How Tall Is Too Tall?

The city of Charlottesville is wrestling with a basic question that will shape the city’s future for decades to come: How tall is too tall?

Developer Keith Woodard has submitted a proposal to build a nine-story building at First and Main, on the Downtown Mall. According to Dave McNair wtih The Hook, the tower would provide room for two or three stores on the ground level, office space, 70 to 80 living spaces in the upper floors and a parking deck that would move cars to street level by means of an automobile elevator rather than space-consuming ramps.

The proposal has many virtues: It would bring people downtown, creating 24/7 patronage for local establishments. It would accomodate 70 to 80 households that would have to find housing elsewhere, presumably in growth-shy Albemarle County. The building would utilize existing roads and utilities. And, presumably, residents living in proximity to downtown’s shops and offices would generate fewer, shorter automobile trips than they would if they lived in conventional subdivisions.

On the other hand, there is the problem of scale. The complex would dwarf the buildings around it. Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall works effectively as an organic whole. The intrusion of a massive building could ruin the chemistry that makes it so special.

There are strong pros and strong cons to the project. Any decision by local planners is bound to be controversial. But Charlottesville’s transition from big town to small city is continuing apace. The First & Main project is not an aberration. Comparably sized buildings are in the development pipeline.

(Image credit: A2RCI Architect Greg Brezinski, as reproduced in The Hook.)

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5 responses to “How Tall Is Too Tall?”

  1. Charles Avatar

    It’s interesting that the picture draws a 9-story building so that it doesn’t look any taller than the 3-story structure next to it.

  2. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Good catch, the three story building close would look smaller, but it does appear that the perspective is all out of scale. To be fair though, the church nave is likely high and overall it is more like 5 stories than three. Still…….

    This reminds me of the garden sheds that Sears used to advertise. The way the floors wer edrawn in, they would have had to be halfway up the wall. In the advertisements an 8x 10 shed would have several bicycles a wheel barrow, lawnmower, kids sleds, etc etc etc. No way it could all fit.

    Sears eventually got caught at it and lost a pretty big suit for false advertising.

    In NYC there is considerable demand for more space, but it is mostly prohibited by density restrictions, air rights, step back requirements, etc. Naturally all this came together in a hodgepodge manner. So size is a real issue, and whoever gets in first is likely to get what he wants and whoever comes later will have to fight against the backlash.

    What is more interesting is that the drawing shows three cars and 12 pedestrians. That kind of traffic is more akin to what you would find in greater metropolitan downtown Hume, than downtown Charlottesville.

    However, in this case there may be something to the existing facilites and lesser auto traffic idea. Certainly the automobile elevator idea would work to reduce trips and certainly the number of trips that try to occur near the same time.

    As a personal matter, I couldn’t imagine the idea of living in a place where all I can do is sit, stand, lie down, read, and eat. What would I do with my table saws, welders, workbenches, tools, and all the assorted projects? I guess if all you do is work and go out for all the 24/7 nightlife it is OK. But without all that other stuff to keep busy with, you have even more time (and more need, maybe) to go shopping.

    Where would you put all the stuff? I guess you could have some other place, but then, how would you get there?

  3. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    There is a similiar concern in Fredericksburg where.. many years ago.. a modern 7-story building was approved for downtown – an area defined by colonial and civil war era structures.

    It’s been considered an “eyesore” ever since it’s construction and code currently restricts heights of new construction.

    So I’m not sure.. if this is also the issue in C’ville but would suspect that any place where a proposal is received for construction that is outsized in terms of scope/scale with respect to existing buildings that questions and objections would not be suprising.

    I wonder about our existing cities though.. with skyscrapers… and how.. they evolved from lower profile skylines.

    And there is sort of a connection to Fairfax… and locale where larger scope/scale developments are being put on the table… and objections from existing residents about impacts – both visual and infrastructure-wise.

    But it appears in C’ville.. the concept of mobility… ped/bike.. and less accomodation for autos might be a contrasting difference.

    Anyone who has visited C’ville can tell you that bike/ped lanes and facilities are… much more “robust” and clearly an explicit desire of the residents and their elected officials.

  4. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Ray Hyde said: “What would I do with my table saws, welders, workbenches, tools, and all the assorted projects?”

    I’m smiling.. no grinning… 🙂

    You and I both… I look at the folks who live in those kinds of places… and I’m quite certain
    we ARE on different planets.

    I also am in complete wonderment when I hear folks from cities say.. they don’t have a car.. and do just fine
    without it.

    There WAS a time.. long ago.. when I lived in apartments.. and as I recall.. I did not have a table saw or chainsaw or lawnmower.. so .. it must “work” … right?

  5. Charles Avatar

    I don’t think I’d ever park my car in a lot that REQUIRED a working elevator to get out.

    “Mom, with the power out, there’s nothing to do. Can we go to the movies”

    “No kids, the car’s stuck on the roof”.

    “Then we’ll just run around in the dark and scream and complain all night”

    “Dad, why is mom going to the roof with the keys”

    Vrrrrrrrrmmmmmmmmmmmm krash kaboom.

    “Dad, mom got the car down, can we go to the movies now”?

    Sorry, I’m feeling a little silly.

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