The frog’s prince

The frog’s prince

Jim Chang is your typical reluctant neighborhood association president—he took over the job “by default,” he says. You know, somebody’s got to step up and organize the annual neighborhood potluck. Oh, but if only Chang’s job were that glamorous and fluffy. No, figuratively speaking, when Chang was the last Meadows resident to shout, “not it” to the role of neighborhood representative (thereby crowning himself the loser, er, winner), he essentially was agreeing to pull out a slingshot and go head to head with this town’s Goliath: Development with a capital D. Specifically, the pending 65-acre, multi-use development of 700 residential units and 40-plus stores known as Albemarle Place, which is coming soon to Hydraulic Road.

Brick ranch houses dot streets between Barracks Road and Route 29N.

You see, the Meadows, a city neighborhood that abuts the Albemarle County line, has the distinguished pleasure of being right smack between the future site of Albemarle Place and the Route 250 off-ramp at Barracks Road. For that very inconvenient truth, Chang says Albemarle County wants to make his neighborhood “an expressway.” As neighborhood president, Chang led the charge in putting up a temporary roadblock to that possibility—literally. He convinced the city to construct a diagonal concrete road barrier at the intersection of the neighborhood’s Cedar Hill and Berkshire Roads. That barrier prevents traffic from traveling through the neighborhood from Hydraulic Road via Cedar Hill.

Despite his reluctance, Chang happens to fit the role of champion underdog nicely. He’s a 1990 graduate of the UVA School of Law who spent several years as a Legal Aid lawyer representing lots of little Davids against Goliath in landlord-tenant and public housing disputes. But he’s even humble and unassuming about that pedigree, waving off the notion that his legal training and experience make him more qualified or prepared than your average neighbor to take on revenue-hungry county supervisors or salivating developers. In fact, he’s no longer a Legal Aid lawyer, having switched careers to the much less confrontational field of insurance underwriting.

A family affair

Chang and his wife, a graduate of UVA’s Curry School and the Director of Worship at Christ Community Church, live with their three kids in a signature Meadows abode: a 1959 brick rancher. With its three bedrooms, two bathrooms and meandering 1950s layout, you could say it was a modest house by today’s standard of living-space-on-steroids. But the Changs’ home has more than enough room for one of the kids to practice her piano in the living room at one end, while another does homework in the den off the kitchen at the other end and a third plays on the computer in the massive finished basement. It’s a family home in that its inhabitants can actually bump into each other now and again.

A preponderance of apartment buildings is part of why The Meadows feels somewhat adrift from the rest of Charlottesville.

The Changs bought their vintage Meadows house in 1994 when they were looking for an affordable, conveniently located city neighborhood, and over the years, the couple has invested in various updates (e.g., new bathroom tile and plumbing; a new roof). Then, about three years ago, when Albemarle Place was becoming a reality, the Changs stopped making improvements for fear their neighborhood would soon become unviable. Then a year after that, Best Buy and World Market set up shop a few blocks away. Chang says a lot of his neighbors sold and got out around that time.

Little orphan annex

You could say that the Meadows is a physical representation of the tension between the city’s scarce land and the county’s growth potential. In fact, the 304-acre area has been a bit of a pawn in that game, having originally been developed in Albemarle County, but then annexed by the city in 1963. With that move, the city gained the lucrative commercial area now known as Seminole Square Shopping Center.

When Best Buy came to the neighborhood, many residents sold their houses and left. Albemarle Place will be the next big neighbor.

Traveling to this northern section of the city, it’s easy to become so confused by the traffic congestion and the beckoning big box stores that you forget that people actually live here. For that reason and because the Meadows contains a good percentage of apartment complexes and other transient renters and is separated from the rest of Charlottesville by Barracks Road and Route 29, Chang says the neighborhood often feels orphaned by the city.

The Meadows does lack some typical amenities of other city dwellings—there are no parks here, and there’s no elementary school (residents’ kids attend nearby Greenbrier Elementary). If there’s any central meeting place, it’s possibly the Meadows Presbyterian Church on Angus Road. Chang says a basketball hoop recently appeared in the church’s parking lot, and residents can now be seen using it for a little one-on-one.

What the Meadows also has going for it are sidewalks (a Charlottesville rarity), vintage architectural charm (most of the homes are late 1950s to early 1960s brick ranchers like the Changs’) and a convenient location to this town’s major asphalt arteries. And all of that protects home values, says Aer Stephen, real estate agent with Century 21. In fact, the only home in the neighborhood currently for sale is listed at $299,000, which is slightly below the $320,000 that the owner recently paid for it. But Stephen, who’s the listing agent, says that’s only because the enterprising seller decreased that home’s lot size by subdividing the land for purposes of building another saleable home on the new adjoining lot. Now that’s a testament to just how precious Charlottesville real estate has become.

It may not look like much, but this barrier represents a victory for The Meadows neighborhood, which fought to keep through traffic out.

The rub

Is there a downside to this neighborhood? Well we’ve probably already answered that question. In this case then, we’ll state the rub not as it applies to any current or future Meadows residents but to those salivating developers and revenue-hungry government types. Here it is: Longtime residents like Jim Chang are not going to just stand by and let their neighborhood become the proverbial frog in the pot of growth boiling over.

“We just want to be a regular neighborhood,” Chang says, “one that doesn’t have to worry whether we’ll be here five years down the road.”

There’s probably no reason to worry about that now. The temporary road barrier on Cedar Hill proves the city, at least, is listening to residents’ concerns. And Jim Chang? Well, he’s pricing out new kitchen flooring. It seems the Meadows’ fearless leader isn’t leaving anytime soon.

At a glance:

Distance from Downtown: 2.5 miles
Distance from UVA Hospital: 2.3
Elementary School: Greenbrier
Middle School: Walker; Buford        
High School: Charlottesville
Average price of homes currently on market: $299,000 (represents one listing)

Source: Charlottesville Area Association of Realtor