December 08: Neighborhood on the line

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December 08: Neighborhood on the line

The Willoughby subdivision holds a secret: Hidden in Joelle and Michael Meintzschel’s backyard is the treehouse of dreams.  

At a glance

Distance from Downtown: 2 miles

Distance from UVA: 2.8 miles

Elementary Schools: Jackson-Via/Cale

Middle Schools: Walker & Buford/Burley

High Schools: Charlottesville/Monticello

Homes sold in first half of 2008: 10

Median sale price: $263,870

Composed of four levels, built by Mike’s own two hands, the structure is snug and watertight, the haunt of not only Joelle and Mike’s two daughters, but all of Willoughby’s children and, occasionally, its exiled husbands. Mike says that passers-by often see the house through the trees and come knocking, asking to take a look. Of course, all are welcomed in. The Meintzschels, residents since 1993 of a slope-roofed Cape Cod near the neighborhood entrance, are nothing if not welcoming people, making a community feeling palpable—from the beaming green siding of their home, to the Vespa Mike drives to deliver neighborhood newsletters, their dog Lina in the sidecar, along for the ride.

Though just a stone’s throw from Fifth Street traffic, both the treehouse and Willoughby as a whole feel secluded, even sheltered, from the usual buzz of Charlottesville city life. Built by R.D. Wade in the ’80s and ’90s, Willoughby is its own world: The entire neighborhood lies shaded by trees, sloping through the hills in a series of cul-de-sacs, private and quiet despite proximity to I-64, UVA, and Downtown. With only a tri-color sign to mark its entrance, it is hard to imagine that more than 200 homes, a mix of townhouses, detached homes, and duplexes, lie just beyond the curve of the entrance road. Residents call the neighborhood “the hidden gem” of area real estate, full of quirks and small surprises—a creekside trail, a neighborhood boulder—that are being threatened, some feel, by the advance of city growth.

Fraternal twins

Willoughby is chock full of idiosyncrasies. For one thing, there’s the neighborhood’s unusual location: Curving off the intersection of Fifth and Harris Street, two miles south of Downtown, Willoughby squarely straddles the Charlottesville-Albemarle border, the only neighborhood that does so.
 
On a practical level, this means available utilities can vary oddly from block to block. For the Meintzschels, city residents, it means that, come snow season, their street is plowed hours earlier than those of their county neighbors. Joelle Meintzschel says her county-dwelling neighbors have seen “the plows come in and drive right up to the county line, then turn back around and drive away,” Joelle Meintzschel says. “They won’t go an inch further.” Recycling and trash pick-up are available for the Charlottesville section of the community; for county homes, they are not. Additionally, many parents choose to live city-side to have access to Charlottesville schools.

But county residents don’t necessarily get the short end of the stick. David Storm, county

When Michael Meintzschel built this treehouse, he found it attracted curious neighbors from throughout Willoughby. Now it’s a landmark for neighborhood kids.

resident and employee Downtown at LexisNexis, says that he and his wife, Audrey, preferred the county properties when they were looking for a home in 2003. “For people in the county, it’s like living in the city but paying the county tax rate,” Storm says. Furthermore, since county homes were part of a later wave of construction, they tend to be larger and newer.

While geographically, Willoughby’s single entrance and enclosure create an island effect that unifies its residents, the city/county disparities create a community divide, which varies in intensity depending on who you ask. On the whole, however, Willoughby’s two sides seem to sit peaceably hand-in-hand, with a contingent of longtime homeowners in addition to a steady turnover of University and hospital employees throughout. Joelle Meintzschel, who’s not just a homeowner here but a Realtor who lists houses in the area, says that the neighborhood’s convenience has made it increasingly attractive to a diverse crowd over the years. Nonetheless, the character of the neighborhood has remained steadily throughout her time there.

Surprisingly, Willoughby has no neighborhood association. But even in the face of the city/county split and a sprawling layout, Willoughby has managed to retain a sense of sociability which began, perhaps, with its developer, who constructed a children’s playground, installed sidewalks, and continues to provide mowing services.

“There’s a lot of friendliness,” says Storm. “A lot of waving and talking.”

There’s also a lot of walking, with residents frequently taking advantage of Willoughby’s self-containedness for routine exercise. Many walk or bike to work Downtown, or to nearby shopping areas, including the newly renovated Food Lion. Proposals for a shopping complex on Avon and Fifth Street, which promises green-friendly construction, “big-box” shops, and a walkway connection to Willoughby, have many excited, though others are concerned that this expansion may leave the community exposed to more traffic than residents are willing to accept.

Steady as she goes

With 10 homes sold in the first half of this year, with a median price of $263,870 based on Joelle Meintzschel’s figures, real estate sales in Willoughby are consistent with third quarter city averages of $265,000, and considerably lower than the $320,000 county average. Considering all that Willoughby has to offer—a blend of privacy and convenience to city hot spots—many residents feel pleased with the square footage they’re getting for their money.

And, according to Meintzschel, neighborhood properties have retained their value throughout the years, seemingly insulated from market disturbances: Steady in the face of market slowdowns, Willoughby has also escaped the price spike and rapid development that has seized, for example, Belmont in the past few years, making possible the

Willoughby is a mix of townhouses, detached homes and duplexes, all straddling the city/county line.

neighborhood’s particular brand of community spirit that, she says, inspires cooking clubs and rallies homeowners together to have a gas line installed (though notably in only the city section).

However, questions hover. With the Avon/ Fifth Street Shopping Center in the planning and blasts shaking the hills just north of the community for further townhouse construction in Brookwood, the possibility of increased traffic and the accompanying rise in noise and thoroughfare has become a worry to some residents.

Yet, both Storm and the Meintzschels feel that change is unlikely to rattle Willoughby, whose character has remained steady throughout the years, in addition to its property values. Storm represented Willoughby in March when he spoke in favor of the Avon/Fifth Street project at a county Board of Supervisors meeting. “People who have been living in the neighborhood since the beginning say that they’ve been talking about a shopping center for years,” he says. “They doubt it will really happen.” For now, in any case, Willoughby remains a sort of woodland sanctuary tucked just near the heart of the city, and the Meintzschels’ treehouse remains open: Just come up and knock.—Lucy Zhou