Monticello Road is a community arts project in Charlottesville, Virginia. Through photography and a series of public events and conversations, we explore how an art can be an essential, integral and everyday part of a healthy community.

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Friday, December 30, 2016

Overcoming the Obduracy of the Status Quo

Route 20 was widened and Interstate 64 was built to help people get around, yet they make it difficult and unsafe for pedestrians and cyclists to get to Monticello. Bridging that barrier poses difficulties that are physical, psychological and bureaucratic.

This essay warns that plans to mitigate obdurate and problematic infrastructure can themselves become resistant to input and improvement. Yet, a visioning process that truly listens has the potential create positive change.

Anique Hommels illuminates a fundamental question facing planners who wish to change the world: the built environment—especially infrastructure—has a powerful incumbency that makes it very challenging to displace or modify. Aside from the broader truth that the status quo always has home-field advantage, one must reckon with issues of cost, interdependency with other systems, inconvenience and disruption but also the idea that physical forms shape human processes and thinking.

In my Monticello project, I am trying to find a way to get pedestrians safely past an interstate in general and a cloverleaf interchange in particular. That highway is a powerful fact-on-the ground that cannot be ignored: it is the prevailing reality. There will be costs and perhaps inconvenience associated with rejiggering the ramps to make them safe. However, I foresee a trickier social process problem in convincing the state’s highway engineers to modify their traditional approach—for example by substituting a right-angle turn for a cloverleaf or even adding a new light, crosswalk or stop sign. That’s not how they do things; it’s not in their protocols.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Planning Profession Context and Logic Model for Monticello Road Extended

The following text is from a paper I wrote for my Independent Study Project on re-connecting Charlottesville to Monticello for pedestrians and cyclists.

Old Monticello Road will be one option the team will explore to reconnect Monticello to Charlottesville.

There are many different lenses through which planners view the practice and even more ways to attack difficult problems. This essay frames my Monticello Connectivity project within the discipline and finishes by considering my own role. In between I describe the logic model I use to chart a path from resources at hand to beneficial social outcomes.

Planning in the Public Interest

Peter Marcuse describes three major planning currents (and sub-currents) along a continuum of faith in—or deference to—institutional power. One could argue for many hours—and some people do just that—about the appropriate setting for that dial but it ultimately comes down to the planner’s sensibilities.

Within his formulation, this project would be described as Social Reform Planning or planning in the public interest. It works with existing institutions to make the world better for a broad majority of the population, while harming very few if anyone,1 as opposed to focusing primarily on either the maintenance of social order or the uplift of the oppressed.

My approach shades into Advocacy Planning because I believe that the institutional actors need to modify their approach. As I will eventually argue in my pre-assessment document,2 the project cannot happen without regional cooperation beyond what we typically see and the result cannot be just without a very inclusive process. Fortunately, the key stakeholders already agree on these principles: there is both a physical need and a need for process reform. This project will address both.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A Challenging Site with Potential

The site is at the SE corner of Monticello and Carlton Roads. (Charlottesville GIS)

The Belmont Carlton Neighborhood Association received a visit from Christopher Henry of Stony Point Design/Build. He was there to talk about an idea—still very much in the preliminary stage—of developing a small cluster of lots totaling about 2/3 acre at the corner of Carlton and Monticello Roads. This blog visited that site a few years ago on a backyard biophilia safari.

Before I go any further, I would like to praise Mr Henry for two things that, should it go forward, will make the project more likely to succeed with the Planning Commission as well as with its future neighbors.

First of all, he obviously read Charlottesville’s Comprehensive Plan and came up with a project that aligns with the City’s goals and values, particularly as respects diverse housing opportunities. Second, and most important, he’s talking early: meeting with planners and listening to the community BEFORE getting invested in a specific execution or set of plans.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Monticello Road Extended: Update

This project is about much more than transportation infrastructure.
Image courtesy Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

I can finally announce officially that I’m doing an independent study and thesis for my Masters program at UVa about restoring pedestrian and bicycle connectivity from Charlottesville to Monticello (and potentially beyond). Andrew Mondschein will be my advisor. Our goal is to produce a master plan that provides background, lays out the issues and suggests ways forward.

The first phase/ semester will identify issues and stakeholders, map the various spatialities (such as current conditions, land tenure, proposed routes and jurisdictions) and begin to locate resources and funding. I hope to recruit some help during the second semester as we look deeper at the challenges and suggest possible solutions.

I’ve already started the first part. I’ve had some great conversations with a variety of stakeholders and I’ve learned a great deal. For example, it’s now clear to me that this is a regional endeavor and interjurisdictional cooperation will be essential. There are many ideas on the table and various priorities that, while not mutually exclusive, need to be considered in concert so their goals can merge harmoniously. That is why I’m looking deeply at the spatial issues early in the process.

There will be some challenges with respect to infrastructure (i.e. an interstate is blocking the way) but a successful project will bring diverse parties to the table for a coherent, inclusive vision before it puts pen to paper. Only after exploring needs around heritage, connectivity, development, health and wellness can we start crafting solutions.

I find Chris Gensic’s plan to extend Monticello Road compelling, but it’s not the only solution. In fact, it could be argued that it might be better to follow Route 20 (connecting with Piedmont Community College along the way) or the Rivanna River. Maybe Monticello’s not even the final destination—wouldn’t it be cool to extend through Highland, Morven and deep into Albemarle County? Smart people are already working on these and its time to do so in concert.

Even if we decide to settle on the 19th Century route of Monticello Road, it raises the question: "Which 19th Century road to Monticello?"
Image courtesy Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

Similarly, this is an exciting time in which many are reexamining Thomas Jefferson’s legacy both locally and nationally. This project is about much more than a physical trail, but what do we mean when we talk about “reconnecting heritage?” What possibilities exist and what might that discovery process look like?

Not only will this project be profoundly beneficial to the community, it will be a powerful economic driver. That’s exciting but it’s reason for caution as well. This project is about equitable access to a World Heritage Site, but could it have the unintended result of eliminating nearby affordable housing? We’re not sure but we need to pay attention.

Those are just some of the issues and there’s clearly a lot to consider. I will not solve all of it (or maybe any of it) but I hope to create a conversation that coalesces a motivated a coalition to bring a compelling vision to reality.

I’ll keep you updated as the project moves forward.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Reconnecting Heritage: Restoring Pedestrian Access to Monticello

Charlottesville is quite unique in that it boasts one World Heritage Site that sits in two locations: Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village at the University of Virginia and his home at Monticello. The University is located in town and is well connected to the City’s streets and its life. Monticello is just a mile from the city but it’s nearly impossible to reach without a car.

I would like to design a strategic planning process to reconnect Charlottesville and Monticello for pedestrians and cyclists. Such a link will have tremendous economic, health and education benefits, which my plan will explore. It will also build an inclusive vision of heritage and be sensitive to the local environment and social fabric. This project will mobilize support and chart a just path forward.

A Partial Link
The Thomas Jefferson Foundation has already reached part way toward Charlottesville by creating the Saunders-Monticello Trail. This winding two-mile pathway is fully ADA accessible (while climbing a mountain!) and its beauty attracts tremendously diverse visitors (140,000 annually, per TJ Foundation). It is one of the region’s most successful pieces of landscape architecture and on a nice day, its parking lot is often overflowing. Although just past the edge of town, the trail head can only be reached by car, placing both the trail and Monticello out of reach for many. Completing this connection to Charlottesville would not be as difficult as it may seem. In fact, the trip was quite easy not long ago and it could be again soon.

Monticello Road Extended
Monticello Road is a historic street that begins in downtown Charlottesville and extends south until it is unceremoniously truncated by Interstate 64. Back in 2012, as I was working on my Monticello Road community arts project, I made a startling discovery.

Monticello Road continues, hidden, disused and covered with leaves, on the far side of the Interstate. It passes through a magnificent and highly unusual ecosystem surrounding an oxbow of Moore’s Creek trapped by the highway’s construction. The lost road continues past the UVA Foundation’s historic Blue Ridge Hospital, a stunning site in its own right that will eventually become a key part of the regional land use mix. The byway terminates at Michie Tavern, just yards from the Saunders Trail.

This road can and should be brought back into service as a recreational and ecological pathway that is safe and easily accessible for residents and tourists, young and old, athletic and para-ambulatory. This would create an unbroken pathway from the house and gardens of Monticello via Charlottesville’s Downtown Pedestrian Mall to the the University and beyond. Along the way there are abundant opportunities to discover and interpret a rich diverse historical, cultural and ecological patrimony, and to do so in a way that reflects a spectrum of experience.

The project does have some hurdles besides leaf litter on the historic right-of-way. A tunnel will be required under I-64 and a way to get across the Monticello Parkway. Chris Gensic, Charlottesville’s Trail Coordinator, and a champion of the project, has some innovative ideas that are viable and proven in nearby towns. The project would not be free, but the benefits are so enormous that a compelling plan will certainly mobilize support from citizens, government and the foundation and business communities.

Understanding—and Negotiating—the Past
While advocating for the connection, the project will also make the case that it be done in an inclusive way. My work in the community and at the University has taught me that a place is the sum of its physical characteristics and the lives— human and non-human, past and present—that abide there and they are not always easy to untangle.

This project needs to be seen in the broader context of the area’s complicated settlement patterns and the fraught relationship between Thomas Jefferson, his University and the people of Charlottesville. This interstitial zone, resonant with memories, even physical traces (such as a disused quarry) is an excellent opportunity for multi-voice testimony that reflects its dynamic and on-going story. The stunning and tranquil natural setting is highly amenable to contemplation and learning.

Preparing for the Future
The project will be tremendously beneficial but we know that well-intended projects can have unpleasant or even unjust consequences and we must anticipate and prevent those.

For example, the trailhead will sit between two neighborhoods that are sensitive to change: Belmont, which is historically working-class but is seeing tremendous turnover, and Carlton (also known as Hogwaller), which is one of the area’s most challenged communities. This project will certainly have powerful market effects and we cannot allow an otherwise beneficial project to cost people their homes or businesses.

Similarly, the land the trail will traverse is successful and biologically diverse in large part because it has been inaccessible for such a long time. It is mandatory that it be protected, while being available for its educational and restorative offerings.

My project will look closely at socio-economic and ecological impacts and seek creative urban and environmental strategies to assure that we do not create with one hand and destroy with the other. This is not just about cool infrastructure; it’s about making our community better for everyone.

An Inclusive Approach
That triple bottom line (social, economic and ecological) can only be obtained through a broad and inclusive partnership. On the most basic level, even though the route is short, it touches land controlled by Charlottesville, Albemarle County, the Virginia Department of Transportation, the UVA and Thomas Jefferson Foundations and two private land-owners. It is a three-dimensional web with many layers and very complicated.

Fortunately, I will not have to tackle the project alone. Monticello accessibility is already in the City’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan as a proposed “arterial trail corridor.” I have been in conversation with the City about this for some time and am currently interning in the responsible department. This is already penciled into their plans.

I’ve learned many things in my hours along Monticello Road and I can say with confidence that the community is strongly behind the project. I have been building a network of citizens, businesses, civic and religious institutions. I have good connections in the Public Schools, community groups related to fitness, ecology, arts and social justice and a verbal commitment from a significant local Arts and Design organization for institutional backing. The participatory aspect will not be lacking.

The most important resource I have, and the reason I am making this proposal now, is that as a Masters Candidate in the University’s Architecture School, I can also bring the University’s considerable resources, knowledge and design expertise to the problem. My Thesis will provide opportunities and the intellectual space to think this project through with all of its implications.

The students of Clark Elementary School, a Title I school, can see the mansion from their classroom windows yet they cannot get there easily. That needs to be corrected. It is not difficult to imagine a walking field trip in which children will learn their nation’s history, while absorbing local social and ecological context, getting fitter and breathing fresh air. They, like the city as a whole, deserve access to this tremendous resource from their doorstep. Not only will it make the city we have better, but it will help orient future opportunities for economic growth and natural escape squarely within the urban ring, the only real solution to sprawl.

This project will bring stakeholders together around a compelling vision to chart a direction for a profoundly beneficial new resource. One of my favorite things about the project is that although it will be new to us, it will follow a route that is very old. Thomas Jefferson, who could see the University from his porch, would have used a very similar path to get there. We must re-open it.

[Printable [pdf] version of this document]

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Moblizing by Moosifying

It was impossible to choose a best photo from this event but Ms Dogwood dunking the ex-mayor was typical. [more]

In case you ever needed another reason to go Moose’s Restaurant (and there were already plenty), they just did a super-cool fundraiser for the Shelter for Help in Emergency.

The fun unfolded in three parts. They kicked off on Friday (the 13th) with a doughnut eating contest. Saturday morning (the 14th) they had a block party that included music, dancing, a craft fair, a race car you could touch (and pose with) and—best of all—a dunk tank that was extremely busy. Saturday night was a concert at the Jefferson School. The fundraiser netted $3050 and lots of fun and community fellowship.

When I first visited Moose’s (then called Moore’s Creek) I was afraid to go inside 1) because they share a building with a gun shop and 2) because there were a million police cars parked outside. That seemed like a bad combination, but come to find out that the cruisers were there because it’s the best short-order restaurant in Charlottesville. They all stop there on their way into town or between shifts.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Where are the Pictures?

As part of my coursework in Urban and Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia, I am performing a series of GIS (Geographic Information System) analyses of the Monticello Road project. GIS provides empirical data to check (or underscore) what intuition tells us. This is the second of a three-part meta analysis. Previous: Vanishing Landscapes | To Come: Backer Distribution

I often receive process questions about the project, especially as pertains to what parts of the neighborhood I photograph and I how I define the boundaries of the Monticello Road study area.

I typically answer that I consciously limit the project to the street and directly-adjacent properties and I believe that the images will be distributed throughout the length of the street—though not evenly, perhaps clustered around my home or a few places where I spend sedentary time. These responses are logical but not empirical. GIS analysis lets us answer the question with data.

Through the life of the project, I have captured thousands of images, which would have been overwhelming. One of the features of photography is that it not particularly relevant if an image is made; what matters is which images are seen.

I have a subset of selects (numbering in the low hundreds) that are used in the book and the frequent slideshows I present. That provides a further curation because it reflects both a photographer’s view of what is visually interesting and an editor’s view of what says something about the place. I refined my selection one more time by eliminating multiple images all taken at the same time (different people at the same party, for example). Through this process, I reduced the sample to 94 images, a highly manageable number, but enough for a meaningful analysis of a linear mile-long space.