A history/analysis of the Downtown Mall produced by Karl Krause as part of the 2010 exhibition “More Than Just Bricks. The Social and Design History of the Charlottesville Mall Designed By Lawrence Halprin Associates, 1973-1976”
Main Street, where the DTM is now, was one of the main colonial routes in Virginia from the 1730s; part of Jack Jouett’s famous ride and the Marquis de Lafayette’s efforts to prevent Gen. Charles Cornwallis from obtaining munitions took place along this road.
Downtown Mall timeline: 1912 to 2011
October 21, 1912– the Jefferson Theater, Main Street’s first entertainment venue, opens.
October 1959– Barracks Road Shopping Center opens with its acres of free parking, so Downtown Merchants create the Charlottesville Parking Center,
1962– Vinegar Hill, just past the western end of today’s Downtown Mall– for many years the center of local African-American business and life– is razed in the name of “urban renewal.”
September 1970– Charlottesville’s stretch of Interstate 64 opens, so travelers and truckers no longer need Main Street.
January 22, 1974: Alvin Clements, then president of the Citizens Bank, in his role as chairman of the Central City Commission, returns to the city council with a slimmed down version of the Downtown Mall, necessitated by Council’s November 19, 1973 vote (Yea: Fife, Gilliam, Rinehart—Nay: Van Yahres and Barbour) to cut $1 million from the original funding. See Video:
February 7, 1974– To revitalize a dying downtown, City Council votes to turn five blocks of Main into a pedestrian mall. The next day, they break ground on the City’s $2.4 million Market Street Parking Garage. Within days, the Paramount Theater, a 43-year-old Main Street movie palace, announces it will close.
January 1, 1975– Barricades are erected to block traffic, businesses brace, and excavation for underground utility vaults begins.
July 3, 1976– As the the last brick is laid at Central Place, presidential daughter Lynda Bird Johnson Robb and her husband, the pre-political-office Chuck Robb, speak at the opening.
March 5, 1980– Fashion Square Mall opens and will eventually lure such downtown anchors as Miller & Rhoads and Leggett.
August 1981– In a former drug store, actor Steve Tharp establishes Miller’s, Charlottesville’s most consistent jazz venue.
Thanksgiving 1982– A spectacular conflagration that destroys antiques-filled Reid’s supermarket draws emergency responders from surrounding counties who manage to keep the fire from consuming the entire Mall block between east Second and Third streets.
December 1983– Because the Mall’s not booming, City Council decides to build a hotel– so it doubles the hotel tax from 2 to 4 percent and creates a 3 percent meals tax.
1985– Council creates the Downtown Architectural Design Control District and its regulatory arm, the Board of Architectural Review.
May 1, 1985– At a total cost of around $20 million– including $700,000 to extend the Mall two blocks west– the City opens its own seven-story, 209-room Radisson Hotel (soon sold at a steep loss and re-branded the Omni).
Spring 1988– The first “Fridays After Five” concert happens.
Late 1980s– Eugene, Oregon; Kalamazoo, Michigan; and Fayetteville, North Carolina are among the dozens of cities digging up their failed pedestrian malls.
January 27, 1990– An unknown man stomps Michael Wayne Lively to death in a bar in the current Bizou space, and the “Fat City murder” casts a pall over revitalization efforts.
May 1990– A mysterious fire wipes out the building housing Charlottesville Appliance Company and signals the coming end of the Mall’s nuts-and-bolts businesses.
Spring 1990- While bartending at Miller’s aspiring musician David John Matthews first hears drummer Carter Beauford, saxophone player Leroi Moore play, and bassist Stephan Lessard play jazz with John D’earth and company.
December 21, 1991– The Carmike sixplex theater opens on Route 29 North. (The difficulty of finding it would inspire a recent California arrival named Lee Danielson to build a theater of his own on the Downtown Mall.)
November 1993– The 692-space Water Street Parking Garage opens, and the City reaffirms its commitment to downtown by investing $4.9 million in the $7.7-million first phase of the structure.
June 1994– City crews finish the $1.5 million eastern Mall extension which includes a grassy amphitheater and a tunnel to the 20-month-old headquarters of the Michie Company (today’s Lexis-Nexis).
June 6, 1994– In his first victory in City Council, Danielson rents a few square feet of the Mall for a news kiosk he’s building.
August 15, 1994– Ten days after sign-carrying protesters urging “Save the Mall,” Council approves Danielson’s request: a Second Street West auto crossing.
November 10, 1994– Eighteen years after its conversion to one-way status, City planners celebrate the return of Water Street to two-way traffic. Concurrently, officials cut the ribbon on improvements to Third Street SE. Mortarless concrete pavers, trees, and underground power lines cost three adjacent property owners $76,000 of the total $369,000 total.
November 30, 1995– York Place, an upscale 20-apartment/11-retailer complex, opens in the shell of the former Rose’s making Chuck Lewis the Mall’s top residential landlord.
April 15, 1996– City Council approves $75,000 to replace mortar between the bricks on the Mall.
May 1, 1996– Mayor David Toscano cuts the ribbon on Danielson’s $4 million Charlottesville Ice Park.
August 28, 1996– A few months before the opening of the Regal Cinema, which spurred its creation, the first Mall Crossing opens.
May 1, 2006– After business urgings, City crews open another crossing on 4th Street East, but there’s less controversy as it replaces a de facto crossing at nearby 7th Street East, closed in 2004.
December 15, 2004– With Tony Bennett crooning, the Paramount celebrates its gala reopening as a $14-million performing arts venue.
July 30, 2005– The Charlottesville Pavilion opens with the help of Loretta Lynn and pal Sissy Spacek.
October 2005– Former Woolworth’s/Foot Locker space becomes Caspari, an upscale paper products purveyor.
March 26, 2007– The Charlottesville Transit Center opens next door to the Pavilion.
August 20, 2007-Crime on the Downtown Mall becomes a concern for police and city officials. Read More
August 30, 2007-Roof-top fun on the Mall. Read More
March 11, 2008– Bi-coastals Danielson and Halsey Minor break ground on a $30 million, nine-story luxury Landmark hotel.
March 26, 2008– The City installs the Mall’s first recycling bins.
April 15, 2008– After multiple business incarnations, Danielson’s old kiosk is hauled away for scrap. Read more
June 2008–Controversy surrounds $7.5 million brick replacement. Read More
February 2009-The recession, along with the brick replacement project, hits the Mall and store vacancies become more visible.
October 25, 2009-Downtown Mall designer Lawrence Halprin dies at 93. Along with Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall in 1976, Halprin designed the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, DC, in 1997, Sea Ranch in Sonoma County, California, in 1967, and Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco in 1968. When Charlottesville rebricked the Mall in 2008, Halprin weighed in against changing the size of the bricks, and his advice ultimately was heeded. Halprin received the Thomas Jefferson Medal in architecture from UVA.
June 2010-Squatters begin to occupy abandoned Landmark Hotel project. Read More
June 30, 2011-Controversy erupts over panhandling on the Downtown Mall. Read More.
–Hawes Spencer, Coy Barefoot, Dave McNair
Some special design Features of Lawrence Halprin’s Downtown Mall
Street section: In place of a central street separated from two sidewalks by a curb and gutter, Lawrence Halprin & Associates created a continuous paved surface with a subtle micro-topographic depression, a narrow linear swale tilted toward small area drains, all within the space of the old street curb and gutters.
Surface material: The primary material is a 4 x 12” utility brick that was widely used in streets and alleys across American before the popularization of macadam or asphalt. This large brick is scaled to the landscape, and is differentiated from the smaller bricks of surrounding historic buildings. Concrete bands define key places along the Mall; these were a cost-saving substitute for granite that was originally specified.
Street ceiling: The street floor is subdivided into rooms through the placement of closely spaced bosques of trees, willow oaks, aligned along three rows. The three lines of trees are not continuous however. Only two rows of trees fill the space between building facades at any given moment; south side and center, center and north side, these bosques move back and forth altering the spaces in-between.
Spatial sequence: The staccato, hip-hop placement of tree trunks in space choreographs and frames the movement of people and service vehicles. Shoppers and strollers weave back and forth across the Mall, in a pattern that maximizes storefront exposure and enables unexpected encounters with friends and colleagues. Pragmatically, it also allows for a meandering fire access lane.
Street furnishings: This simple urban room—a ceiling of fine-textured leaves and horizontal branches and a floor of over-size bricks—has a few designed elements within it, lights, planters, fountains and benches. Unlike many “streetscape” projects, the Mall does not have “off the shelf” street furnishings that would make it appear like hundreds of other projects across the country. Lawrence Halprin & Associates designed these elements in-house, sometimes based on details seen abroad. For instance, the squat metal planters on the Mall are similar to planter pots in Copenhagen as seen in Halprin’s book, Cities (p 66). The result is a designed landscape that was contemporary and particular, yet fitting its historic context.
Side streets and extensions: Lawrence Halprin & Associates designed several alternatives for the Mall’s twelve side streets and ends, as well as elaborate fountain plazas for the east and west end of Main Street. None were constructed in the mid-1970s when Halprin was involved. The western end by the new Omni Hotel and Ice Park has since been extended to Water Street. Since 2000, The Monument to Free Speech , the Transit Center , and Pavilion were constructed to the east of the Mall. Three side streets have been redesigned primarily for pedestrians and four side streets for vehicles. All of these continue Halprin’s vision for extending the Mall beyond Main Street, but do so with a different design vocabulary from the original.
By Lydia Brandt, a Ph.D. student in Architectural History at the University of Virginia, and a board member of Preservation Piedmont, and Elizabeth K. Meyer, FASLA, an Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Virginia School of Architecture.
More than a Mall: A Guide to Historic Downtown Charlottesville
If you haven’t had a chance to check this research project by the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society and the UVA School of Architecture, under the guidance of Prof. Daniel Bluestone, well, you’ve been missing out on one of the most comprehensive studies of the DTM. Click Here
In April 2010, former City Councilors Charles Barbour, Francis Fife, and George Gilliam led a discussion/question and answer session concerning the creation of the DTM and its early history. You can listen to a 1-hour podcast of the event here, created by Charlottesville Tomorrow.
That’s So Pedestrian: The Pedestrian Mall Still Succeeds in the American College Town
Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall Offers Chain-Free Shopping (of course, this was before Urban Outfitters arrived)