Downtown Transit Station
Jeffersonian Ideal: In Charlottesville, Wallace Roberts & Todd architects designs a transit hub that links the past with the future
When Wallace Roberts & Todd Architects (WRT) was convincing residents of Charlottesville, Virginia, to support its design for a new transit hub in the city’s downtown district, principal Antonio Fiol-Silva, AIA, pulled out the big guns. And in Charlottesville, that meant a quote from Thomas Jefferson: “Instead of considering what is past, however, we are to look forward and to prepare for the future.”
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In the shadow of Monticello, and home to the architect-president’s Academical Village campus, at the University of Virginia (UVA), Charlottesville is understandably proud of its traditions and its Jeffersonian vernacular of red brick walls and white-columned porticos.
But in invoking Jefferson, Fiol-Silva was pointing to a different Charlottesville—one that has also been looking forward in recent years by aiming for greater sustainability. Its municipal fleet now comprises hybrid, biodiesel, and compressed natural gas vehicles. Bike trails have been added, schools and other city buildings made more energy efficient, and a range of water conservation, forestry, and other planning efforts implemented. What’s more, City Hall got a green roof this spring. “You name it, the city has really stepped it up,” says Mike Mollica, Charlottesville’s capital projects coordinator.
What was missing, however, was a transit hub—a terminus and transfer point for public buses, an existing rubber-tire trolley serving the UVA campus, and bicyclists (Charlottesville buses are equipped with bike racks). The resulting multimodal facility also needed to become a gateway to the city, with a drop-off point for coach tours, a visitor’s center, cafe, newsstand, and exhibition areas. Yet the goal was not only to grease the wheels of public transit and tourism, but to create a contemporary showcase that respected its Jeffersonian context, while better integrating the downtown fabric.
Moreover, the new transit center would reinforce the city’s commitment to sustainability by becoming the first LEED Gold-certified municipal building in Virginia. “It wasn’t just going to be a bus stop,” says Fiol-Silva, who led WRT’s Philadelphia-based team. “It grew to become a place of community,” Fiol-Silva continues, “bringing together a lot of values that encourage walking, sustainability, and civic exchange.”
It was a tall order. But WRT has more than satisfied it with a sleek $6 million, 11,200-square-foot building of overhangs, wood trellises, and expansive glass walls—all the while using contextual materials like red brick and copper in contemporary ways.
The Downtown Transit Center, as the facility is called, lies at the eastern end of Charlottesville’s Main Street pedestrian mall. Transformed in the 1970s by the celebrated landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, the lively, nine-block corridor is lined with historic buildings fronted by shops and restaurants and is considered one of the most successful pedestrian malls in the country. But for years, it has been cut off from City Hall, an outdoor amphitheater, and the 1905 Chesapeake & Ohio railway depot (now an office building), by a tangle of roads to the east. Taking their place, the transit center presented an opportunity to do away with those roads, thus helping to complete Halprin’s vision by “extending the mall east to City Hall,” Mollica explains.
Still, when WRT won the commission in 2002, it knew that “the risk with projects like this is you wind up with a big parking lot,” Fiol-Silva says. To avoid that outcome, WRT placed the bus stops south of the mall on Water Street, curving and widening that road to accommodate up to eight city buses in single file, alongside private coaches and, perhaps eventually, a light-rail system.
The site posed other challenges; for one thing, there was a 17-foot grade difference between the mall level above and the buses below. Hence, a new stepped outdoor plaza. Forming an axis connecting Water Street and the old C&O depot to the south and the 1969 City Hall building to the north, the plaza is flanked on the west by an existing commercial property and on the east by the transit hub. A monumental stair—“a mini-Spanish Steps” as Fiol-Silva calls it—leads users up.
Meanwhile, the building itself was a delicate balancing act between environmental, aesthetic, and pragmatic objectives. On the one hand, the architects wanted to make it as welcoming, transparent, and open as possible: “For security reasons, it’s important for transit buildings, which are used at night, to be visually open,” Fiol-Silva says. But to maximize energy efficiency, sunlight penetration had to be mitigated, as did noise.
Facing the downtown amphitheater, which was greatly expanded, the hub’s east facade is a punctured brick cavity wall that doubles as a sound barrier during concerts. Fronting the mall, the building’s narrow, north facade is a nearly seamless membrane of double-insulated structural glass, while the sunny southern elevation is topped by a deep overhang and shielded at street level by a canopy made from southern yellow pine. At the second floor, where the Charlottesville Abermarle Convention and Visitors Bureau has offices, the building is wrapped by pre-patinated, 90 percent-recycled copper cladding. (The large windows in this section were fitted with louvers.)
Meanwhile, lining the plaza with a low-e, insulated glass curtain wall, the western facade is similarly protected by a continuation of the copper cladding, alongside a cantilevered roof and mahogany screen. Extending inside the building through the curtain wall, the plaza’s grand stair leads from the passenger waiting room to the upstairs café and visitor’s center. The plaza’s grand stair extends inside the building through the curtain wall, creating an atrium-like space connecting interior and exterior.
The building was outfitted with radiant-heat floors at much of its perimeter; however, the western atrium side was an exception. “The HVAC challenge was in that open space, especially at the upper level,” says Tim Reinking, the project manager at Bruce E. Brooks & Associates, the building’s mechanical and electrical engineer. Because of the stair, and a desire not to obstruct the ceiling’s exposed wood beams, “we had to find some other way of getting air distribution to the glass envelope,” Reinking adds. The solution was a series of supply nozzles on the opposite brick wall that “throw heated or cooled air all the way to the other side,” Reinking says.
Other measures are expected to help the building reduce its energy costs by almost 45 percent. Navigating the awkward site, 24 geothermal wells were dug 300- to 600-feet-deep on Water Street and at another plaza by the amphitheater. Facilitating heat transfer between incoming and outgoing air, an energy recovery wheel was installed, as were automated temperature, ventilation, and lighting controls. On the roof, a reflective high-albedo membrane mitigates the heat-island effect by reflecting solar heat.
There was an educational component, too. A cedar tree that was cut down during construction was recycled into educational displays promoting sustainability and the building’s eco-credentials. Many of the latter were also labeled with explanatory texts: for example, the waterless urinals in the large public restrooms that serve both the station and mall.
Indeed, water conservation was key; support for the building was bolstered by the fact that, during public discussions, Charlottesville was experiencing severe water shortages. Nonetheless, an intense debate surrounded everything from the building’s location on the mall to its contemporary look. “To be honest, it was arduous,” Fiol-Silva says of the process. “But the building is better for it.”
“I’ve heard nothing but rave reviews,” says the city’s Mollica. “We definitely got more than a bus station.”
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