charlottesville, virginia

with Pete O’Shea + Sara Wilson Siteworks, 2014

As part of a proposal to revitalize one end of Charlottesville’s successful Downtown Mall, a new pedestrian bridge and underpass were proposed to replace a decaying highway overpass.

The movie tells the story of a community driven effort to visualize a vibrant and economically dynamic future for an all but forgotten precinct.

Nestled in the foothills of the coal-rich Blue ridge mountains, railroads have shaped much of Charlottesville’s history. A roundtable, thirty-two trains a day, and an eleven-track wide yard were all part of an early twentieth century landscape. A lone coal tower is all that remains. Today its rails are at the crossroads of north-south freight and east-west coal.

In 1961, at the height of the age of the automobile, and in the best tradition of Robert Moses, a new highway overpass bridge replaced a decaying 19th-century wooden structure at the east end of the downtown business district; its goal to provide an efficient, modern vehicle connection over the rail yards to the newly built Interstate I-64 to the south.

Today, in this pedestrian-rich urban context, a prominent yet rapidly decaying fifty-one year old fragment of the Eisenhower administration’s legacy no longer reflects the aspirations of this community. Inspired by an ill-advised simple bridge replacement proposal, a community driven architectural competition suggested a variety of inspired alternative futures.

The overwhelmingly popular winning entry proposed no bridge at all. While the concept acomplished some worthy goals, it also rested on two major stumbling blocks: reverting a major urban arterial roadway to an at-grade CSX rail crossing not seen since horse drawn wagons days and relocating arguably the major economic engine of the entire Mall, the Pavilion.

Charlottesville has a rich history of underpasses.  Inspired by the no-bridge solution, 9th street is lowered into the earth passing beneath three simple short spans for Water Street, the CSX railroad beds, and Avon Extended.  An inverted landscape is formed by two juxtaposed tree-lined arcing fin walls incised into the earth and the roadway no longer violates the view shed. Overlapping at their deepest grade to support the bridges, the fins feather out at their ends, the land purposely graded outward for a less tunnel-like and more genial resolution.

A new cable-stayed pedestrian bridge enters the act as a visual counterpoint to the dominant form of the Pavilion. Lightweight, tensile, pedestrian-friendly succeeds decaying, heavy, compressive, “auto-centrism” in the next millennium.

The economic potential inherent in the underpass is significant. As the city has grown, the old highway overpass has become a barrier to development potential. If the bridge and earthen abutments are removed, the landscape restored to its pre-1961 geography, the substantial potential of underutilized and undervalued adjacent parcels can be realized. Preliminary estimates conservatively suggest an additional 4.2 million dollars in property tax revenue over ten years with such revitalization of a forgotten precinct.