Placemaking Spotlight: Charlottesville, Virginia

Picturesque and Presidential, Charlottesville Charms with Scenic Beauty and Cultural Treasures

Affectionately known as “C’ville,” Charlottesville is nestled in the eastern foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of central Virginia. The town was home to two of America’s earliest presidents, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, whose preserved estates remain popular attractions for history buffs and culture-seekers alike.

Jefferson left his mark on Charlottesville in other notable ways. The University of Virginia, which he founded, straddles the city’s southwestern border. Along with Monticello, UVA is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognized for the distinctive and iconic architecture that Jefferson envisioned and brought to life. His namesake winery also serves as a reminder of his attempts to bring viniculture to central Virginia—an effort that bears fruit today in the dozens of wineries that thrive in the area.   

While many visitors and residents are drawn to Charlottesville by the university, historic sites, hiking and outdoors adventures, and wineries, they discover a vibrant community that embraces strong placemaking principles in the town itself. Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall is one of the longest outdoor pedestrian malls in the nation, with stores, restaurants, and other notable sites.

As a town deeply rooted in its history and closely linked to its hometown university, Charlottesville town officials actively work to preserve the town’s unique identity while addressing the changing needs, development pressures, and evolving demands of modern society. The city has two staff members focused on historic preservation. They recommend parts of the town for designation as significant historic neighborhoods. The city’s Board of Architectural Review reviews proposed developments in the historically designated neighborhoods to protect their unique character.

Charlottesville’s Paramount Theater is an example of how the city balances historic preservation with modern development. Located at the heart of the Downtown Mall, the Paramount Theater was built in 1931. In the late 80s and early 90s, developers threatened to demolish the theater to build a parking garage or retail or office space on the site. However, in 1992, a group of community leaders purchased the theater and founded The Paramount Theater, Inc. Following eighteen months of renovation and expansion it was fully restored and opened to the public.

The Paramount Theater in the Downtown Mall (courtesy placemakinginstitute.org)

Like many communities that are attractive to residents and business owners, Charlottesville faces challenges with housing accessibility and affordability. Alexander Ikefuna, Charlottesville’s Director of Neighborhood Development Services, notes that this challenge drives many of the policy discussions in the city.

“We are currently in the middle of updating our comprehensive plan and rewriting our zoning ordinance. A part of this process includes the development of an affordable housing plan,” Ikefuna explained.  

Like in many other college towns, the University of Virginia contributes to the housing affordability problem in the city. However, the university has a representative on the city’s Comprehensive Plan Update Steering Committee and the university’s new president is looking at addressing the affordable housing challenge as well.

As it looks to the future, Charlottesville officials also must consider the impact of the riots that took place in the town in August 2017, and the ongoing social justice concerns that have stemmed from them. Although the town’s comprehensive plan update was already in progress before the riots, Ikefuna acknowledged their impact.

Like many other towns, Charlottesville looks toward the future, recognizing some of the challenges that will likely lie ahead: the need for more housing to address local demands, infrastructure improvements, public transportation enhancements, expanding economic opportunities for lower-income communities, and the importance of diversity and equity.  

However, Charlottesville—beloved by presidents, oenophiles, UVA students and alumni, and visitors alike—is up to the challenge of creating a beautiful future to rival its celebrated past.