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A Matter of Balance

By THERESA REYNOLDS CURRY

He'd never ridden a bicycle, but he turned the city into a haven for bikers; he embraced historic preservation while preferring contemporary design.

Until recently the Director of Strategic Planning for Charlottesville (Virginia, USA), Satyendra Singh Huja has retired so he can work more. Cutting back to part-time planning has allowed Huja to concentrate on special projects and devote more time to volunteer work and artistic endeavors.

One such undertaking is a new book, "Poems in Prose and Line," a volume that, as its name suggests, includes graceful black-and-white line drawings as well as poetry.

One of the striking line drawings in "Poems" is called "Balance," and there's a poem, too  -  pretty much the theme for the collection, Huja said. "Balance is what we want  -  in life, in a city, in ourselves," he said. He dreams of becoming a sculptor and a potter. At the same time, he looks forward to ladling out soup to the hungry.

The sculpting part is a logistical challenge to the man who says he's better at the idea than the execution - " I can design what I want, but I'll have to learn how to make the structure," he said.

He designed an illustration for the popular saying, "thinking out of the box", which graces his resume, the "k" in "think" tilting backward into the box while one leg bravely stretches outside it. He had a friend turn his design into a sculpture that marks the wall outside the entrance to his office at City Hall.

He's also had his share of having to think inside the box, he acknowledges. He names finding realistic solutions to problems within given constraints as one of his skills.

The soup kitchen, on the other hand, is immediate gratification: "It's unusual for someone like me to do something that pleases everybody," he said. "I know in advance I'll have only happy customers."

Huja was one of the founders of the soup kitchen at Thomas Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church. In volunteer roles, he also helped start Meals on Wheels, and the Charlottesville Mediation Center.

Volunteering has been a lifetime responsibility for Huja, beginning when he was a counselor at summer camp for troubled children during college, shortly after he arrived in this country from India.

"My best skill is to see a need, start a program, and then turn it over to the community to run," he said.

He'll continue to teach planning at the University of Virginia. "I probably get more out of it than the students," he said. They provide a kind of balance, too, he added. While Huja prides himself on trying to think out of the box, the students don't know there is a box.

"It's great," he said. "They don't know what can't be done, so their ideas are new and fresh." The Preston Commons project came from his class, he explained  -  a great idea although difficult to execute.

History

Huja came to Charlottesville from Portsmouth, a move that seems desirable now, less so then. Downtown was deserted, the Corner was a dump (his words). Rickety shacks rattled in the wind that blew through the weedy fields on the other side of the tracks - a black and white photograph of one of them hangs across the room from his desk, where he can see it every day. "I keep it here to remind me," he said. "What we do here has meaning in people's lives."

The meaning is not always readily apparent to everyone, he admits. The rebuilding of Downtown caused real controversy, some of it very understandable. "It's hard for people to think in terms of years when they're going to be affected in days."

It takes at least five years, maybe more, to see if something's going to work. Often, construction is the easiest part of a project. Take the corner renovation: "Five months to design, six months to prepare, three months to build," he remembers. "Of course, we had to do it while school was not in session."

Huja recently visited Bulgaria and spent the five last days of the trip in Paris. His head is still spinning with ideas: "It does something for the people who live there to have a city so full of flowers and art, architecture and history, so beautifully maintained," he said.

One of his priorities for Charlottesville was to plant flowers, protect trees, invite artists. "It's good for the soul," he said. "That translates into more practical benefits quicker than you might think. Why do people come here? Why do they want to stay here? Quality of life is very important to a city's growth and health."

He laughs at the notion that he was an avid bicyclist, explaining his interest in making the city welcoming to bikers. "I finally did learn, and someone gave me a bike," he said, "but not until recently."

Preservation

Preserving history was also important to him. "When I first came here (in 1973), they were destroying it with a vengeance," he said. He indicates his office furniture and art with a wave of the hand: "What do you see here? Modern art. A modern desk. That's what I like. But we were destroying our artifacts, our past. We had to stop that."

There was also a lack of minority professionals - "I don't just mean racial minorities," he said. "There was a lack of a mixture of people of different ages, cultural backgrounds, and interests. That's changed a lot."

Today

In his scaled-back job, he'll keep some projects he's particularly interested in. Court Square is one of them.

"You can go through Court Square and never know its significance," he said. "You just drive on by. But it's an amazing treasure. Just imagine another place in this country where three Presidents - three of the greatest - walked side by side." They were giants, he said, and the city has never done anything to market that part of its history.

He looks forward to the four years of construction ahead. He'll also be overseeing the renovation of the Fifeville area and participating in some of the city's activities commemorating the journey of Lewis and Clark.

Like other planners throughout the state, he worries about affordable housing.

"Actually, here in Charlottesville, we still have some homes that ordinary working people can afford - a little better than the rest of the area," he said.

Huja believes that the pay scales - as well as the housing opportunities for the mainstream workforce - need to be adjusted. "What a young or even mid-level professional can earn here is not where it should be," he argued.

He thinks that people should live where they work  -  walking on sidewalks, stopping for coffee, riding bicycles and patronizing merchants. "That's what makes a vibrant community," he opined.

He notes the sometimes-uneasy relationship between the city and the University. "What's good for one is not necessarily good for the other."

For one thing, the cost of affordable rental property for young professionals just starting out goes sky high when there's the possibility of renting to four or five students, he said. "It's too much for a young couple to pay $1,000 a month for rent; but landlords can easily split it between a number of undergraduates."

On balance, of course, the advantages of sharing your city with a major university far outweigh any negatives. "I probably wouldn't be here if not for the cultural opportunities: the lectures, music and art," he explained. The other advantage is a fairly stable economy  -  no matter what happens to the stock market, young people will still need an education.

Traveling is a passion for Huja  - "I just rent a car and drive around, no matter where." 

He collects teapots and uses them at an annual tea party, dividing the platters between the sweets and savories preferred by the English and the spicy pastries served in his native country. "I try to serve half and half," he said. He'll also add a couple of foods from any place he's recently visited. Bulgaria will be a challenge, he admits, but he'll think of something.

Despite his contributions to Charlottesville's evolution, he says he's proudest of some of the accomplishments that nobody knows about.

Still, it's wonderful to look back and see that you've made a difference, he said: "Yesterday I was talking to a man from the World Bank, looking for a retirement home. He could live anywhere in the world, and he's going to live here. That meant a lot to me."

[Courtesy: The Real Estate Weekly

 

Conversation about this article

1: Amitoj Singh (U.S.A.), February 24, 2008, 5:29 PM.

I believe Satyendra Singh Huja and Harvinder S. Anand are two of the very few Sikhs holding political office in the U.S.A. It is up to Sikhs to promote Sikhs in these positions, and we should all take active part in politics in order to have a real say in our nation!

2: Tina (Kenya), September 02, 2009, 9:55 PM.

You have many that post on your site - it is cool!

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