Crozet Plaza Design Options Bring Out the Community
By Eric J. Wallace
On December 8 the Downtown Crozet Initiative invited the community to the new Piedmont Place shops in downtown Crozet to provide feedback on three separate designs for the future Crozet community plaza. The event was sponsored by Milestone Partners and Crozet New Town Associates, the development services firm and property owners behind the Crozet Square project, and featured free food and beverages. Food was provided by Smoked BBQ and Morsel Compass’s food-truck, with complimentary brews courtesy of Star Hill served at the Blue Ridge Bottle Shop.
On display in the building’s first-floor meeting room were easels showcasing drawings by landscape architecture firm Mahan Rykiel Associates Inc. for the Crozet community plaza, a $3 million, 28,000-square-foot civic greenspace and hardscape that will serve as the centerpiece of the Barnes Lumber development site. The drawings are the result of a project that has been in the making since Milestone first announced its proposed plans for the site at a Crozet Community Advisory Committee meeting in 2013. Mahan Rykiel was brought onboard last June, after Milestone held a number of community meetings—and actually opened a Facebook forum—in order to garner feedback from the community regarding the proposed plaza.
“The plaza is so important because it is going to serve as the catalyst for attracting businesses, restaurants, retailers and residents to the downtown area,” said Frank Stoner, a partner with Milestone Partners. “We don’t want to start building without a clear plan for the plaza and these drawings are bringing us that much closer to getting started.”
According to James Sink, a lead landscape architect with Mahan Rykiel who attended the DCI event and worked on the drawings, his team had enumerable conversations with Stoner and other shareholders to ensure they understood the values and needs of Crozet residents.
“They were adamant about making sure the plaza was designed in a manner that was reflective of the identity of the community it’s intended to serve,” said Sink. “They didn’t want some cookie-cutter design, they wanted something that was unique to the area and the people that live here.”
In addition to shareholder feedback, the company looked extensively at Crozet’s Master Plan and considered the area’s history and heritage. The process yielded three concepts, which ultimately inspired the renderings.
The first drawing was based on the area’s agricultural past. “We looked at the old orchard groves, the rolling farmland and so on,” said Sink. “We thought about how that agricultural heritage would’ve connected the townspeople—what their lives must’ve been like, how they might’ve convened together in a town-center.”
The second design drew from the railroad. “We considered the downtown overpass and how odd and unique that was as an architectural feature,” said Sink. “We thought about how the railroad connected the town to other regions and what differentiated the town from those regions.”
The third concept drew inspiration from the town’s industrial heritage—including the dilapidated infrastructure of the Barnes Lumber site itself. “We looked at the textures of that decay and thought about how, while things change and fade, new things come to replace them,” mused Sink. “We wanted to point to that cycle of new growth and life blossoming from the substrate of history.”
The plans share many similarities in that they all feature a large lawn, shade trees, ample walkways, a flexible stage feature and built-in seating where people can gather and picnic. Additionally, each design incorporates built-in natural storm water harvesting features which, according to Sink, add beauty while increasing sustainability and functionality. “We’ll use naturalized vegetation and native species to minimize erosion while capturing rain water and runoff which would otherwise have to be gathered via unsightly drains and piped somewhere else,” said Sink.
Two of the designs—apple orchard and railroad roots—have a water feature. The former offers a splash-pad for kids to play in with surrounding seating area; the latter a sort of lazy-river-esque wading pool in which tikes can frolic while more mellow users dip their feet and ankles.
Meanwhile, in lieu of H2O, the industrial heritage concept proposes an extensive arbor and trellis feature. However, Sink says that if the IH option is selected and townspeople are vocal about wanting a water feature, the designers could respond accordingly.
“I’ve been doing this for a while now and, while it’s always exciting to be a part of creating a space that will ultimately become a community’s meeting place, the fact that these developers held an event to not only secure the community’s backing and support, but to gather its input is just astounding,” said Sink. “This is not something that happens; it’s atypical for sure.”
The three-hour event featured a steady stream of attendees, with a Milestone public relations spokesperson estimating between 400 to 700 people passed through. The crowd was diverse, ranging from long-time community icons, to young professionals, to families new to the area, to curious neighbors. With a box, pens and paper, and a sign soliciting feedback placed on a table beside the drawings, community opinion was strongly encouraged.
“When you look at what’s on the Barnes Lumber site now, the reality is just about anything would be an improvement,” said John Plantz, former owner of Parkway Pharmacy (he’s since passed the operation on to his son) and a Crozet resident since 1977. “However, I think that what Frank is proposing is just about the ideal. The fact that he not only cares about, but is going out of his way to invest in obtaining public opinion is just amazing. Normally with developers, they get an approval and away they go, regardless of how anyone feels about it.”
According to Stoner the strategy is a practical one. “We realized very early on that unless the community embraces this project and buys into it, it will fail,” he said. “The thing is, it’s not easy to get to downtown Crozet—this isn’t a plug-and-play situation, this isn’t some strip-mall development going in right off Route 29 where people will see it and just automatically come. This is a special situation and we’re seeking to do everything we can to facilitate a sense of ownership. We want Crozet residents to feel about this the way people in Charlottesville feel about their downtown mall.”
According to Stoner, achieving that goal takes more than hiring world-class architects to create pretty designs. “The plans have to be authentic,” he said. “They absolutely have to reflect the desires and personality of the community. Otherwise, as buildings and businesses come in, everything will feel contrived. We want to make sure that, when everything is said and done, residents can say, ‘That’s right, I helped bring this here; this is mine.’”
Stoner says Milestone will compile the feedback it received at the meeting and make that information available to the public for further consideration. He expects the data to be posted on the DCI website by late January. The company hopes to break ground on the plaza by 2018.
As the evening wound down, a couple gathered with their three small children alongside the designs. Cradling his young daughter in his arms, U.S. Department of Defense contractor Alex Brisker pointed to a drawing. “We love the fact that there’s outdoor seating and a stage,” he said. “In 2010, we moved here from Rockville, Maryland, which had a beautiful town-center. We’re going to raise our kids here and we’re excited to think about having a kid-friendly place that we can walk to and meet with friends and socialize for a few hours. Right now, it’s like, ‘Who’s going to host a get-together this week?’ Which gets old. You want to have somewhere local you can go aside from each other’s houses. Right now, we have to drive into Charlottesville to get a good meal or go shopping, so having all that right here in town is really desirable.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by Blue Ridge Bottle Shop husband-and-wife owners, Shawn and Coleen Miller. “We have a two-year-old and a five-year-old, and we’ve been living in Crozet for eight years now,” said Coleen. “We hope this is the first step in what will be a rising tide for the town. We want Piedmont Place as well as the Crozet Square to become the hub of the community. We love Crozet and now we can finally say it makes sense to stay here as opposed to moving into Charlottesville.”
Reflecting on the designs and the event, Crozet Community Association president Tim Tolson offered some perspective. “For people to see that the input they provided in May and June of 2015 has been taken into account and resulted in the creation of these designs is huge,” he said. “How many towns get the opportunity to design and build their own space? How many places do you get to live in where you get to do that? This is very special. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and we need to make sure we get it right.”