Some assembly required


In the middle of my interview with local architect and developer Bill Atwood, I realize that his shirt is improperly buttoned. At first, I take the jaunt of his collar as part of the overall look—black Ray-Ban Wayfarers, white hair that has grown comfortable with disarray. Think Jim Jarmusch, or Ric Ocasek.

“You’re not going to see him in a blue blazer and a tie very often,” says his wife, Bebe Heiner, founder of The Women’s Initiative. “You’re not going to see him in a crew cut, either.” 

But it’s a button misfire, all right—a tiny mistake in the middle of his shirt.

I consider telling him but decide not to, because Bill Atwood is currently on a roll, as he so often is. To interrupt Bill Atwood when he is on a roll would feel like spoiling a party—like blowing out the candles on someone else’s birthday cake.

Come hell or high water: Atwood’s six-story Waterhouse, shown here in a rendering from August, was originally conceived as a nine-story mixed-use project at a time when several other tall structures were slated for Downtown.

Atwood is talking, loudly, about art. He paints every night, and has since the early ’90s. Two nights ago, it was a painting of an aquarium. (“This very bizarre, distorted sense of reality,” he says.) Last night, it was a tin of sardines, which he would devour as a child.

“Now, where that came from, I don’t know,” says Atwood. “But I realize those childhood experiences and thoughts that you retain at 62, they’re never going to go away.”

This year, Atwood celebrates 30 years of business for his architecture firm, Atwood Henningsen Kestner. The real cause célèbre, however, is the groundbreaking for Waterhouse—Atwood’s masterpiece, disputed for nearly as long as it has been discussed.

Waterhouse—a six-story, mixed-use building planned for Water Street—is more than four years in the making, and should run a construction tab of $20 million. The building will feature more than 45,000 square feet of office space and 20,000 square feet of residential space split among nine custom-designed units, each priced between $400,000 and $2 million.

Not long ago, Waterhouse was one of a handful of mixed-use projects slated to put cricks in our necks while they brought a new generation of condo-loving pedestrians Downtown. Like the others, Waterhouse faced extinction when banks bellied up and everyone held their breath and Benjamins for a few years.  

Now, thanks to substantial redesigns, an innovative tax rebate program and Atwood’s stubborn insistence that a new generation wants to live where it works and play where it eats, Waterhouse is the last such project standing—a lone survivor from an era of nine-story ambitions. The only work left is to build it.

Construction teams have roughly 10 months to complete Waterhouse. If they finish by November 2011, then Atwood’s commercial tenant—a large Albemarle County business—will be part of the new urbanism experiment Atwood conceived more than four years ago. If workers don’t finish, then Waterhouse may become the wrong sort of permanent installation, the sort of button that even Atwood might not be able to fix.

Architect, developer, bunny

Bill Atwood has a sort of neon charisma, fitting for a Florida native. He grew up in Miami, moved to Gainesville for college, and completed his Master’s degree in Architecture at the University of Florida. After school, he moved to Sarasota to work for an architect named Frank Folsom Smith, who also had a home in Charlottesville and had designed the McGuffey Hill condominiums on Second Street. Smith convinced Atwood to move to Charlottesville.

Atwood says neither rain nor snow will delay construction of Waterhouse, which needs to meet a November 2011 deadline in order to house its anchor corporate client and receive a five-year tax real estate tax rebate, which could total more than $400,000. 

After he worked on the county’s Peacock Hill subdivision with Smith, Atwood left Smith’s firm to work with architects Robert Vickery and Robert Moje, who founded VMDO Architects in 1976. Atwood says Vickery and Moje were interested in designing schools, currently a VMDO specialty. 

Schools were not a focus of Atwood Architects, which he founded in 1980. Instead, Atwood’s firm made its name by designing convenience markets, country clubs and golf course clubhouses. All the while, Atwood says, he was also “very interested in doing housing.”

Around the time Atwood launched his firm, he also became interested in the Downtown Mall as a spot for entertainment, dining, kids’ activities. In 1989, he assembled the Downtown Mall charette, a design brainstorming session that generated early discussions about a need for kids’ activities, or dining along the north side of the Mall. He helped launch the Charlottesville Downtown Foundation (now the Downtown Business Association), where he served as president—and, for six years, as head Easter Bunny.

“We showed up one day with 5,000 Easter eggs and we realized we were dealing with a clientele that had never been to an Easter egg hunt,” says Atwood. For many, the Mall was a collection of businesses, but it was not in the business of collection—of amassing people Downtown for work and play and meals and living. 

Atwood has two children. His son teaches architecture at the University of Southern California. His daughter runs a nonprofit called Kate’s Club, which offers support programs for children whose parents have died. Atwood’s first wife, Audrey, died from breast cancer in 1991. He married Heiner about five years ago; they live in Albemarle County with their dog, a golden doodle named Frida.

During the past five years, Atwood embarked on his Downtown and West Main development interests. In 2005, Atwood’s Star Hill Cottages LLC bought plots off of West Main Street—one parcel on Fifth Street SW for $750,000, and another on Cream Street, in the Starr Hill Neighborhood, for $600,000. 

Now developed, each location casts a distinctive visual imprint on the city. The first plot became the Fifth Street Flats, a group of 12 condos now assessed at $3.5 million, and popularly known as the “Purple People Eater” for its height and hue. The second became the Cream Street 10—orange and silver condos that double as studies in angle and perspective, currently assessed at $2.97 million. 

His architectural and artistic visions for the parcels took a few beatings. Neighborhood resident Pat Edwards told C-VILLE in 2008 that the officials who approved the Cream Street 10 design “were smoking something.” And Ampy Smith, who sold the Fifth Street Flats property to Atwood, told C-VILLE he thought the Purple People Eater was going to be an “eye-catcher.” 

“It’s an eye-hurter to me,” he said. (Asked about the color, Atwood told a reporter: “I like purple.”)

But criticism didn’t dampen his development ambitions. Atwood followed these relatively small purchases with two whoppers—$4.5 million for the Waterhouse site in 2006, and $3.2 million for the Under the Roof building, located at 1003 W. Main St. Plans for both sites included mixed-use buildings, with retail on the bottom, residential above, and water catchment systems on the roof, a feature Atwood remains passionate about.

Then, a proverbial drought. Both sites sat untouched while Atwood designed and redesigned—to accommodate the Board of Architectural Review, an economic recession and his artistic impulses. 

But while plans for Under the Roof have dropped off during the recession, Atwood has clung stubbornly to Waterhouse. 

And, at a time when other developers might have found frustration and empty pockets, Atwood managed to land a new design and score an innovative financing approach. 

Heiner attributes it to persistence.

“He’s very determined and he’s willing to try different ways to get something done,” she says. “I think he finally figured it out.” 

“Killing zone for condos”

For years, the biggest problems facing Waterhouse were financing and design. 

In 2006, Atwood’s Waterhouse was one of several nine-story mixed-use buildings planned for Downtown. Developer Keith Woodard bought the Wachovia buildings at First and Main streets for $1.8 million and proposed a nine-story mixed-used building for the site. Around the same time, Dave Matthews Band manager Coran Capshaw revealed plans for his Coal Tower project: more than 300 residential units and 250,000 square feet of office space on the 10.4-acre plot, which he purchased from Oliver Kuttner for $2.3 million. 

Kuttner—founder of the Lynchburg-based Edison2 design team, winners of the $5 million Automotive X-Prize—owned the Waterhouse site at one time. He sold the property to Atwood, his architect for the site, for $4.5 million in March 2006. (“We bought high, no secret,” says Atwood.) By June, Atwood received approval from the Board of Architectural Review (BAR) for a nine-story building with 110 parking spaces—all to be housed underground. 

In 2008, City Council approved a pair of ordinances to control the density of development near Downtown. The first divided Downtown into three separate corridors, and reduced by-right development heights from 101′ to 70′ in the Water and Downtown corridors. The second reduced by-right density on Water Street to 43 dwellings per unit area (DUA). With special use permits, a developer could nudge buildings in the Water Street corridor up to 101′ and 240 DUA.

At first, the ordinances didn’t affect Waterhouse, which was exempted due to its previous approval. Shortly after they were passed, however, Atwood lost a loan commitment when Lehman Brothers filed the largest bankruptcy claim in U.S. history.

The economic recession created what Atwood calls a “cultural killing zone for condominiums.” Major metropolitan cities—Miami, for instance—had too many condominiums in place and more on the way.

Atwood started pursuing more feasible designs. In December 2008, Atwood’s two-towers design became a single nine-story tower with adjacent cottages. Four months later, the cottages were replaced by a parking structure that South Street neighbor Brent Nelson described as a “concrete bunker with vines.”

Atwood’s artist ego took similar beatings during subsequent appearances before the BAR, which were required to sign off on each new design. In June, when Atwood returned to the BAR with a new, six-story drawing, he was told that his design needed to be massively simplified. One member of the board referred to an iteration of Waterhouse as “Corbusian cruise ship meets ziggurat Frank Lloyd Wright.”

With something like the frequency of a ping pong match, Atwood bounced back and forth between these meetings and the drawing board, where he refashioned his designs according to input from the BAR and his neighbors.

“Brent Nelson and Mary Gillen”—two neighbors of Waterhouse who regularly chimed in during BAR meetings—“have given me more ideas than I could possibly generate myself about what they think is appropriate,” says Atwood. “And they were right all along.”

In effect, Atwood used the BAR the same way visual artists use workshops or critiques—to unlock creative potential and gauge audience appeal. And, after a few more beatings, his persistence paid off. At the same June meeting this year, Nelson, who declined to be interviewed for this article, called Atwood’s six-story design his best yet.

“What this change allows is for a building that more successfully allows for needs on Water Street, but also creates a presence on South Street more appropriate for the houses that lie across the street,” said Nelson. Two months later, the BAR agreed, and approved Atwood’s design with a 6-1 vote.

During our interview, Atwood calls the majority of architects “too myopic.”

“We get so focused on our particular likes and dislikes that we miss the greater palette,” he says. “It’s always good to have as many people as possible look at what you’re doing, because it’s there for a long time.”

“Lawyers put their mistakes in jail. Our mistakes are right there.”

A new funding approach

If architects cringe at their mistakes, then developers pay for theirs. Flimsy financing can make for permanent blemishes.

So Atwood must have been greatly relieved when, in August, City Council unanimously approved a rebate program that gave Waterhouse a critical financial boost. Called “tax increment financing” (TIF), the program stipulates that Atwood must secure all financing for the estimated $20 million building and complete construction by March 2012. If he does, the city will reward Atwood with a 50 percent rebate on real property tax revenues attributed to the building. Waterhouse’s tax base will be assessed pre- and post-construction; the difference in assessments will be attributed to Waterhouse, halved, and awarded for five consecutive years—an estimated total rebate of $407,970.

Mayor Dave Norris told C-VILLE that “the kind of economic activity that [Waterhouse] will generate Downtown will more than make up for that small amount of foregone city revenue [from TIF funds].”

“It was clear that if we did not provide something, the proverbial bottom line of the project was just not going to work,” said Aubrey Watts, director of the city’s Economic Development Authority, in August. TIF funds would help Atwood cope with a dearth of loans and Downtown parking spaces—the latter a “tremendous disadvantage,” according to Atwood.

While the city gave Atwood until March 2012 to complete his building, Waterhouse actually needs to be completed four months before that. When Atwood redesigned Waterhouse, he also reconsidered his tenants and decided to pursue a single business to occupy the bottom two floors of his building. By August, Atwood recruited WorldStrides, a 200-employee Albemarle County business, to anchor his building. The rub? WorldStrides’ current lease expires in October 2011, so they’ll need a new home by next November.

“We’ve got to do it”

Peter Jefferson Place sits on more than 200 acres of land on Pantops Mountain. A website for the development dubs the spot “Charlottesville’s premiere office park,” and entices business owners with “a quality corporate environment in a beautiful and natural setting.”

For WorldStrides, a student travel company based in the office park, “a quality corporate environment” and “a beautiful and natural setting” are mutually exclusive. Employees get into their cars and drive to work. The nearest lunch outside of a brown paper bag is a half-mile away, so some get back in their cars to head to lunch. And then back to work. And then back home. Et cetera.

“In five years, as our staff transitions, we’ll have a lot of people biking and walking and using public transportation to get to work,” says CEO Jim Hall. “And that’s really just not an option here.”

WorldStrides’ current lease at Peter Jefferson Place expires in October 2011. In September, WorldStrides inked a 10-year lease for a spot on Water Street, with the option of a five-year extension.

According to Hall, roughly 90 percent of the company’s staff lives in either Charlottesville or Albemarle. “We have a young, relatively well-educated, affluent staff,” says Hall. “I think being Downtown is exciting to probably 98 percent of the people here.”

Hall adds that there are adequate protections in the lease and construction contract, but declines to discuss specifics. While no one would say as much on the record, a few folks have wondered whether Waterhouse will be complete in time for a November move.

Octagon Partners, which developed the Gleason mixed-use building Downtown, ran into construction delays. That six-story structure has 36 condos, and began selling spaces in 2006, but construction did not begin until October 2008.

J.P. Williamson, a partner at Octagon, said he is not sufficiently familiar with Waterhouse to comment on its construction timeline. However, he says “quality sites and projects will be well received and supported by the market,” and says Atwood has both a quality location and design. 

Hall says WorldStrides’ concerns are “minimal.” Waterhouse provides 100 parking spots for those employees who currently own cars, and Atwood plans to use his TIF funds to purchase an additional 70 spaces Downtown—an idea Hall calls a “very workable solution.”

“I feel like everybody’s on board with getting this done in time,” says Hall.

And that includes residents. Cathie Runyon first heard about Waterhouse from her daughter, Grier, who works in real estate.

“Waterhouse appealed to us for several reasons,” writes Runyon in an e-mail. “It is close to our children’s house in Belmont. We are able to design the interior space to our own needs and specifications and it is close to Downtown. Although the project has taken on many forms over the years, these reasons have stayed true.”

Runyon says she thought the building might not reach fruition, and called her wait for the project “a long and frustrating endeavor.” However, she says, “We are glad that we stuck it out and are very excited about the direction of the final design.”

I put the question to Atwood point-blank. Will Waterhouse be done in time for WorldStrides?

“We’ve got to do it,” he says.

And if we see the sort of snow we saw last winter?

“The biggest thing I was afraid of was five hurricanes in a row,” says Atwood. “Snow’s not bad. You’ve got jobs in Manhattan—they’re not slowed by snow. We’ll work through snow.”

Although excavation remains ongoing at the Waterhouse site, Atwood occasionally speaks about his project as if it’s already finished.

“It’s really now at my age, humbled by all the errors I’ve made, that I can actually say that the victory in Waterhouse is not the fenestration,” says Atwood, talking about the invisible glass panel that separates the two structures of the nonexistent building. “It’s in the fact that it got done, and it brings certain values to the community.”

“Now, can we do it again?” asks Atwood. “I hope so.”

Atwood’s theory

Atwood says the suburban model is dead. Bill Lucy does too, and he can explain why.

In May, Lucy—a UVA planning professor and former City Planning Commissioner—published Foreclosing the Dream: How America’s Housing Crisis is Changing Our Cities and Suburbs. Since the turn of this century, Lucy argues, many of America’s major metropolitan areas saw an exodus from the suburbs to city centers. It’s a move that he sees in Charlottesville, and a demand that projects like Waterhouse could potentially meet.

According to market reports from the Charlottesville Area Association of Realtors (CAAR), the average annual price per square foot in 2002 was $112 in Charlottesville and $118 in Albemarle. Subsequent changes to those averages, says Lucy, is key to understanding the shift from suburban lifestyles to the more city-centric vision held by developers like Atwood.

“Since 2002—every quarter, I believe—prices have been higher per square foot in Charlottesville,” says Lucy. “And I think that, in a single indicator, captures what happened.”

CAAR’s third quarter report, published October 15, bears out Lucy’s argument. Charlottesville nudged ahead in 2003, and stayed there. To date in 2010, the average sales price per square foot is $163 in Charlottesville, and $148 in Albemarle. 

Additionally, Lucy says the demographics of the average homeowner have changed. The number of 30something homeowners nationwide has dropped by 3.4 million since 2000, meaning fewer people are buying homes at younger ages, and many suburban homeowners who go through foreclosures opt not to buy again. The website offers a map of foreclosure rates for September; Charlottesville shows 14 foreclosures, while surrounding county areas total 20.

Lucy calls Waterhouse “the kind of project that is very appropriate to [its] location and other locations Downtown,” and an important step towards reducing driving in the Downtown corridor. 

“My only regret is that there’s less residential space than was initially proposed, because I think the market in a very short time will definitely support that,” says Lucy. “And some other projects, as well.”

Visions and revisions

Viewed from above, Atwood’s Downtown and West Main properties form a nearly straight line from the Waterhouse parcel to Under the Roof. In 20 minutes, one could walk the mile distance from one site to the other, with short detours to the Cream Street 10 and Fifth Street Flats. Pick the wrong day and time to drive it, and one could spend the same amount of time in a West Main gridlock.   

From Waterhouse, Atwood plans to move west, towards UVA. Across from Under the Roof is Sycamore House, located next to the future site of UVA’s $75 million Battle Building, part of the institution’s children’s hospital. 

The owner, John Bartelt, hired Atwood to design an extended-stay hotel for the site—a longtime dream of Atwood’s. When his first wife was dying of cancer, he spent plenty of nights at the hospital. 

“I had a wife who was sick there for five years,” says Atwood. “You don’t want to eat at the University Hospital restaurant. It’s good for maybe three meals. The fourth meal, you’ll be a patient.” He would wander the Corner looking for other dining options, and could sleep at home. “But you had to be there, you see?”

Atwood presented designs to the BAR in November 2009 as part of a preliminary conversation. The reviews weren’t flattering: windows were “odd” and “alien to the language of the rest of the building,” and the design as a whole “did not seem very Charlottesville,” according to one member. A few buttons out of place—elements to stitch up before drawings go before the board at a later date. Par for the course. 

Atwood says he would like to see UVA collaborate with developers along West Main, rather than buy real estate or develop research parks outside of the city center, like the school’s current parks on Route 29N and Fontaine Avenue. His take? “Who the hell wants to be in Fontaine?”

“They’re just not stepping up to create relationships in development and real estate,” says Atwood. “What sense does it make to have a research park 10 miles away? What’s that all about?”

He expresses some hope that, under new president Teresa Sullivan, UVA will stretch out by staying closer to home—“link to the city like never before.” It might take a while, but Bill Atwood is good at waiting. 

Meanwhile, there’s art—painting each night, and drawing on Sunday. And there’s time. “Time yet for a hundred indecisions,” as T.S. Eliot put it. “And for a hundred visions and revisions.” No use getting too uptight. As Atwood puts it, there are already too many bowties in the architecture business.

“I mean, how can you possibly look like some of these guys look and relate to regular people?” he asks, incredulous, his shirt askew.