"It's the Downtown Mall's 30th birthday. Mitch Van Yahres and Charles Barbour are back in City Council chambers June 30, where both had served as mayor three decades earlier. Current Mayor David Brown is there too, and onlookers can't help but muse, could a town possibly have more mayors?
And those three men are merely a drop in the mayoral bucket. After all, this is not like Chicago, where mayors rule for decades and are likely to be named Daley. Fifteen people who have held the largely ceremonial title since 1968 are still living-- and all in Central Virginia.
Francis Fife recalls he was at a meeting when someone called him "Mr. Mayor," a title he last held in 1974. "I said, 'If you say that in a room and six people don't respond, you're not in the right place,'" jokes Fife, whose wife, Nancy O'Brien, was also mayor.
After Frank Buck's FDR-esque eight-year stint in the '80s, mayors have scaled back their ambitions by serving a single two-year term, hence the city's huge complement of ex-chiefs. Mayor David Brown just broke that tradition on July 1 with his election to a second term. "I think it says a lot about Charlottesville that all of the mayors continue to live here," he says.
So do some of the same issues, decade after decade. After all, preventing downtown from becoming a ghost town has been a task since Barracks Road Shopping Center debuted in 1959. Meadowcreek Parkway has been another perennial.
This group has a lot of firsts: Charles Barbour, the city's first black mayor. Nancy O'Brien, the first female honcho. O'Brien and Fife, the only mayors married to another mayor. (Although former mayor Virginia Daugherty is married to a former vice-mayor.)
There are even the mayoral law partners: Frank Buck and David Toscano.
Those who have been mayor discover their phone calls get returned. They meet and greet visiting notables. And when their term ends, some of them kind of miss the glamour of representing Charlottesville-- though they don't miss those cranky middle-of-the-night phone calls.
Tom Vandever remembers when Bitsy Waters was mayor and a youthful David Toscano, before he was on council, argued the city should divest its holdings in South Africa to protest apartheid.
"Charlottesville became the first southern city to do so," says Vandever. "When I was mayor, I got a letter from Nelson Mandela thanking the city for its [past] support. At the bottom, it said, 'Would you please reinvest?'"
The Hook checked in with the city's passel of mayors and asked them to reflect on the issues of their day and Charlottesville today.
"It's a club I'm honored to be in," says Brown. Yeah, but wait'll he hears what the other mayors say about him.
G.A. "Dutch" Vogt
Term: 1968-1970, Republican
Day job then: General manager, Ovenaire
Dutch Vogt says he never sought elected office. "I was talked into running for City Council," he says. "It was a good experience, but I wouldn't want to do it again."
Big issue: The Vietnam War. Student protests. The Wall of Respect in the black community in the vicinity of Jefferson School.
Most heat: Trying to build a new high school-- whether to build one or two. And building a new city hall. We contacted the Nixon administration to bring in the National Ground Intelligence Center when Health, Education and Welfare left.
Decisive vote: The city's merger with Albemarle County was a key issue. We had unanimity to merge with the county, but we were so enthusiastic that we didn't properly sell it to the community. A referendum to merge failed in the city and county.
Would you have done anything differently? On the merger, I think we should have spent more time and money selling it.
Your legacy: We did a lot of building-- [four-laning] Preston Avenue, City Hall, the community college...
Biggest change: It's amazing how much city government has grown and continues to grow while the population remains the same. Now there are over 1,000 on the payroll-- three to four times the number when I was in office. Different pastors would open council meetings with a prayer. I don't think they'd do that now. And we didn't have empty buses running all over town.
Best about being mayor: We had a Republican majority when I was mayor-- the only time I know of-- and it probably will be the last time. [Actually, 1978 was the last Republican majority.]
Worst: I've seen some of the worst come out of people in confrontations.
Notables you met: Ronald Reagan
Mitch Van Yahres
Term: 1970-1972, Democrat
Day job then: Arborist, Van Yahres Tree Company
"We broke some barriers," says Van Yahres. "My 1968 campaign was for fair housing. I was trying to bring in more women and minorities. And we had to bring in a new city manager. We were changing everything.
Big issue: We were still fighting the battle of integration.
Most heat: Charles Barbour and Francis Fife were elected in 1970 and gave us [Democrats] a 3-2 majority. There was a front page picture of [my wife] Betty and Charles hugging. We got the most hate mail. I had to take it to the FBI. It was kind of shocking.
Decisive vote: High schools-- whether to build one or two. That was very controversial and went to a referendum. And swimming pools-- there was a single rec facility in McIntire Park. When the liberals took over, we added two more-- Washington and Onesty pools. And the [Downtown] Mall, although the vote on that was after I was mayor. It was hated. It was not popular.
Would you have done anything differently? Of course not.
Your legacy: Bringing gender and racial change to city administration, boards, and commissions. And establishing relations with the university. We'd hated each other, and there was no cooperation. We met, trying to break the ice. Another was we tried to annex all the way to Fashion Square and Pantops-- and lost. I was the mayor who lost annexation. We didn't have a proper survey, and that was found out by a county engineer, Harvey Bailey. The court threw us out.
Biggest change: Gentrification. Charlottesville was the center for shopping. We had department stores downtown. Reid's was still a major market. It was a big loss when it burned. That changed downtown.
Best about being mayor: All of the changes. It was very stimulating for a young businessman with a family.
Worst: The time it took.
Term: 1972-1974, Democrat
Day job then: Vice president, People's Bank
Two malls dominated Francis Fife's time on council. He and fellow councilor (and eventual wife) Nancy O'Brien were the two councilors who voted against letting Fashion Square Mall build on a site in Charlottesville. After many delays, the deal passed 3-2, but the developer went to Albemarle anyway. He abstained, however, from the 1974 vote to create the Downtown Mall. "I wanted to vote on it but couldn't because I worked at People's Bank [now the Bank of America downtown] in the trust department. It was kind of ridiculous."
Big issue: Our-- Mitch's, Charles' and my-- program to get African Americans and women on board. And the [Downtown] Mall.
Most heat: Scattered-site public housing. Instead of projects like Westhaven, we tried to put public housing in every neighborhood. We got four sites, and some people were not too charmed with that.
Decisive vote: Voting for Mitch Van Yahres for mayor. I probably would have been shot if I hadn't.
Would you have done anything differently? This wasn't while I was mayor, but I would have gotten easements for the Rivanna Trail.
Your legacy: I'm proud of the fact I ran with an African American-- Charles Barbour-- and that he would run with me. I'm proud of the fact I supported the Ivy Creek Foundation, but I'm not sure if that was when I was mayor. It was going to be developed.
Biggest change: The development of the Mall and the expansion of the university.
Best about being mayor: I had a certain amount of pride-- local boy becomes mayor of his hometown. I was prepared to be attacked. In fact, I'm kind of surprised I wasn't more.
Worst: One guy tried to persuade me not to put the [public] housing thing in his neighborhood. We laugh about it now.
Notable you met: John Warner
Term: 1974-1976, Democrat
Day job then: Nurse technician at UVA
Being the first black mayor didn't stop Charles Barbour from taking stands on divisive racial issues of the day. "I got the city to stop having parties at Fry's Spring [Beach Club] because it was segregated," says Barbour, who enjoyed his role on a Council that had members of both major political parties. "With three Democrats and two Republicans, I was able to be a swing vote."
Big issue: Fashion Square Mall-- I was strongly for it to be in the city of Charlottesville where Seminole Square is. It was delay, delay. The owner got tired of it and went to the county.
Most heat: I wanted to put two blacks on the School Board-- there'd always been just one. I refused to go along with my fellow white Democrats. I wonder what would have happened if I hadn't stood up. The Democrats eventually went my way.
Decisive vote: The [Downtown] Mall. I dedicated it in 1976.
Would you have done anything differently? No. I took some stands that were unpopular with my fellow Democratic councilors. I made decisions that were best for the city-- not for politics and friends.
Your legacy: I was the first person strongly in favor of the Mall. Mitch Van Yahres was the second. He called me the father of the mall. Blacks will always be part of the Downtown Mall.
Biggest change: There has been a lot of desegregation, but I feel pockets of racism.
Best about being mayor: You're able to speak your mind and say what you think.
Worst: You get criticized for your decisions.
Notables you met: Queen Elizabeth, Jimmy Carter
Term: 1976-1978, Democrat
Day job then: Homemaker with four children
"I was the first woman," recalls Nancy O'Brien. "I did it as well as possible. I'd been in the League of Women Voters for years, so I came in knowing how government worked. Some people tried to sidetrack me with the Equal Rights Amendment, but I had things I wanted to do."
Big issue: The location of Fashion Square Mall
Most heat: Fashion Square. The rezoning was approved 3-2. People remember it as denied. (She voted against it.)
Decisive vote: I voted against Meadowcreek Parkway-- it wouldn't go away.
Would you have done anything differently? I don't think so.
Your legacy: I think I oriented government to more citizen participation, and I think I broke some ground for women and changed the look on the faces of little girls when they realized a woman could be mayor.
Biggest change: We're facilitated to death. Every problem that comes, we break into small groups. We need a new paradigm.
Best about being mayor: I really love government. I love being part of it. I loved being part of the decision making and getting to tinker. In local government, you can see results.
Worst: Making unpopular decisions and getting phone calls in the middle of the night. I got them at 2am about the noise ordinance.
Notables you met: Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip
Elizabeth "Bitsy" Waters
Term: 1988-1990, Democrat
Day job then: Institute for Environmental Negotiation
"I was the first mayor to make a presentation to the [UVA] Board of Visitors," says Bitsy Waters. "That was a breakthrough. We recognized they were not under local control." Nor was Republican Darden Towe. "It was," says Waters, "a 4-1 council."
Big issue: A collection of transportation issues: the upgrade of U.S. 29, the western bypass, Meadowcreek Parkway. Also the whole Downtown Mall revitalization project-- the survival of the Omni and moving the Discovery Museum. Fridays After 5 came about then. And crack cocaine-- that hadn't been an issue, and it became a real scourge.
Most heat: The western bypass, from county residents with negative feelings about it.
Decisive vote: In my last council meeting, we were voting for a special use permit for an AIDS support group to have a house on Shamrock. It was a very memorable, very emotional vote.
Would you have done anything differently? I would have liked ways to foresee the levels of developer investment and gentrification. I might have banked land.
Your legacy: In many ways, my legacy is similar to others in local government-- you contribute to ongoing public policy. I made my contibution to the revitalization of the Downtown Mall, to understanding increased development in urban spaces, to preserving rural spaces in partnership with Albemarle.
Biggest change: There's been explosive university growth. We're a much more cosmopolitan community and a more expensive place to live. It's a much bigger place with more people and more traffic. I still believe Charlottesville then was much closer to the small town I moved to in 1971. It had not taken the transformational change it has in the past five to 10 years.
Best about being mayor: Public speaking. It really was an honor to be the spokesman for your city for a couple of years. You get to know the city and meet people.
Worst: Disappointing and upsetting people on any major decision. For a person who makes her living building consensus, that was the hardest.
Notables you met: Gregory Peck and Jimmy Stewart
Term: 1990-1992, Democrat
Day job then: Pastor, Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church
After his mayorship ended but while still on Council in 1994, Alvin Edwards cast the lone dissenting vote on letting traffic cross the Downtown Mall. But what he thinks about are teachers "I think we should have spent more time talking to the legislature about teachers," says Edwards. "Northern Virginia's get paid more-- that should apply here."
Big issue: I don't remember-- Meadowcreek Parkway. The only thing I remember was doing things with kids at school.
Most heat: Recycling. We didn't have it and were trying to reduce the amount sent to the landfill. I don't remember any divisive hot button.
Would you have done anything differently? Reversion. Before the General Assembly passed that law [making it harder for the city to revert to a town], we could have reverted and gone back to the county. I'd like more cooperative things between the city and county, like having one fire department.
Your legacy: Bringing people together. Having conversations with the university and county.
Biggest change: Traffic
Best about being mayor: Meeting all kinds of people.
Worst: Serving two years. I would have served more. After Frank Buck served eight years, people were bothered and agreed on two years.
Notables you met: Louis Gossett, the President of Greece, Mikhail Gorbachev, George Clinton
Term: 1992-1994, Democrat
Day job then: Executive director, Independence Resource Center
Tom Vandever remembers when UVA's medical center was swallowing houses around town. "There was a fear in the '80s that we'd become a city without people. They'd come in to work and leave to go to their homes," he says. Today, however, he's less worried: "We're not in danger of being a city without people."
Big issue: Two-waying Water Street-- one of the better things we did. Lee Danielson's ice park, movie theater and mall crossing. The issue is, there wouldn't have been a theater without the crossing. Drugs became a consuming problem with an open air cocaine market and the influx of gangs.
Most heat: You deal with life and death issues that get no attention. Then you deal with trimming trees on Park Street or the leash law, and people turn out. Probably the leash law got the most heat. (Vandever calls this phenom the "dissonance of incongruity.")
Decisive vote: The decision to divest the city's holdings in South Africa.
Your legacy: I've always thought each council stands on the shoulders of previous councils. The success of the [Downtown] Mall-- the reality is it could not have happened without what Frank Buck did with the Omni. Then we could put in the ice park with Danielson.
Biggest change: The success of the Downtown Mall is a springboard for development and linkage in other parts of the city.
Best about being mayor: You don't have to do anything, and people still call you mayor.
Worst: Loss of anonymity. I got caught pitching an aluminum tray in a restaurant rather than recycling it.
Notables you met: Mikhail Gorbachev, Bill Clinton, the Emperor of Japan, Sidney Poitier
Term: 1994-1996, Democrat
Day job then: Attorney
"The things I enjoyed working on were making the city world class," says David Toscano, a former member of the ultra-liberal Citizens Party whose time on council was marked by collaboration with developers such as Lee Danielson.
Big issue: Reversion and how the city was going to be able to survive and thrive during a challenging fiscal period.
Most heat: That was it. Some felt strongly the city should retain its independent status from Albemarle, and others felt it should revert. It became an issue larger than just a city issue. It was a regional issue.
Decisive vote: The vote to cross the mall at Second Street.
Would you have done anything differently? I would have taken more time to enjoy the position, more time to build regional cooperation.
Your legacy: Leave it to others to decide that.
Biggest change: The tremendous growth in Albemarle County. Some projects only on paper then are now coming online, and that's changing things dramatically. There has been a tremendous change in the vitality of the city. It's much more cosmopolitan. There's more energy than 10 years ago.
Best about being mayor: The opportunity to meet a broad cross section of the public.
Worst: The time commitment away from the family.
Notables you met: Al Gore, Oprah, and I introduced the first world tour for the Dave Matthews Band.
Term: 1996-1998, Democrat
Day job then: Attorney, Southern Environmental Law Center
"Even though we were an all-Democratic council," says Kay Slaughter, "we didn't always agree." She says she eventually realized that using parliamentary procedures helped her get votes on key issues. "People need to regain the spirit of collegiality," says Slaughter. "As Senator Claiborne Pell said, 'If you don't seek credit, it's amazing how much you can get done.'"
Big issue: City/county consolidation
Most heat: That was probably it. Those who supported the reversion petition wanted to make Charlottesville a town; those who opposed felt we'd lose status if a town and it would be bad for African Americans.
Decisive vote: The historic district for West Main Street. That was a close one, and we didn't know if we had enough votes.
Would you have done anything differently? I think I would have tried to find other ways to defuse political issues among people. It's very hard for a mayor in Charlottesville, because you don't have any power.
Your legacy: I listened to people, I was a straight shooter. I hope I helped move the ball along with historic preservation, but that was the whole council.
Biggest change: I think [council] is awfully contentious in recent years.
Best about being mayor: You see things the average middle-class citizen doesn't see everyday. I went to somebody's family reunion, and they were so honored. It was a symbolic gesture that's so important to people.
Worst: You're always on call.
Notables you met: Roger Ebert, Jason Robards, Eva Marie Saint
Term: 1998-2000, Democrat
Day job then: co-owner Papercraft Printing
Reversion dominated Virginia Daugherty's term. "It taught us," she says, "some lessons about the need for economic development in Charlottesville to support the schools and the programs we offer low income people. We don't have the expanding tax base that the county does. We have to work on creative ways to get business and housing in."
Big issue: The Regal, the skating rink. The Second Street Mall crossing caused quite a hubbub. I supported it. It's been shown to be fine. No one has been injured.
Most heat: Reversion. It went on for months and months. In the end, it couldn't get enough votes. I supported it. I thought we should be part of the county.
Would you have done anything differently? You always wish you'd shown better leadership.
Your legacy: I'm proud of Charlottesville public school scholarships. They're given only to low-income graduates. Another thing I'm proud of is the skate park. It's not my legacy, but I encouraged it.
Biggest change: A lot of development is going on. It's going to change here, and I see people complaining about it. I wish they could remember we had to fight for that development.
Best about being mayor: If you have a strong interest in something, you can push it and feel empowered. You don't have any more votes.
Worst: The flak. It does seem to center on the mayor.
Notables you met: Bitsy said she got to kiss Gregory Peck. I didn't have anything like that.
Term: 2000-2002, Democrat
Day job then: Owner, Vector Construction
Blake Caravati readily admits his switch on the long-debated Meadowcreek Parkway. "I was the swing vote," says Caravati. "I had campaigned against it-- then changed my mind as an elected official." He's also a self-described Type A personality. "One way I channeled my aggression was when I got an email calling me a jerk, instead of writing back, I went to their house. I did that about 50 times."
Big issue: 9-11. When things like that happen, people go to whoever is mayor. It was very difficult. I had to speak at 15 events. And when those CHS students beat up those UVA kids, that was very hard, very emotional. I still get emails from the Aryan Nation. The good thing was, the community talks more about race. And there was an uprising about dog leashes...
Most heat: Meadowcreek Parkway.
Decisive vote: Every year the budget. I had not voted for the budget before becoming mayor.
Would you have done anything differently? I wish I'd done more with affordable housing.
Your legacy: I don't believe in legacies. I did my duty. I tried very hard to do the best for the city of Charlottesville.
Biggest change: Public outreach. There's been a much higher level of transparency on council and citizen involvement since 1998. And there's less creative tension. We might have been all Democrats on council, but we fought like cats, and usually what squirts out of that is better.
Best about being mayor: Meeting people. Even though you're one among equals, you're like a magnet. People come at you. You're invited to everything.
Worst: I took it too serously. I felt on 24-hour call. I worried about it all the time. If there was gunfire and someone got shot and killed, I'd get a call.
Notables you met: Anthony Hopkins. I tried to kiss Sigourney Weaver, but she wouldn't let me.
Term: 2002-2004, Democrat
Day job then: Associate professor of architecture at UVA, private practice
Despite eight years on Council and a stint as mayor, Cox found himself losing a battle with the other four councilors when he proposed Preston Commons, a residential complex carved from terrain in the middle of Preston Avenue. "If it had been done downtown, you wouldn't have heard a peep about it," says Cox. On the broader picture, however, this guru of urbanism won big. In 2000, he got the Comprehensive Plan to call for mixed use and denser development to lessen sprawl. And he spearheaded the changes at the east end of the Downtown Mall
Big issue: The 5-0 support of the new zoning ordinance that reshapes Charlottesville for the next 30 years.
Most heat: Preston Commons
Decisive vote: Every vote in opposition to Meadowcreek Parkway. They were always minority votes, but having a role in shaping and slowing down that project was incredibly decisive. If it turns out to be an asset and amenity, it will be because of those votes.
Would you have done anything differently? My vision of where we needed to go was so clear, I sometimes would charge ahead before the public was ready.
Your legacy: Charlottesville continues to have a vibrant dynamic downtown. When that kind of energy is found at neighborhood levels, I'll feel my legacy as an architect confirmed.
Biggest change: I tried to keep City Council business in the news constantly. You need to keep people's attention, sometimes through controversy. I don't open the paper now and see things that make me upset and want to get involved.
Best about being mayor: The incredible cross-section of people I would encounter on a given day. It was a very humbling experience to talk to somone who needs an affordable place to live, then an investor, then about the state of the schools, then with city councilors. My life was a lot richer because of that pressure cooker intensity that was my daily bread.
Worst: You became the personification of City Hall for people. It felt like an awesome responsibility.
Notables you met: Coretta Scott King, the prime minister of Ireland, Sissy Spacek, Boyd Tinsley, Coran Capshaw, Julian Bond, John Casteen
Term: 2004-2008, Democrat
Day job: Chiropractor
David Brown is the post-Buck mayor who dared to take a second term. Still, he thinks his impact may take a while to be felt. "Some things you see the effects of down the road," says Brown. "The first two years, the things people like, I can't really take credit for. The next council will see the results of David Brown, mayor."
Big issue: Charlottesville as victim of its own success-- soaring real estate costs, more urban, more desirable. A second issue is achievement in our schools and making sure all students graduate.
Most heat: The [former school superintendent] Scottie Griffin issue. That was a painful episode for the city, very heated. It was a tough first year.
Decisive vote: A historic district around the university-- the Rugby/Venable historic district.
Would you have done anything differently? I don't think so at this point.
Your legacy: I like to think I've been part of making council more responsive and more accessible to people.
Biggest change: The feeling of Charlottesville as an entertainment destination with the Paramount, Pavilion, JPJ Arena, Gravity Lounge, Starlight Express.
Best about being mayor: The incredibly wide range of interesting, cool things and people I get to be a part of, whether at Monticello or at neighborhood parties.
Worst: This is not distinguishable from what's worst about being on City Council-- the harshness and rudeness with which people dialogue with elected officials and city staff.
Notables you met: Christo, Vanessa Redgrave, I.M Pei
(Lisa Provence, The Hook, August 10, 2006)