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Study area for The Vortex competition, UVA. Charlottesville US 29 corridor / Charlottesville Tomorrow.org

This winter at the University of Virginia School of Architecture, graduate and undergraduate students from each of the school’s four disciplines — Landscape Architecture, Architecture, Urban and Environmental Planning, and Architectural History — participated in the invigorating third annual all-school design competition, appropriately named “The Vortex.” The event provides students exposure to design competitions, fosters interdisciplinary collaboration, and engages the local community in high-stakes urban design projects.

In previous years, the Vortex focused on large-scale landscape and infrastructure issues, including bridging connections to the local Belmont neighborhood and re-imagining the link between Downtown Charlottesville and the Rivanna River. This year, students re-imagined Charlottesville’s US Route 29 corridor, the main transportation artery bisecting the city and providing an economic locus. This ten-mile commercial corridor, which connects Charlottesville to its airport and major metropolitan areas beyond, is also the source of a host of traffic, safety, and development problems.

While 29 has been the topic of debate among Charlottesville and Albemarle County government entities for decades, its future remains unknown. Students were challenged to envision US 29 not as a place for automobiles traveling at 45 miles per hour, but for pedestrians walking at 2 miles per hour. As opposed to focusing solely on the ease of the commuter, the teams considered a more intelligent road design that accommodated alternative modes of transportation, such as walking, biking, and public transportation.

Each year the Vortex competition invites a renowned designer to partake in the event and lead project critiques. This year’s invited guest was Xaveer de Geyter, founding principal of Belgian firm XDGA, a landscape and urban design practice in Europe. De Geyter’s lecture on the first day of the competition provided a framework for the event, encouraging students to consider issues of density, mixed-use, architecture, public space, time and transportation. De Geyter’s book, After-Sprawl: Research on the Contemporary City, and much of his design work “analyze how urban sprawl is growing throughout Western Europe, creating a diffuse urbanization confronted to the compact urban tradition of the old continent.” He said: “I am very much interested in not so much how architecture or urbanism should be but to have a very good look at what exists,” said De Geyter.

To kick-off the event, a panel of officials from local news, government, environmental and economic development agencies discussed the corridor – its history, challenges, and opportunities.

Some of the questions that emerged from this conversation that guided students’ thinking included: How does a city grow without compromising qualities of life aspects of preservation and evolution? How can the corridor serve as both a commercial boulevard and a U.S. highway? What type and degree of density is necessary along the corridor? What design will allow for connectivity both across and along the corridor, and how can it accommodate multi-modal transportation? How does one minimize negative environmental impacts?

Students were encouraged not to feel constrained by realistic limitations of the project, but instead to explore all possibilities. “They won’t come to pass exactly as you play them out, but you’re pushing the envelope,” said Neil Williamson, president of the Free Enterprise Forum, a nonprofit organization that analyzes local government policy and monitors more than 100 boards and commissions in Central Virginia.

Following this introduction, approximately three hundred students and faculty members strapped in neon yellow construction vests went on a five-mile excursion along the entire corridor. Accompanied by police escorts and the local press, including NBC 29 and The Daily Progress, the journey began at the intersection of Emmett Street and Ivy Road and concluded at the bridge where the Rivanna River crosses under US 29.

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Students and faculty walk the project’s entire 5 mile stretch / Sanjay Suchak

Following the walk, students broke into teams and launched into an energetic week of collaborative design. The school’s intensive competition culminated in a public presentation of each team’s vision for US 29 in Charlottesville’s Carver Recreation Center. Students presented their boards and models to de Geyter, the architecture school faculty, fellow students, and the public.

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Student teams collaborating on their design proposals / UVA

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Students present their work to the public / Charlottesville Tomorrow

The winner of both the student and public awards was the project entitled “Resi[dense]city.” The proposal focused on “housing density, efficient transportation, economic growth, and interactive culture,” which intended to create “dense, mixed-use communities at nodes along US 29.” The team sought “to stitch together the corridor that currently acts as a boundary, rather than a means of connection.”

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Resi[dense] City / Silvia Stefi – Student

The group that took home the competition’s biggest prize, the Xaveer de Geyter Award, as well as the faculty award, was called “Generative Urbanism.” The design focused on re-imagining US 29 “as the generator, pipeline, and lifeblood of the Charlottesville and Central Virginia region” that uses a “light rail system at current grade, maximizing spatial, visual, and auditory comfort for the pedestrian.” The design aimed to “create a central core that harnesses wind, solar, water, geothermal and kinetic energy.”

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Generative Urbanism / Chad Miller

All told, the Vortex competition helped to catalyze conversation and re-invigorate creative thinking among the students and entire community around the exciting potential of this corridor in Charlottesville.

This guest post by Chad Miller and Matt Scarnaty, Master’s of Landscape Architecture Candidates, University of Virginia.