In 2004, Bert Sperling’s Cities Ranked and Rated was released to considerable fanfare. USA Today and the “Today Show” covered it. So did C-VILLE. The book purported to provide a definitive list of the best places to live in America based on a broad set of data from 10 categories, including climate, cost of living, transportation, health care and arts and culture. Sperling threw all this stuff into his great statistical Wonkanator, and out came the Everlasting Gobstopper that is Charlottesville, Virginia. Yep, we topped the list, and we’ve been riding that wave ever since (so we dropped to 17 this year? So what? We know we rule).
Anyway, since 2004, we’ve racked up a slew of other accolades, including “best new place to drink wine,” “best tennis town,” “best small college town” and “best retirement city for golfers.” O.K., you get the idea: We’re pretty great.
All of which makes the mystery of what we are curiously lacking even more perplexing. These range from sidewalks to strip clubs to movie theaters with stadium seating. [you can also read what some local folk are asking]
Why doesn’t Charlottesville have a…
Man, with “The Sopranos” over, where am I supposed to film my own fan follow-up to the series if Charlottesville doesn’t have its own version of the Bada Bing? What sort of town is this if the best bar entertainment that’s available is Photo Hunt? Where can a guy get his drink on and his lookin’-at-breasts on simultaneously around here? A strip club would address all these concerns, but there’s not a one to be seen. Why?
The official answer is, well, no real reason. Jim Tolbert, director of Neighborhood Development Services, says, “Nobody has ever tried. We don’t even have any regulations about it.” Unlike a lot of states, which are giggle-inducingly specific in their state code about alcohol and nudity regulations and where the two meet, strip clubs are perfectly legal in Virginia. There are at least nine in Richmond alone. But according to Tolbert and Lisa Miller in the City Attorney’s Office, there’s never been any brave soul who’s come to the Charlottesville zoning board about opening a strip club. There was that whole debacle a couple years ago when two police officers were taking sexual favors from the now-defunct Maxx’s Nightclub, and their shenanigans may or may not have involved strip shows, but Maxx’s was never intended to be a strip club per se, whatever else it might have been. Ultimately, what it seems to come down to is Mayor David Brown’s assessment: “It’s not on the city’s list of priorities. I think it’s because we’re too sophisticated a town.” So what, now Tony Soprano’s a Philistine?
One would think that with all our history—T.J., people! T.J.!—we’d have a civic museum. Even Lynchburg’s got one, a grim, one-room exhibit ergonomically designed to bore third graders to death. Why not us? Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society Director Douglas Day explains, “Once upon a time, when the Historical Society had its little office up on Court Square, we had a little museum, sort of a hodgepodge of different things on permanent display, but to have a real civic museum in Charlottesville would take a very large capital investment on the part of the community.” In the meantime, the Historical Society runs temporary exhibits, but they’ve had to turn away whole collections of artifacts that they just don’t have room for.
“The city has a lot of property and they’ll say, ‘This is a good spot for a museum,’ but it’s not that easy,” says Day. Museums generally have to be built from scratch because of the preservation efforts they require. According to Day, you can’t just turn any old rehabbed building, no matter how historic the place is, into a museum because the proper lighting and environmental conditions just wouldn’t be there to support the display of fragile historical artifacts. “To turn a jail into a museum is like turning a pumpkin into a carriage,” explains Day. “It takes a lot of fairy godmothers to turn a jail or an old school building into a museum.” The Historical Society has been bandying about the idea of a civic museum for more than a decade, but, as Day explains, we’ll need a few cash-wielding fairy godmothers first. But if Lynchburg can scare up the funds, we should really be able to have this thing on lockdown.
…high-end department store
Apparently, Charlottesville isn’t suburban enough for a Nordstrom. Who knew we were too high-class for a high-end department store?
Uh, no offense, Belk. What we’ve got is all right, but nobody’s girlfriend is gonna be excited to see a Marshalls bag tucked away in the closet a week before her birthday. Charlottesville is a high-end sort of town, and if we can handle a giant, copper stationery store that charges upwards of $100 for a pack of birthday napkins, we should be able to handle a Saks. But it’s true that every high-end department story in Virginia, including Nordstrom, for example, is in a mall in a suburb. The closest is in Short Pump Town Center, that Disneyfied approximation of middle America that could drive the most complacent suburbanite to re-examine his life. So any chance we’ll catch any of these places on the rebound from their love affair with suburbia? Not likely.
If there’s one thing department stores hate, evidently it’s talking about future development plans. Neiman Marcus, Lord & Taylor, Bloomingdales and Saks all declined to talk about any plans of coming to Charlottesville or why those plans aren’t happening. Nordstrom hung up on me. However, the message cut through the boilerplate response from Julia Bentley, investor relations rep for Saks Fifth Avenue, and Mayor Brown’s suspicions were confirmed: “We are interested in regions that are growing economically and that attract tourists. Once we decide on a market, we would seek out a distinctive, upscale shopping center or shopping area for our store.” Essentially, there’s Fashion Square and there’s Seminole Square and then there’s Tysons Corner. But there are worse fates than not having yet another emblem of bourgeois opulence in town.
It’s a beautiful summer’s day and you’ve just finished a lovely picnic in one of the gardens at UVA. You amble towards where you parked your car when suddenly, there’s the trolley! “My, what a lark,” you think as you board the quaint omnibus and it rumbles toward the Downtown Mall. Then you get gelato and browse Daedalus Books for a few minutes and you’re spent. You wait in the rain for the trolley and then it comes and you sit inside it for another eight minutes while the driver reads the newspaper. Thirty-seven minutes later, you’re back at your car a changed person with a newly sore backside. All this could be avoided with the advent of a real Charlottesville streetcar, so where is it?
Streetcar, thy name is desire in these parts. Former Mayor Maurice Cox went all the way to Portland to study its streetcar in the hopes of eventually bringing such mass transit joy to our fair city.
Former Mayor Maurice Cox is working on it. The Blue Moon Fund, a local private grant foundation, sent him and a number of city, county, university and private sector representatives to Portland, Oregon and Tacoma, Washington in 2004 to look at their streetcar systems. According to Cox’s successor, Mayor Brown, “Everyone came back thinking an urban streetcar would be great. But cities like Portland are big enough that they can increase the charge for their city garages and pay for a streetcar. Everyone’s excited about the idea, but money’s the issue.”
Cox confirms it, telling C-VILLE that phase one of an electric streetcar project, which would connect downtown to UVA, would cost around $25 million. Cox says that the 15-person streetcar task force he’s chairing has already worked out the revenue that would come from a self-imposed tax on businesses along the proposed route, and that now, a federal appropriation through Senator Warner, a private donation from a UVA alum or a federal transit grant for the city could be the spark the project needs. If Charlottesville gets that spark, the streetcar could be a reality within five years. If that happens, phase two would send the streetcar out to Barracks Road and back. Ultimately, Cox’s task force still has a lot of ground to cover. “All this hasn’t been vetted,” he says. “We’re just going to present City Council with options.”
A big part of Virginia’s antebellum wealth was built on the tobacco industry, which was in turn built on slavery, which is why it’s antebellum and kind of a sore subject to boot. But where’d they all go? This is flavor country, right? So where’s the damn flavor? The likes of Revolutionary Soup may get all self-righteous about using local food, but what kind of topsy-turvy world is it where you can’t get some local tobacco in your Lucky Strikes—in Virginia of all states? Turns out, they didn’t go anywhere, because they were never really here to begin with.
Frank Dukes of UVA’s Institute for Environmental Negotiation helped with the institute’s Southern Tobacco Communities Project in 2000, a series of roundtable discussions between tobacco growers, health care providers and community developers in six tobacco-growing states. According to Dukes, there are no tobacco farms in Albemarle County and certainly none in the city. “There might be one or two in Buckingham County, but it’s doubtful,” he says. “You’d have to go south, to Campbell County and beyond.”
Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society Director Douglas Day takes it further: “Tobacco stopped being profitable in Virginia the first time well before the Civil War, by Jefferson’s time. Even Jefferson talked about how tobacco is the worst possible crop you can grow because it sucks all the nutrition out of the soil.” Growing tobacco requires huge government subsidies, or—that’s right—slave labor, and Albemarle County evidently don’t play like that. The big moneymakers in Albemarle County were always wheat, vegetables, timber and, well, slaves. So where’d the tobacco fields go? Farther south, where they’ve always been.
For such a green city, Charlottesville sure is difficult to navigate on foot. Large parts of Belmont, Rio Hill and many neighborhoods are utterly sidewalk-less, and the choice between playing in traffic and walking through front yards is like having to choose between Dennis Kucinich and Steve Forbes in a presidential election. O.K., not that grim, but still, no sidewalks! What’s the deal?
City Neighborhood Development Planner Missy Creasy says that “prior to 2000, the city was completing about one sidewalk per year. As part of the Capital Improvement Plan process over the last number of years, we have gotten quite a few built. As funds are available and sidewalks are feasible, we move forward with implementation.”
Charlottesville Parks and Recreation Trail Coordinator Chris Gensic concurs: “The city has dramatically increased its sidewalk funding in the past year and is working to implement the ‘Top 100’ list,” a CIP project determining where sidewalks are needed most. Gensic continues, “Sidewalk construction can be slow going because concrete is expensive, and when new curbs are added, drainage features must be built, which add to cost.” Fortunately, VDOT recently gave Charlottesville a “Safe Routes to School” grant, adding $300,000 to the city’s sidewalk funds, for which City Council had already set aside $500,000 out of a $900,000 allocation for sidewalks, trails and bike improvements, as well as additional $350,000 that was set aside before Council even met. All told, there’s about $1.1 million in this year’s city sidewalk budget. So sidewalks are expensive and slow going (much like a Kucinich or Forbes bid for president), but they are going to happen (unlike a Kucinich or Forbes bid for president).
…connected city trails?
It’s the sidewalks thing all over again. Charlottesville’s big on the walking and the biking, but not so much on the having places to do so. All this is not to say that there are no places to walk or bike in Charlottesville, but they’re all pretty disconnected. The Rivanna Trail system is the exception, but it basically encircles the city, leaving the interior with a pretty paltry selection of trails, most of which aren’t even a mile long. But like the sidewalks, they’re working on it.
The city has already set aside $100,000 in its 2008 budget for the construction of a bike trail that will accompany the Rivanna Trail around Charlottesville. Though that’s only a fraction of what the trail will end up costing, it is a start, and a broader, city-wide, connected trail system that would actually give the interior of Charlottesville some good places to walk is in a similarly nascent stage.
Trails Coordinator Chris Gensic says that he has until 2015 to implement the bike and pedestrian greenways plan, which would see all city parks and schools connected by trails, sidewalks, and bicycle routes, which can be a mix of off-road and on-road facilities. “The good news,” says Gensic via e-mail, “is [that] our leaders have ‘gotten it’ and are providing the funding and staff and direction to make it happen; the ‘not-so-good’ news (as I see no bad news in this) is it will not happen overnight, but staff are working to make sure it happens as soon as possible.” The city, county and UVA are working together to put major connections in place within the next three to five years. As the push towards greener ways of getting around grows stronger, so are the means to do so in Charlottesville.
…small condo market?
Can a brother just get a one-bedroom condo around here? There’s no need for this “Three’s Company” nonsense, all tiptoeing around the landlord in a three-bedroom villa. The unmarried and nonloaded need housing too, and most of the apartments around town are overrun by college students. Why is a small condo so hard to come by in Charlottesville?
Sean Stalfort, a developer with Octagon Partners, which is managing the conversion of the old Gleason’s building on Garrett and Second streets into luxury condos, says that the Gleason Project does have one-bedroom configurations, with condos as small as 720 square feet. He also mentions that there are some proposals for condominiums at Hollymead Town Center (though who’d want to live above Target escapes us).
Still, whether the Gleason is going to have some small units or not, the lack of small condos in general is a real concern. According to U.S. Census data from 2000, Charlottesville households average 2.27 residents, lower than both the national and statewide averages. People in a city like Charlottesville don’t need as much living space as people elsewhere, yet condominium developers continue to build properties with an approximately equal number of one-, two- and three-bedroom condos, and the small condos that are there are often still quite expensive.
Ellen Pratt, a real estate agent at Keller-Williams, contends that “they do seem a bit pricey when you’re first looking, but when you consider maintenance and ease of care, you get a little bit more perspective. The benefit for a condo is that there’s no maintenance costs, unlike a house.” As for any lack of housing, although one-bedroom condos make up less than a third of the market, Pratt has listings for small condos at a number of properties, including even the coveted Barringer. So after all this, apparently the answer is that you just need to know where to look. Or, as Pratt would have it, “you need a good realtor!”
…Downtown grocery store?
CVS may have a rockin’ candy selection, but Swedish Fish don’t really contain the daily recommended value of anything except Vitamin D-licious. The Downtown Mall has food galore, but any Mall-walkers looking to cook for themselves are out of luck. Where’s the self-sufficiency here? It went up in flames a long time ago.
The Reid’s Super-Save Market on Preston Avenue, not far from Downtown, began as the satellite location of the original Reid’s on the Downtown Mall. Reid’s stood on the 500 block of E. Main Street from the mid-20th century on and did a booming business, even during downtown Charlottesville’s lean years. But in November 1982, a massive fire claimed six businesses on the Downtown Mall, including Reid’s. Five of the six would reopen in new locations within a week. Reid’s would not. The scorched building was demolished in April 1983, and a manager at the Standard Drug Company told The Daily Progress at the time that they were still feeling the effects of the blaze; even five months later, they couldn’t keep milk and eggs on the shelf because so many former Reid’s customers had nowhere else to go. Despite that thriving business, though, the store never reopened. Then-owner H. Kennon Brooks explained in the Progress: “It’s too expensive to go back and there’s no [Downtown] location large enough to go back in.” That reasoning illuminates why no one else has given a grocery store a shot in the intervening quarter-century, as Downtown Mall costs have climbed ever higher and space has grown ever more limited.
Yet there have been a number of other grocery stores that have come and gone in the greater Downtown area. Safeway, A&P, Food King and P&J all had Downtown locations that closed up shop at various points in the last several decades, and certainly, there are still parts of Downtown where a grocery store would likely have a hard time turning a profit. But the Mall seems like a no-brainer and Mayor Brown, for one, thinks somebody’s going to figure that out one of these days: “There’s a lot of interest in a Downtown grocery, and sooner or later, I think it’s going to happen. It’s a big need for Downtown walkers, but it’s a really big need for permanent residents of the Downtown area.”
…movie theater with stadium seating?
Directors and film professors the world over have lamented the rise of DVDs because they contend that the cinematic experience is crucial to the enjoyment of a film. We reckon they might change their tune if they had to sit behind some of the Manute Bol types we’ve been stuck behind. Few things are worse than sitting down to take in a popcorn flick and then having some cat who looks like he’s straight off the bench from the ’92 Olympic Dream Team plop down in front of you. Stadium seating ends the madness, but until recently, Charlottesville’s only stadium seating option was in the balcony at the Jefferson Theater. Now that the Jefferson’s undergoing extensive renovations, there’s not a stadium seat in town from which to enjoy the remainder of the summer blockbusters.
Charlottesville has two of the five biggest theater chains in the U.S.: Regal and Carmike. Representatives from the other three, AMC, Cinemark and National Amusements, were all pretty tight-lipped about possible franchises anywhere, but they all indicated that there were no imminent plans for Charlottesville. So with no out-of-town saviors to come along and knock some stadium sense into the local theater-industry’s head, that leaves what’s already here. Vinegar Hill and UVA’s Newcomb Hall Theater are obviously no-goes, so the mantle rests firmly on the shoulders of the Carmike 6 and the Regal Cinemas at Seminole Square and Downtown. Carmike has no plans for stadium seating, and Regal Downtown wasn’t aware of any, leaving only Regal Seminole. A manager at Regal tells C-VILLE that “there have been rumors and stuff about remodeling the building for years, but there’s never been anything definite.”
It’s certainly understandable that a theater would be hesitant to install stadium seating. According to Frank Sumner, president of Preferred Seating, a seating manufacturer and installer based out of Indianapolis, installing stadium seating in a four-screen multiplex like the Regal Seminole would run under $100,000; however, changing the grade of the theater floors and other necessary projects would very quickly drive up renovation costs to fairly astronomical figures. So briefly, stadium seating is expensive and hard to do. But there is hope: There are “rumors and stuff.”
Mayor Brown says a botanical garden like the Lewis Ginter in Richmond would be ideal. Until we get one, you’ll just have to settle for a tour of Jefferon’s legumes.
Yeah, you can tiptoe through the tulips in your own back yard, but if you want to do it right, you’ve got to go at least as far as Richmond, to the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, a 30-acre expanse of nurseries, greenhouses and idyllic floral scenes that wouldn’t look out of place in a Botticelli. It seems that if we can manage a recreation of Jefferson’s legume garden, we should be able to swing something a little cooler. Why haven’t we?
As with zoos, botanical gardens aren’t strictly for people to come look at pretty flowers. According to development feasibility guidelines from the Botanic Gardens Conservation International, an accrediting and administrative organization for botanical gardens all over the world, botanical gardens are primarily conservation, reintroduction and research centers. They require land, expert staff and, above all, money. Yet in addition to obvious private interests, financial and otherwise, there are government grants available for the opening and managing of botanical gardens. And if local government’s response to the idea is any indication, a Charlottesville botanical garden could be just around the corner. Mayor Brown says, “I think as we look towards what to do with McIntire Park besides a golf course, a botanical garden would almost be ideal. The Lewis Ginter is just incredible. It takes a lot of resources, but I think that’s the kind of thing that would really be a good fit for Charlottesville.”
If that Rollerball remake has taught us anything, it is to never speak of the Rollerball remake again. But if it’s taught us anything else, it’s that there are some people out there who still care about roller skating. Any chump can ice skate backwards, but it takes a real talent to do the limbo while roller skating. Add that to a Virginia revival of roller derby (yes, really) that has included a Charlottesville Roller Derby Initiative, a.k.a. the Charlottesville Derby Dames, and a question arises. Why do we have an ice skating rink and not a plain old roller rink? Here’s the shocker: We actually do.
In 1959, the Jefferson School underwent a major renovation, acquiring more classrooms, a new gym and, of all things, a roller rink. The Jefferson School closed in 2002 and the gym remains as the Carver Recreation Center. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Carver waxes up the old rink and opens it to the public from 5pm to 8pm. There’s no charge.
Still, there’s no dedicated business offering roller skating whenever you get the urge, like there are in so many other cities. That’s most likely because there’s just not enough interest to justify one. According to a Historical Society volunteer, there used to be one at the armory until it was converted to a basketball court. There were at least a few more open at various points throughout the 20th century on Main Street, E. Market Street and by UVA, but they all came and went for a number of reasons, including, apparently, the owners of one rink not wanting to scuff up the parquet. But hey, there’s always Carver. Free is pretty hard to beat.
Lowe’s is nice, but hauling a carload of lattice back from a location that’s halfway to Forest Lakes isn’t always the most convenient option. Something like a Home Depot on the other side of Rio Road would be a nice alternative, but despite recent locations in Lynchburg and Harrisonburg, Home Depot hasn’t staked out a market share in Charlottesville. Are we getting one anytime soon?
“I can’t tell you, primarily because I don’t know,” says Home Depot corporate spokesman Don Harrison. “So much research goes into the real estate decision to locate a store in a community that our real estate department is loath to disclose any information about that to anyone.” The real estate folks work their research magic based on any number of unknowable factors, and ends up with a decision to open a store—or not. Harrison does tell C-VILLE, however, that initial sources that send Home Depot on a location search include city halls and private developers. So if you’re jonesing for a Home Depot and are tight with a councilperson or a Capshaw underling, have a word.
Just where Home Depot sets up shop involves a complicated algebraic equation. We’re verbal, so we can’t shed much light here.
After all, Harrison says, “It takes ‘x’ number of households to support a Home Depot,” where ‘x’ is one of those mysterious Home Depot Real Estate figures, but if Waynesboro, with almost exactly half the population of Charlottesville, has a Home Depot, we should at least have ‘2x’ houses. It’s algebra! But any rogue wannabe Home Depot managers, take heed: Harrison says there are no Home Depot franchises, only corporate stores. So, as to why Charlottesville doesn’t have a Home Depot, that’s something only Home Depot’s real estate department can answer. And they ain’t talking.
…minor league baseball team?
Because connoisseurs of skunky beer and stale nachos are getting tired of having 7-Eleven as their only option. Taking in a minor league baseball game is perfect for that low-intensity, no-frills brand of summer fun, but there isn’t one to be seen within a 50-mile radius. Sure, you can hit up a Little League game, but it’s just not the same, and who wants to be ejected from McIntire Park for making an 8-year-old cry? Where are Minor League Baseball’s Charlottesville Winos when we need them most?
Charlottesville was just a bit outside of getting a Class A Carolina minor league baseball team.
Jim Ferguson, media relations director for Minor League Baseball, explains that there’s no expansion in the minor leagues unless there’s expansion in the major leagues. The farm team system depends on having ranks to move up in, so minor league teams always have to have a direct parent team in the majors. “There has to be open territory,” says Ferguson, and since Major League Baseball hasn’t expanded in nine years, there’s not a lot of hope there. But there is a loophole, says Ferguson: “A city can get a minor league team if the owner of another team moves it there.”
Yet that’s exactly what the Class A Carolina League was considering in 2002, when they met with Charlottesville city officials to discuss the possibility of a team here. Carolina League Executive Vice President Calvin Falwell declined to go on record as to which underperforming team would’ve gotten the axe in favor of Charlottesville, but he does tell C-VILLE, “Being selfish about it, Charlottesville’s a good location, because we’ve got Potomac, Frederick, Maryland, a team in Delaware.” Indeed, most of the Carolina League teams are outside either of the Carolinas, and Charlottesville is pretty much centrally located among them. What happened? Falwell explains, “There was a lot of enthusiasm, but we never could get anybody to step up to the plate” (pun probably not intended). But it makes sense. Major League Baseball pays for the players and their trainers, but the vast majority of the cost of a minor league team is up to the host city. Even dinky minor league ballparks can run upwards of $50 to 100 million, and it would be Charlottesville’s responsibility to pony up the millions. In other words, starting up a baseball team is a huge gamble, and it was one city officials didn’t feel prepared to make a few years back. Maybe next time.
The Natural Bridge Zoo has an African elephant. The Mill Mountain Zoo has a red panda. The Charlottesville Zoo has a unicorn, which is a true statement insofar as both are imaginary. Honestly, Natural Bridge gets all the cool stuff: an elephant, Foamhenge, that haunted monster museum… What do we get? A ghost walk? Lame! Charlottesville doesn’t even have a petting zoo. Why can’t we at least round up a few llamas and a butterfly house or something?
The main problem is, you can’t half-ass a zoo. It’s one of those things where you’ve got to come on strong and keep it going or else it’s never getting off the ground. You can’t start with a few cows and maybe a dog or two and then work your way up to the giraffes and capybaras. Zoos are a huge investment of cash and resources, and to even be eligible for most public and private grants, a zoo has to already be in full operation and accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a consortium of North American zoos and, uh, aquariums. According to AZA accreditation guidelines, zoos are primarily for research and conservation, so not only does a zoo need justification for keeping a family of Galapagos tortoises, it needs a full staff of really smart people studying and taking care of them. Zoos are a tough, thankless business, so unless some weirdo in Albemarle wants to offer up his menagerie of exotic animals and start a foundation to provide for them, Charlottesvile is likely to remain zoo-less. There are always the peacocks at Ash Lawn.
Correction, July 3, 2007:
Due to a reporting error in last week’s cover story [“Why doesn’t Charlottesville have a strip club?”], we stated that real estate agent Ellen Pratt has listings for small condos at the Barringer and other properties. Though Ms. Pratt can and would love to show you those listings and even sell them to you, she is not the Realtor who originally listed those properties for sale. We apologize to Ms. Pratt and the Realtors who listed those properties for any confusion we caused.