Planned hotel project may mean new life for West Main, but is the city losing its last cheap startup space?

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The property at the corner of Ridge McIntire and West Main Street, pictured here in a 2007 photo, is slated to become a 70′-tall hotel—a project the city says will help establish a gateway to Downtown at one end of the overlooked corridor. But the project will displace a number of young startups, some of which may find themselves priced out of the neighborhood they’ve helped revive. (Photo by Eric Kelley)

The fact that the properties at 301 and 315 West Main Street are again before the Charlottesville Board of Architectural Review this week for renewed demolition approval isn’t surprising.

The West Main Street parcel at the corner of Ridge McIntire, owned by three generations of the Mooney family, has been on the market for about $4 million for years, and a sale to Marriott Hotels is considered imminent—a proposed site plan for a 70-foot building on the spot went before the BAR in April.

But the development of the old auto sale and repair site, spared in the razing of Vinegar Hill in the 1960s, has developed a new life and character in the hands of its entrepreneurial tenants in recent years. Even as discussion of how to move development on the historically overlooked West Main corridor continues, some are worried that the loss of the creative startup culture that has helped boost vitality in the area may be the price of progress marching on.

For the most part, the tenants in the so-called Random Row Warehouse and the adjacent former garage said they understand why they have to move on—possibly as soon as September—and they don’t feel ill-used. “We all knew,” said Tara Koenig, who opened SweetHaus Cupcakes in the warehouse last September. “Every single person knew that building was for sale when we signed the lease.”

Still, for some, it’s tough timing. While anchor tenant Random Row Books was established in the fall of 2009, a few of the tenants have been operating out of the strip for less than a year.

A UVA graduate who settled in Fifeville, Koenig said she knew she wanted to set up shop on West Main. If Downtown is Charlottesville’s Manhattan, “West Main has more of a Brooklyn vibe,” she said.

Starting from a blank—if filthy—slate suited her creative spirit, too. “I can’t begin to tell you how raw it was,” she laughed. Photographer Cat Thrasher, who turned the space above Koenig’s shop into a 1,000-square-foot studio, had a similar experience.

“There was an inch of dust on the floor, and a wall full of nasty shelves,” Thrasher said fondly. It didn’t really matter, she said. “I fell in love with the place.”

They plan—or at least hope—to stay in the neighborhood if the hotel project goes forward. Koenig has discussed moving her shop into Main Street Market developer Gabe Silverman’s new Market Annex property just down the street. Thrasher is still searching. So is City Clay owner Randy Bill, a retired St. Anne’s Belfield art teacher whose ceramics school and studio also had a September 2011 opening. But Bill said pickings are slim for people like her, a fact she discovered during her initial search for space.

“I looked at other places that were normal rent, and I was terrified,” she said. “I couldn’t even conceive of starting at that amount, not knowing if I had a business that was viable.”
Like her fellow tenants, Bill said she understood the Mooneys’ desire to sell. But she’s one of a number of locals who worry that the loss of the ragged-but-renovated strip is a serious blow to the city’s small startups—both current and to come.

“The issue that’s really on the table is how the city can support this kind of business,” Bill said. “As somebody with a creative idea that’s maybe a little off the charts, it’s hard to get started.” Independent businesses big and small are having an increasingly hard time standing up against corporate-backed chains, she said.

“Everywhere you go there are Gaps and Targets and big box stores, and the same gas stations and the same fast food places,” she said. “How do we differentiate ourselves regionally if those are the only ones who can do business, because they’re big enough? This is part of the character of Charlottesville, and in one fell swoop, it’ll be gone, and we’ll have a chain—Marriott.”

Spencer Ingram, who opened Cville Bike Lab in the warehouse last December, echoed the sentiment. He’s always called his hybrid bike-shop-cum-advocacy center an experiment, and he’s ready to move on to a new adventure. But Charlottesville’s paucity of raw space is a problem, he said.

“Whatever industrial space the city had has long since been knocked down or developed,” he said.
Neighborhood Development Services Director Jim Tolbert said the city is taking aim at the problem, and is eyeing some underdeveloped areas immediately south of Downtown as potential new homes for those seeking studios and inexpensive retail space.

Meanwhile, when it comes to the future of West Main, officials are looking beyond gritty appeal. Tolbert said the pending hotel project is just the kind of anchor property that’s needed at the eastern end of the corridor that connects UVA to Downtown. The city has long wanted to push more projects forward there, he said, and in 2003, it rewrote the local zoning ordinance to allow more mixed-use development. The fact that the streetscape has remained stagnant since is largely the result of the stalled economy, Tolbert said.

He said he’s seen a number of good plans for new developments between the train station and Downtown, “but the dollars and cents just aren’t there.”

And he said there’s only so much the city can do. “We’re not developers,” he said. Officials can make it easier for property owners to plan and execute projects, “but we can’t make them do it. There’s not a lot more that we can do other than get out of the way.”

Gabe Silverman doesn’t buy that argument. As one of the chief West Main property holders—only Coran Capshaw can claim peer status when it comes to owning buildings here—he said he feels the city could do more to make the area a more appealing destination for retailers and shoppers. According to him, the problem is a lack of leadership.

“If we want a future for the citizens of Charlottesville, a vision of what Charlottesville can be for future residents…then we have to acknowledge what is missing,” he said. “If you assume someone else will do it, you have complacency.”

Fancy new builds aside, those who live and work on and near West Main say there are simple things the city can do to polish the image of what many see as a still-seedy part of town, like improve parking and increase police foot patrols. Thrasher, the photographer who put plenty of sweat and blood into making her Random Row space habitable, said some of that has happened already, and she’s amazed at the change she’s seen since she moved to Fifeville in 2005.

But she’s acutely aware of the flip side of gentrification. Thrasher may be priced out of the area once she loses her beloved studio—a space she felt such an attachment to that she and her husband chose to get married there. Still, she thinks West Main will continue to draw entrepreneurs and their patrons precisely because it remains a little rough around the edges.

“You get a little bit of dirt with your culture, a little more imperfection,” she said. “And that’s where inspiration comes from.”

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