The two-story homes at 509 and 513 Locust Ave. were built in 1903. The same year, Dr. Halstead Hedges and six local doctors decided to build a sanatorium at 919 High St.—Hedges’ home, located less than a quarter-mile from the Locust houses and, until then, the site of his medical practice.
While the former Martha Jefferson Hospital campus (pictured) awaits its new tenant, the CFA Institute, the empty structure sits amidst many structures that retained their residential look, but were rezoned to host hospital offices as the business grew. Now, those offices have followed the hospital to Pantops, and many of the residences are as empty as the former hospital site. Photos by Nick Stroccia.
Each of the seven doctors, not to mention a few other local practitioners, was determined to house a hospital in the city’s center. Years before, Hedges and Dr. Lawrence Flannagan performed a leg amputation on a kitchen table. Mid-surgery, the table broke under the weight of the patient and the effort to remove the leg. Hedges and Flannagan finished the amputation on the kitchen floor. The Martha Jefferson Sanatorium was constructed for $8,637—a cost split among the seven doctors—and opened the following year, 1904.
During the 20th century, Martha Jefferson Hospital largely determined the identity of the neighborhood that bears its name. Its presence led the city’s planning commission to rezone parcels, its offices expanded into neighboring residences and attracted private practitioners close to Charlot-
tesville’s Downtown core. But long before the neighborhood relied on the vitality of the hospital to attract tenants, the hospital relied on the neighborhood to drive slow, steady growth and present a residential façade that kept families in place.
Now, Martha Jefferson Hospital has moved operations to a 176-bed, $300 million home on Pantops Mountain, and private practices are leaving their brick homes to follow the hospital out of the city. Many of the houses will be empty for the first time in 100 years.
After development firm Octagon Partners purchased the main Martha Jefferson campus for $6.5 million in September 2010, the hospital put another 26 properties on the market. Those properties ran the gamut from a two-story Lexington Avenue house priced at $225,000 to a collection of Tarleton Oaks lots, zoned for mixed-use development and priced at $2.45 million.
Those properties make up the southern border of the Martha Jefferson neighborhood, which spans from High Street to Long Street, and is bordered by Park Street to the west. The 26 properties, divided into 11 listings, were snapped up in fits and starts. The Charlottesville Day School now inhabits 320 10th St. NE, purchased in July for $1.6 million. The two-story Lexington house, assessed at $426,000, was sold as a residence for $227,500.
“In the initial launch, we had a good, strong interest,” said Carolyn Shears, a senior vice president with CB Richard Ellis.
Now, said Shears, the real estate firm has relaunched its Martha Jefferson portfolio. The majority of the listed properties are now offered at reduced prices—$340,000 for a two-story brick office building on East High Street assessed at $517,000, and a 1924 bungalow zoned for business and assessed at $498,500, but available for $290,000.
Additionally, a collection of properties known as “Locust East” was previously for sale as a package. “This time, we’re unpackaging it,” said Shears. “People may make offers on individual properties. That’s another difference.” The home at 516 Locust still has a blue Martha Jefferson Hospital doormat by the front door.
CB Richard Ellis isn’t the only realtor working the neighborhood. Since Martha Jefferson’s departure, a few additional medical practices have also made plans to depart. At 400 10th St. NE, home to the Martha Jefferson Sleep Center run by neurologist W. Christopher Winter, an employee says the practice plans to move to Pantops Mountain by October 24. A stone’s throw away, the Jefferson Nephrology office is closed; a sign on the door says the office has moved to 675 Peter Jefferson Parkway. The two businesses will remain less than a mile apart; they’ll simply do so at the hospital’s new location.
“All you have to do is drive down the street to see that a great number of them are for sale, and that several properties not owned by the hospital have since been vacated and are now up for sale,” said Marthe Rowen, former president of the Martha Jefferson Neighborhood Association.
However, Rowen and many other residents see those vacancies as a chance for new residents to inhabit commercial spaces that still look and feel like homes.
“I personally view it as an opportunity to see some of these neighborhoods, especially those that consisted of single-family houses, return to residential use,” said Rowen. “We hope to start seeing that trend.”
Built the same year that plans for Martha Jefferson Hospital were first conceived, 509 Locust Avenue embodies the changing nature of the Martha Jefferson neighborhood. It was the subject of zoning disputes in the 1980s: It held stubbornly to its residential character, then was ultimately rezoned for business and purchased by the hospital. Now the site is available for sale once more, and its owner says she plans to work with existing parameters.
Who’s moving in
Remember those first two houses on Locust Avenue—509 and 513? In 1981, they were the center of a zoning debate that decided the character of the Martha Jefferson neighborhood.
As the hospital grew, properties on either side of the two lots were rezoned from residential to business. They were then subdivided, their backyards partially turned into parking lots for a growing hospital. However, the owners of 509 and 513 Locust held out, intent on preserving the residential character of the neighborhood.
When the owners finally decided to join their neighbors and rezone from residential to business, the Charlottesville Planning Commission denied the rezoning, and cited Martha Jefferson’s residential character as a valued asset. The irony? The planning commission also denied a rezoning for the surrounding lots, which wished to return to residential from business, because the city’s comprehensive plan urged the area to pursue a business character.
Eventually, Charlottesville City Council voted in favor of rezoning the 509 and 513 Locust properties as business. Between 1978 and 1988, Martha Jefferson Hospital bought each property between 507 and 517. On June 30, they sold as a package to Mary Leavell, a local Realtor, and her husband.
“We are offering them as both apartments and as commercial rentals for small-business offices,” said Leavell. “The neighborhood seems to be comfortable with the buildings zoned and used as they are. We’re not trying to upgrade zoning or anything. We’re just working with the parameters that are there.”
Charlottesville’s Habitat for Humanity program currently leases 501 Grove St., another former hospital property. However, Habitat’s lease expires in December, and local Habitat director Dan Rosensweig said the company will not renew its lease.
“We’re a very low impact business, so I think we’ve coexisted with the surrounding residences well,” said Rosensweig. While he noted that another low-impact business might enjoy the space, he said his company misses the hospital’s presence. “It’s changed the nature of the area a bit.”
A neighborhood’s concerns are bigger than any single Realtor. Martha Jefferson is now a hospital-sized neighborhood with a hospital-sized hole in it. The arrival of the CFA Institute will plug some of those gaps, and a few more sales might replace many of the business that have relocated, or plan to.
“The fact that CFA is settling there is tremendous,” said Kathy Galvin, a local architect and Democratic candidate for City Council. “What’s striking is the volume of old Victorian single-family detached houses that we have. They’re surrounded by asphalt. It’s a strange landscape.”
Galvin has lived in the North Downtown neighborhood, adjacent to the Martha Jefferson area, for 22 years. She said she would like to see a neighborhood master plan—a cohesive planning document for Martha Jefferson that could, among other things, create a push for new zoning among the former hospital properties.
“As we bring in and consolidate where our mixed-use and commercial uses go on the corridors we have, [and] the kind of traffic volume and pedestrian activity we want, let’s think about turning those asphalt parking lots into gardens and yards with homes again,” said Galvin.
She conceded that it is very challenging to downzone parcels from business use to residential. However, she said, “if you do a master plan that involves the public and includes the development community and the business community, then you’re starting to create some agreement even before the stress of submitting a site plan.”
Galvin expressed interest in small “pocket parks,” and said such amenities could make their way into a master plan and, ultimately, to the city’s comprehensive plan. She also noted that adjacent neighborhoods like North Downtown could participate in a dialogue with Martha Jefferson during planning processes to negotiate the paths between the two communities—“a win-win,” she said.
Marthe Rowen moved to Charlottesville from Brooklyn, New York, in 1995 with husband and fellow architect Craig Barton. The couple bought a house in the Martha Jefferson area to feel part of both UVA and the greater city, to put their kids through good schools, and to enjoy easy pedestrian access to area businesses and activities. To Rowen, Martha Jefferson continues to present the same benefits to would-be residents.
“As much as the hospital was a great asset to the city, certainly the Martha Jefferson neighborhood has always been and will continue to be within walking distance from Downtown, easy access to Pantops,” she said. “There’s been, in 15 years since we’ve been here, significant amount of improvement in properties, property values. In those ways, it continues to be an attractive neighborhood.”
With sufficient dialogue, careful planning and proper investment, the Martha Jefferson neighborhood could function as a large-scale adaptive reuse project. Octagon Partners purchased the hospital campus as a single, large reuse project, but smaller city sites have transitioned between businesses before. Legal Aid Justice Center’s Preston Avenue home is an adaptive reuse project, as is the West Main Street restaurant Zinc. Rowen thinks that same change in use can apply to many residential buildings—even those used for business.
“Conversion is easier than it often looks,” said Rowen. “But also, there’s a feeling that the tide has turned, and those properties could now trend to residential use and ultimately residential zoning.”
Even without a master plan or rezoning, the neighborhood will likely continue to enjoy a residential character. Last year, the neighborhood became the first historic conservation district in the city, which means the city’s Board of Architectural Review must approve new construction as well as additions and demolitions.
“It means that even houses that are commercially zoned will retain the character of single-family houses,” said Rowen. “And that’s definitely a positive effect on our neighborhood.”
When the neighborhood applied for its conservation district status, the neighborhood association submitted all structures listed as contributing to its status on the National Register of Historic Places. However, the neighborhood did not qualify on the merits of its use, but on the merits of its look—residential character, rather than business. Many of the contributing structures on East High, Grove, Lexington, and Locust are pieces of the hospital’s real estate portfolio, sold off or still on the market.
Martha Jefferson is a living document of a business’ perpetual growth. In a way, the hospital’s success is marked by its absence—at a point, it became too big to wear the residential image. The neighborhood’s future success may reside in careful planning around the same residential image that attracted business growth to Locust Avenue more than 100 years ago.
Anchoring North Downtown is the oldest portion and first commercial center of the City, Court Square—where some of the buildings date back to the 1800s. “This is where the city began,” said local resident Colette Hall. “We are proud of that.”
North Downtown is an established, residential neighborhood, bordered by law offices on one side and brick colonial residences on another.
Living close to the Mall has its perks. For Wyck Knox, a local architect who lives just off of Park Street, the North Downtown neighborhood offers old world charm in its architecture and the convenience of being close to the city’s retail hub.
“I like it because we are walking distance to everything Downtown, but still a few blocks off the beaten path of Park Street and Locust Avenue,” he said. “I feel safe with my kids out and about…It’s a good combination of being close and being somewhat sheltered.”
For some residents, the construction of the MCP threatens the serenity of a cherished neighborhood, characterized by a 100-year-old tree canopy. Forty years in the making, when completed the MCP will be a two-mile road that connects Rio Road to Downtown by cutting through McIntire Park—what some call the “Central Park” of Charlottesville. The road is intended to relieve traffic from the busy Route 29 corridor and Rio Road itself and create a new city-county, north-south connector.
“One of the biggest concerns that we have is the possibility of cut-through traffic,” said Mark Kavit, president of the North Downtown Residents Association (NDRA).
While one portion of the parkway has been completed and another is under constructiondespite several legal attempts by MCP opponents to halt its progress (the McIntire Road Extended [MRE]), the fate of the 250 Interchange is still in question. According to Colette Hall, a vocal opponent of the MCP, once and if MRE is built, the road will divert more cars to North Downtown, making traffic worse. “Park Street will always be a collector road,” she said.
Kavit shares the concern.
“What they may be trying to do is find other ways to get around backed-up traffic,” he said.
Yet, not everyone thinks the parkway will hurt the neighborhood. Local Realtor Bobby Montgomery believes it will be an asset for the heavily trafficked Park Street area.
“It’s going to get better,” said Montgomery, with Better Homes and Gardens-Real Estate III. “There are going to be fewer people on Park Street and Locust Avenue in my opinion and I think that is going to be beneficial to all those homes along the Park Street area.”
Montgomery also thinks that the imminent changes to Martha Jefferson will inevitably “enhance” the neighborhood.
With the recent move of the Martha Jefferson Hospital to Pantops, the historic district finds itself with a new tenant, the CFA Institute, which Montgomery sees as a critical and stable piece in the newly created puzzle.
“I am looking forward to it,” he said. “But again, it’s always conditional to what exactly they do. If they mess it up, then it will have a negative effect, but I don’t see that happening.”
For some residents, the arrival of a stable and successful corporate business has eased the fears of a commercial takeover that would dramatically alter the landscape.
“We are assuming that it will be a positive change,” said Ellen Wagner, president of the Martha Jefferson Neighborhood Association (MJNA). “We think that traffic will actually be considerably less than the hospital was, with their shifts and number of employees.”
In fact, CFA said they will be able to accommodate more parking in the property’s existing footprint and add green space.
With parking issues addressed, the area can prepare itself for the final shift. “The real estate around there that Martha Jefferson Hospital owned has been sold or is being sold, so it’s going to become more of a residential as opposed to commercial area,” said Montgomery.
Wagner thinks that turning the offices back into residences would be the “most appropriate use for them.” She hopes to see the neighborhood continue to delicately mix its residential identity with the adjoining commercial corridor.
“There is a growing demand, as far as I can tell, for homes close to Downtown, and it really helps to encourage housing close to stores and businesses,” she said. “We would like to see that happen and preserve all the many historic homes and have them house families.”
However, Wagner said residents are not opposed to mixed-use developments as long as they are compatible with the neighborhood’s identity.“It can be a more vibrant commercial area without diminishing the quality of life of the people who have lived here for a long time,” she said.—Chiara Canzi