Charlottesville’s Town Centers

NBC29 starts a series on Town Center Living – I bet their video is utterly fascinating, but alas it doesn’t work on a mac. (some people use macs – did you know your competitor figured out that people uses macs, and their video works?) Read this story: I Don’t Want to Consume Media that I Can’t Interact With.

Hollymead Town Center up 29 North (near NGIC) A model town center, in Reston (Northern Virginia).

For another look at Charlottesville’s town centers, see this post from May (and read the comments). A completely honest, non-snarky question – will residents of any of our area’s town centers say anything like this in forty years?

I live in Reston, and unlike Columbia, it’s a roaring success, with both internal and external transit services, five village centers — one of which is usually within walking distance of most residents — and a fabulous Town Center (I don’t understand the reference to a “Midtown Town Center” — there’s only one) which is easily accessible by transit, auto, and for the numerous residents in the urban core, as pedestrians. I have lived here for forty years, so have observed the development almost from the beginning.

The map below shows the town centers in the area.

View Larger Map

More and more, people want to be able to walk “to stuff;” Hollymead Town Center does not yet qualify for that. So far, it has the feel of a glorified strip mall (with lots of stuff – Bonefish Grill, Target, Harris Teeter, etc) – you just need to drive everywhere.

What’s the basis for this conclusion?

And soon all of the construction will give way to a more relaxed, convenient and environmentally friendly way of life at Hollymead Town Center.

Lastly, showing my ignorance, how will the the addition of a hotel make the site more vibrant and welcoming to residents? Won’t that create more opportunities for people to drive to work?

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Google-Terrain - Central-Virginia

As an aside, the “terrain” option that I just noticed on Google Maps is very cool.

Update 11/28/2007: I thought I was late to the party when I noted the Terrain feature; apparently I was early.

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  2. Neil Williamson November 27, 2007 at 15:44


    A close examination of the Reston Town Center includes that it is — surrounded by high density apartments/condos and — parking lots. I would venture to say that 80% of the consumers in the Reston Town Center drive to the location and then walk. I wonder what the statistic is on the downtown mall. Someone has to be filling those parking garages.

    Another example that is often used is Meadowmont in Chapel Hill North Carolinia. I visited Meadowmont a year ago this summer. I found it most interesting that the neighborhood pool, which is only open to residents, had no parking available in its parking lot and in fact had attendees parking on the tightly designed neighborhood streets. It seems the planners thought the parking lot capacity could be reduced because folks would walk. The opposite is the case.

    I believe community pools tend to be used by younger families — those that have to haul diaper bags, water wings etc. This use is not condusive to walking even the two blocks to the pool.

  3. Lonnie November 27, 2007 at 16:15

    While Reston did a better job at anything remotely like a “Town Center” than we have, it is far from a model that we should aim for. I’ve still not seen a single example of a development within the Charlottesville/Albemarle area that even resembles a “Town Center”.

    The basic concept of the Town Center and New Urbanism is actually a reinvention of an old concept. Where my grandmother lives in Mt. Olive North Carolina, they can walk to a grocery store, drug store, or just about anything else they need. There is also lots of community “green space”. This isn’t the result of some newfangled design or zoning, but merely the way communities used to be. THAT should be our model. If we want to use a more modern criteria, then here are the principles that one should find in a well designed town center (as one might find in Columbia Maryland):

    1) Pedestrian Friendly. If this one isn’t true, then it simply isn’t a “Town Center” by any definition. It should also be accessible to bikes as well.

    2) Mixed use and mixed income – The same person should be able to live, shop, work and entertain themselves all without ever getting in a car.

    3) Community focal points. There should be community gathering spots like a lake, park, or whatever that draws the community together.

    4) Greenspace. In addition to the focal points, there should be a network of greenspace connecting adjoining Town Centers. Ideally this would contain walking and cycling trails as seen in Columbia.

    5) Parking on the perimeter. There should be no parking in the middle of the town centers. There should be parking garages on the edges where you can park and then walk into your destination. To put this another way, if you measure the total pavement, and there is more, or almost as much, pavement than greenspace, shops and homes then it simply isn’t a “Town Center”.

    By the principles I’ve outlined above, I think it’s clear to see that local government has been pulling the wool over the communities eyes regarding the Neighborhood Model. I’ve yet to see a single development that gets even three out of five of the principles above.

  4. Neil Williamson November 27, 2007 at 16:48

    Lonnie raises a number of good points. The most interesting is “but merely the way communities used to be”. Why did we develop in this way?

    A fair amount of research indicates that many of these communities sprung up around train stations and along streetcar lines. People walked to their homes from the station and did not mind living in the highly dense neighborhood because there really was not an option. The streetcar went where it went and how far you walked, and in which direction, were determined by your ability to pay and the market.

    The invention of the automobile, and more importantly the price point being within reach of average citizens, made the suburbs possible. No longer were those who worked in the city bound to live in the city. Some chose to stay but the vast majority given the choice, citizens chose to move where they had more space.

    The question now is how to make the new town centers more attractive and a better economic equation than suburban living for the majority of homebuyers?

    If we are unable to answer this question, town centers will serve a small cohort of the market.

  5. Sean Reilly November 27, 2007 at 17:32

    Agreed on all points, including the mac thing – I can’t see the NBC29 video and I won’t bother visiting their site.

    I expect all of these yet-to-be-developed “town centers” are nothing more than re-branded strip malls. I will be moving to c-ville next summer and the pedestrian aspect of the downtown mall is what draws me to the downtown area (Park St., etc).

    The Reston Town Center is a wonderful creation primarily because it is friendly to pedestrians. It is accessible via the W&OD trail/path and is in an area with many crosswalks and pedestrian bridges. Even if you arrive by car, once you park (in one of the many covered garages) you can easily get to all of the stores and restaurants by foot.

  6. Lonnie November 27, 2007 at 17:46

    Also Waldo had a relevant Blog entry about this a while back. It’s worth checking out, especially the comments.

  7. Ben November 27, 2007 at 21:11

    Pentagon Row in Arlington is a superior new urbanism project compared to Reston Town Center. Haven’t seen anything better in Virginia.

  8. JoshC November 28, 2007 at 00:14

    Of course Pentagon Row is superior in the new-urbanist genre to RTC. It exists in a high-density subregion where people can truly live without cars (and could do so, though not as easily, before PR came along), and can access many other parts of the larger region through convenient, high-frequency mass transit. I lived within a mile of Reston Town Center for about three years, and Neil’s 80%-drivers estimate is conservative. And here’s why: you can’t go without a car in western Fairfax County, even if you do live in the nonexistent perfect new-urbanist development, because you can’t get to anywhere else easily without one. Going without a car there turns you into a resident of an over-retailed small town with a sky-high cost of living. That’s not why people move to Fairfax County.

    It’s great that people are thinking about smart growth in Charlottesville, but this is not a large metropolis, and no matter how great our bus system becomes, a huge portion of the region’s population will remain unserved/underserved by it. This is not Arlington or Alexandria. We have no Metro, nor is one coming. Our population density is not that high, nor are we that rich, nor (thankfully) are we that eminent-domain-happy. No “town center” development that discourages drive-in traffic could survive here outside of very close proximity to the UVa campus and downtown (i.e. close enough for students to walk) — there’s just not enough money that can/will walk onto a property on the fringe. Let’s be realistic about the need to serve vehicular traffic and we’ll all be better off.

  9. Jim Duncan November 28, 2007 at 08:40

    Thanks for the comments.

    Josh – you are absolutely right. What irritates/concerns me is the hypocrisy of those building “pedestrian friendly” developments when clearly at this (or the near/distant future) stage of our region’s development, that’s a false selling point.

    Sean & Josh – Absolutely. Until our region has a viable transit network, we’ve got a long, long way to go.

    Using the Hollymead Town Center as an example – who is going to access it by bike? Crossing 29 North is a lesson in futility or mortality.

  10. Lonnie November 28, 2007 at 11:41

    What I really question is selling the idea of town centers in the County. I think they make perfect sense for Crozet and Charlottesville, but I’m not sure it could work in other areas where they are being pushed. I do think better models of development are necessary, but personally I’d rather see more Preservation Development or other mechanisms that combine the best features of urban and rural spaces.

    That said, I don’t think we need to toss the entire neighborhood model concept out the window either. There are feature to Developments that we really need to address. I repeatedly hear from friends who move from rural areas into subdivisions that they knew their neighbors better when they were a mile away (or more). Neighborhoods need simple features like sidewalks, community gathering spots, and other features that encourage community interaction. The old cul-de-sac model just doesn’t work, and can no longer be considered sustainable.

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