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Charlottesville Downtown Mall named to National Register of Historic Places

In the runup to its 50th year, Charlottesville’s downtown pedestrian mall has been named to the National Register of Historic Places, a mostly honorary designation but one that might abet its preservation.

"The Downtown Mall is worthy of care," University of Virginia landscape architecture professor Elizabeth Meyer told The Daily Progress. "It’s a significant public space."

The National Register is maintained by the National Park Service, which added the Mall to the list on Feb. 5, about eight months after the Mall was added to Virginia’s historic registry.

"There aren’t a lot of projects that get listed on the National Register when they’re just 50 years old, so that tells a lot," said Meyer.

The Mall hasn’t turned 50 just yet. Its first five blocks opened in the summer of 1976 after years of contention, including a City Council vote marked by the abstention of three councilors deemed too invested to offer a conflict-free vote. What had been a motor-centric roadway was converted — via underground utilities, thousands of bricks and stands of young willow oak trees — into a place where pedestrians were given precedence.

"Streets are our most fundamental public spaces," said Meyer. "That’s how we move and how we get fresh air."

The Mall was designed by Lawrence Halprin & Associates, a firm that had won praise for creating lively a outdoor space outside a former San Francisco chocolate factory. That project, Ghirardelli Square, along with several interactive water features in other American cities, cemented Halprin’s national renown.

Ironically, Meyer said, Charlottesville leaders later marred the water features Halprin designed for the Downtown Mall by surrounding the fountains with bollards and chains. She contends that these could be safely removed by adding texturized strips to surrounding surfaces to warn the blind and distracted.

Other changes to Halprin’s Mall design include the removal of most of the original 150 chairs and benches he had intended for the space. Meyer cited this as evidence of a "meanness" that deprives people who are not paying customers the opportunity to sit and enjoy a public space operated as a park by the city of Charlottesville.

"You can tell a lot about a city by who has the right to be in their public spaces," said Meyer, paraphrasing the late French philosopher Henri Lefebvre.

Tidying a Mall storefront on a recent weekday morning, longtime mall-goer Keith Andes agreed.

"Homeless people are going to sleep wherever they can, so that isn’t going to stop them from sleeping somewhere," Andes told The Daily Progress. "They should have never taken them out."

Andes said that he would purchase tools at Charlottesville Hardware Company, a defunct business whose site became the Hardware Store Restaurant, one the first new eateries after the Mall’s creation.

"If I needed something or my boss needed something like drill bits," recalled Andes, "I would come in here."

The Mall was born in an era when suburbs were widely seen as the new centers of commerce, and from the Mall’s earliest days, critics were urging its removal. Meyer celebrates what she says the new designation signifies.

"It’s a reminder that there was a fantastically talented design team and there was a vision of the city staff and citizens that realized they needed to be proactive after a pretty bad decade and a half of urban renewal practices and urban flight out to Barracks Road Shopping Center," she said.

If the Mall seemed stagnant in its first decade, the 1990s were more fertile. Near the Omni hotel on the Mall’s western end, developers opened a multiplex movie theater, an ice rink and an upscale apartment building. Meanwhile, the city built a precursor to the Ting pavilion, helped fund a new parking deck, bricked some side streets and extended the Mall’s eastern end. Such moves furthered the Mall’s focus from traditional retail toward boutiques, dining and entertainment.

While a debate may rage over whether to credit public or private investments for the Mall’s eventual popularity, Meyer said her late colleague William Lucy offered a less obvious theory.

"He attributed the success to shade," said Meyer, explaining that it took nearly two decades for the trees to grow large enough to form a canopy.

"He said that before shade nobody wanted to be down there from the end of May to the beginning of October," said Meyer, "so you didn’t have the café culture."

But now, said Meyer, the nonpaying public has been sidelined by the ever-present cafés.

"They add a lot of life," she said, "but there is a tipping point when the Mall feels extremely privatized."

One man enjoying a shady café on a recent weekday was the mayor, Juandiego Wade, who said he’s open to discussions about chairs and cafés and preserving trees injured by space heaters. He said that he’s thrilled by the Mall’s addition to the nation’s historic registry.

"I’m really excited," Wade told The Daily Progress. "It lets the public know what we know: that this is a gem — but now it’s a national gem."


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