West Main Street links the University of Virginia to the city’s Downtown Mall and surrounding businesses, and it can be argued that it also connects the city’s past with its future. While the underutilized commercial corridor bridges two of the city’s more prosperous areas, it divides two of its historical and low-income neighborhoods.
Now, however, West Main is undergoing a sort of renaissance with new businesses sprouting along the corridor and a concerned push from city residents to make the streets more pedestrian and bike friendly.
The moment when West Main is transformed into a bustling hub for its neighborhoods is the moment the city leaves behind the separation between the University and Downtown.
Local developer Gabe Silverman is critical of the role the city has played in helping revive the corridor.
Tobey Bouch opened a pawn shop, Tobey’s, on West Main Street on October 10. Although he said business has been steady and is thankful for foot traffic throughout the day, Bouch sees parking as a possible concern. “There is this nice and big lot across the street, but it’s all paid parking,” he said referring to the Amtrak parking lot. “Is there were any more public parking, that would be good.” (Photo by John Robinson)
“That’s the job of the city, of the University and the population to decide what they want to do,” he said. “In order to have more life, you need more direction, you need businesses, you need people. And in order to have that, you have to have a strengthened vision, you have to have good leadership and I have to say that this city lacks in all of it.”
Silverman and Allan Cadgene bought the property formerly occupied by C&R Auto Service on West Main, directly opposite the Blue Moon Diner, for $1.8 million from Wade Crawford in September of 2010. They had a vision of turning the old buildings, three in total, into a central hub for the surrounding neighborhoods with stand alone businesses and offices for family practitioners, “things that a neighborhood can take pride in having,” he told C-VILLE last October.
Since the corridor is dotted by restaurants—the duo owns the Main Street Market where Orzo is located—it was Silverman’s desire to create “anchors” for the adjacent communities.
Silverman now tells C-VILLE that the center will be home to “a couple” of new restaurants, one of which will be a pho bar, and a few retail stores including Downtown boutique Eloise, currently located on Water Street, which he said could open next year.
Business owner Tobey Bouch sees the opportunity in the mix of residential foot traffic and high volume street traffic. In early October Bouch opened Tobey’s, a pawn shop located at 801 W. Main St.
“I have been here 25 years and I have seen the growth on West Main and the kind of upscale growth as well,” he said. “It used to be a place that was kind of dingy and dark. The City has done a lot to improve this area and the businesses that opened up are the kind of businesses that I have to be associated with and that’s why I chose West Main.”
The 37-year-old UVA alumnus was working in corporate sales locally when his company was acquired and he found himself without a job.
“I decided that there was enough demand in Charlottesville, considering there are only two other pawn shops, that it could be a really good opportunity,” he said. “It’s bearing its fruits now.” In fact, business has been so “incredibly steady” that Bouch had to hire extra help.
According to the Associated Press, net incomes for three publicly traded pawn shop operators were up 25 percent from last year. Bouch said that he can already see that the short-term loan business is picking up.
“A lot of people have discovered me and have sold me things,” he said. “A lot of people, especially this time of year, need some extra cash for the holidays.”
Bouch credits his success to foot traffic—Tobey’s is next to popular eatery Continental Divide—but believes parking is one aspect the city could help with.
“There is this nice and big lot across the street, but it’s all paid parking,” he said referring to the Amtrak parking lot. “If there were any more public parking, that would be good.”
Parking is also a concern for Eric Gertner, owner of Feast! in the Main Street Market complex and one of the most successful anchor businesses on the corridor. He said he has worked for the past four years to get 11 more parking spots for the complex, at big expense.
“I hear a lot of people asking for more parking and they are disappointed when the city ‘takes away’ parking by making bike lanes, which I think it’s the right direction,” he said. “I think that most business owners think that parking is king, and it is, but I think you could accommodate more customers on bikes than you can in cars.”
Gertner, who used to work in Portland, Oregon, said he received free bus passes from his old company, which was in turn compensated by the city.
Creating a corridor from UVA to the Downtown Mall is an important part of the future of the city, but Gertner sees pedestrian access as a big issue.
“Having better public transportation options would be good,” he said. “It doesn’t mean more bus lines, it means perimeter parking, town access by rail and have the city subsidize that for businesses.”
On the opposite side of the tracks, the newest addition to the corridor is Habitat for Humanity. The nonprofit is going to take over the building on the corner of West Main Street and 10th Street, rent-free for a few years, thanks to a donation by the Marshall family, who owns the building.
The new location, said Habitat’s Executive Director Dan Rosensweig, is “both an asset for Habitat and I think it’s an asset for the city to have us there. It doesn’t do anybody any good to have a building on such a vital corner sitting empty for as long as it has.” The three-story building will house nine full-time staff members and a slew of volunteers.
“Obviously, we will patronize the restaurants that are close to it and it is my hope that not only as the executive director, but as a resident and citizen of his community, that us being there will help stimulate reinvestment along the West Main Street corridor,” he said.
The city has a plan for the West Main Street corridor with more trees and more bike lanes, but Chris Engel, the city’s Assistant Director of the Office of Economic Development, said it is going to take some time and cites the current financial climate as the main culprit.