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, 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.

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