During my first year in Charlottesville, I enjoyed exploring the Downtown Mall – a place dubbed “Charlottesville’s Public Square” by the Daily Progress and “one of the most beautiful urban parks in the country” on the city’s website. However, like other mall visitors, I realized that there was a lack of adequate public seating. The reputation of the Downtown Mall as an inclusive public space in the city is diminished by the uncomfortable lack of public benches – a result of the ongoing privatization of public space in the mall and the demonization of marginalized groups in the community.
Lawrence Halprin, the renowned landscape architect who designed the Downtown Mall, has been described by the New York Times as “the tribal elder in American landscape architecture.” He designed the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, DC, and art critic Ada Louise Huxtable praised a Halprin-designed square in Portland as “one of the most important urban spaces since the Renaissance.”
Another architecture critic, Benjamin Forgey, wrote: “All Halprin designs reflect this passion of giving people as many opportunities as possible, to go this or that path, to reverse direction, to pause, to start over, to be alone, others and to experience as many different sights, smells and sounds as the location allows. “
So Halprin knew the importance of plenty of public seating – that’s why the mall had 150 movable chairs that were available to the public when it opened in 1976. However, as University Professor Elizabeth Meyer has pointed out, the mall has since become “privatized”, now more of a “commercial space than a public space,” despite the fact that it was paid for with public money. In the magazine for Albemarle County History, landscape architect Nathan Foley suggests the reduced “[f]Flexibility and democratic use of the mall’s spaces, “which was previously offered by public seating, possibly the greatest deviation between Halprin’s original design and today’s Downtown Mall. As the mall’s “most open and public spaces” have been “colonized as private café space,” he writes, pedestrians are forced to either crouch on or buy from private facilities.
This departure from Halprin’s original intent makes the Charlottesville public square less welcoming and more exclusive. Urban resident Matthew Gillikin has described traveling to the Downtown Mall as “challenging” as there is a lack of places for him and his children to “stop and rest”. For residents like Gillikin – and especially the elderly and disabled – seating is essential to enjoy the mall. However, Gillikin has estimated that the mall has about 25 public seats and 1,200 private seats. To require the full enjoyment of the space by purchasing something from one of the commercial buildings goes against its reputation as an integrative public space and, as Professor Meyer postulates, would cause Halprin to be “a bit concerned about the close group of people in the” city, who feels at home ”.
At a meeting of the Charlottesville Human Rights Commission in April, Commission chairwoman Mary Bauer asked if there had been more benches in the Downtown Mall before. Vice-Chair Kathryn Laughon responded that there had been a decline in public seating in 2012 to “reduce the use of the Downtown Mall by people without stable accommodation” and that “restaurants have increasingly invaded the Downtown Mall area, so.” that really, there is no public space. ”
After removing many benches in 2012, the Charlottesville Parks and Recreation Department sent a request to the Charlottesville Board of Architectural Review to replace the remaining wooden chairs with uncomfortable, backless metal chairs – a form of hostile architecture designed to deter the homeless and loitering. This motion was unanimously rejected by the BAR on the grounds that such benches are inconsistent with Halprin’s original intent and make the mall less pleasant for those who cannot or do not want to spend money.
While the BAR’s decision was fair, the mall’s ongoing seating problem remains, making it a less welcoming and inclusive space than it should be. Professor Meyer notes that Halprin’s “general sense of his vision and how things are changing” is [that] he wanted places that would last, and it wasn’t about whether it was his design or not, but how it was loved and lived. ”The lack of public seating certainly prevents the mall from being loved and fully lived. The fact that the Downtown Mall has been stripped of Halprin’s more open and democratic design elements to deter the destitute should not please anyone who views the Downtown Mall as a public space that welcomes all members of the community.
Robert McCoy is an opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at [email protected]
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns only represent the views of the authors.