“I think I’ve touched every inch of this room,” says Lynelle Lawrence, pointing out improvements with paint-stained fingers as we tour the ground floor of the 100-year-old building on the Square in Crozet which will, within days, become the newest Mudhouse coffeehouse. Lawrence and her husband, John, who opened the Downtown Mudhouse 13 years ago, have spent the last three-and-half-months painstakingly renovating this newest outpost. They’ve replaced the carpet with reclaimed wood, restored the tin ceiling, fixed door jambs and window panes, and probably most painfully, scrubbed away the grime and smoke that had accumulated when the place was Uncle Charlie’s Smokehouse. When this vintage building on the intersection of Three-Notch’d Road and Crozet Avenue whose storied history includes, among other things, being a railroad hotel and the town grocery with a real soda fountain, opened up they knew they’d found the right location for their longtime interest in expanding to Crozet and making a coffeehouse/community meeting space for “fluid social interaction,” says Lawrence.
Oddly, considering the goals of the Crozet Master Plan and the building’s central location, the former Uncle Charlie’s had been allowed to fade. John and Lynelle Lawrence have been refurbishing it by hand for nearly four months, and will open their new Mudhouse there within weeks.
For a place on the pulse point of this town of 5,500 residents, it sure had gotten run down in recent years. Uncle Charlie’s had devolved into a rough bar scene, and though “it wasn’t really a danger to the people of Crozet as much as to the people who liked to frequent it,” says Mike Marshall, publisher of the Crozet Gazette and chairperson of the Crozet Community Advisory Council, “People worried about what might be going on there.
“There were some gunshots through the window one time…It just sort of deteriorated into a saloon. They were nice guys, but the town of Crozet stopped going in.”
It may seem odd that such a landmark had been allowed to languish, particularly in light of the Crozet Master Plan, which Albemarle planners created with the community in 2004. A major tenet of the plan is “Destination Downtown,” a project to improve the downtown area’s streetscape to make it the focal point of town. And yet, downtown Crozet’s revitalization has until very recently been struggling with what Marshall describes as a “zoning handicap.” Until the zoning regulations were changed in 2007, new business owners wanting to lease or buy downtown properties had to contend with restricted building heights and suburban-like parking space requirements, which prohibit the kind of dense in-fill and redevelopment that urban centers need.
County business developer Susan Stimart says that the purpose of the Destination Downtown project is “to make sure Crozet stays connected to Downtown” and plenty has been done in that regard: new storm water drainage at Three Notch’d Road/Crozet Avenue and some streetscape and pedestrian enhancements at that intersection. But plenty hasn’t—the planned removal of overhead utility lines, new sidewalks and bike lanes and the construction of a new 20,000 square-foot library planned for the downtown area, which has been pushed forward by two years due to the recession says Stimart. Marshall says the delay is a shame as he suspects the dollars are available somewhere and it would be unfortunate to lose this inexpensive construction environment, and “the streetscape project should have been completed by now,” he says.
For the Lawrences, however, the scrappy tenor of downtown only seems to fuel their passion. “People thought we were crazy when we opened on the Downtown Mall, but downtown clearly was the soul of Charlottesville,” says Lynelle, “and to us, this is the soul of Crozet.”
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