Virginia Community College programs. The building was shuttered for good in 2002.”

“Origins of Jefferson School and Public Education in Virginia” by Blair Hawkins, Dec. 4, 2006. Excerpts pages 230 to 234 in Albemarle: Jefferson’s County, 1727-1976. John Hammond Moore, 1976. The Albemarle County Historical Society.

“Jefferson School: The Original Model for Public Education in Virginia” by Blair Hawkins, July 16, 2007. Letter to the editor delivered as speech before City Council and copies handed out at meeting.

“2007: The Jefferson School Rule” by Blair Hawkins, Jan. 5, 2008. Includes timeline of links.

Historical Marker at site of 1894 (fourth) schoolhouse. The marker mentions Freedmen's schools in 1860s but doesn't distinguish Jefferson.

1960 Vinegar Hill photo shows 1894 school at (E).

Site of first Jefferson School at 632 West Main in the Starr Hill neighborhood.

Site of 2nd and 3rd Jefferson Schools. In 1866 classes moved from Colored First Baptist Church (left) next door to Union Barracks when troops returned to the North. These barracks were torn down and a new Jefferson School built 1869.

Union Depot (Wild Wings Cafe)