Neighbors look to protect hospital houses

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Neighbors look to protect hospital houses

This August, the Martha Jefferson Neighborhood Association (MJNA) sent Martha Jefferson Hospital and the City Council a letter requesting that a series of houses the hospital has owned for decades and currently uses as office space be rezoned to residential from commercial. Primarily located on Locust and Lexington Avenues, most of the structures were built before 1925 and as the hospital will relocate to a new building off Peter Jefferson Parkway by 2012, many of its current neighbors are concerned that the eventual hospital sale will open the adjoining 13 houses to demolition.

“The idea that they have absolutely no protection is very scary,” says Ellen Wagner, a past president of MJNA.

When the Martha Jefferson Hospital leaves Locust Avenue in 2012, local residents are afraid that old homes currently owned and operated by the facility will be torn down by a new developer.

“We do hope that the transition helps finance the construction of a state-of-the-art new hospital,” says Steve Bowers, hospital spokesman. “But we are intentionally not going after the highest bidder because we want to ensure that whoever develops this understands the character of Charlottesville, the neighborhood, and has that in mind from day one.”

To that extent, the hospital has hired a firm to conduct a market study due in January that, according to Bowers, will look at “the wider market needs of Downtown Charlottesville and look at the best and highest possible re-use and redevelopment of the hospital campus.”

“Trust but verify,” MJNA President Clarence McClymonds says, quoting Ronald Reagan. “That’s our operating mode here. They claim they’re willing to do the right thing and we’ll take that at face value but let’s see it.” Like most in his neighborhood, McClymonds hopes that the hospital will resell the properties as residences.

“The question becomes, is it going to be financially detrimental for them to sell them as residences?” asks Charles Weber, a resident and attorney who drafted the neighborhood’s request. “I don’t think it is.”

While the hospital did offer an equivocating reply, the City Council has yet to respond, at least as a body. On September 6, Councilor Dave Norris joined members of the neighborhood for a walking tour of the properties in question and two days later blogged about his journey and the neighborhood’s request, characterizing it as “mighty reasonable.”

“I would say I’m favorably inclined,” he says. “It makes sense to me to convert them back to residential use.”

While his comments may be comforting, they are no guarantee for a neighborhood association that has fought repeated battles with the hospital since the group formed in 1988. So this summer, MJNA began the process of requesting historical designation for an area with pre-Civil War roots and in September they were formally recommended to proceed. “We think it’s a wonderful thing to have the history of this area be acknowledged and cherished,” says Wagner. “And this is one way to do that.”

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