The Great Recession is officially over. The evidence? Building permits in 2016 were the highest since 2007 housing-bubble levels. Construction is going on all over the area, from 5th Street Station to West Main to U.S. 29 north. And a recent Weldon Cooper Center population study pegs the Charlottesville area as booming.
While the final numbers aren’t in, Albemarle director of community development Mark Graham says permits for residential units in 2016 could be around 850, a level not seen since 2007’s 831 permits and far exceeding the 514 issued in 2015. “This may be a banner year,” he says. “Residential development really took off.”
Albemarle encourages higher-density development in the 5 percent of the county designated as a growth area in an attempt to keep sprawl from blanketing the rural areas. And the pedestrian-oriented neighborhood model with commercial use thrown in tries to create urbanish centers—even if the development is in the middle of a former cow pasture.
“People are buying into the growth area,” says Graham. “We’re not seeing the same amount of rural area development.” Currently about 20 percent of development is taking place in rural areas, down from about one-third in 2007, he says.
“One of the things we’re seeing is more of the developments that got approved during the last boom getting built out,” says Graham, listing Belvedere, Cascadia, Old Trail, North Pointe and Whittington.
Looming on the U.S. 29 north horizon is Brookhill, which had its rezoning approved last fall and is good to go for between 800 to 1,500 units.
Crozet, says Graham, is “hot and heavy,” with almost one-third of last year’s residential building permits issued there. The largest of those developments is Old Trail, which is zoned for 2,200 units.
Last year saw the opening of 5th Street Station in the county’s urban ring, the wrapping up of Stonefield, the groundbreaking of Cascadia on Pantops and Glenmore “building big expensive houses,” says Graham.
“It’s going on everywhere,” he says. “Part of the real estate boom is mortgage rates are historically low, making it cheaper to buy bigger and better houses.”
“We are in the midst of a real estate and new construction boom,” says Nest Realty partner/associate broker Jim Duncan. “People are coming in and buying new construction at a pace we haven’t seen in a number of years.”
The new growth area projects on the horizon “are great locations,” says Duncan, whose agency is marketing Cascadia houses. “I think people like to be close to stuff.”
And he’s seeing that across all age groups, from millennials to retirees. Homeowners are less interested in maintenance and would rather be close to the Downtown Mall or go to a brewery instead of mowing their grass, he says.
He mentions one caveat that Albemarle County is often dinged for, and that’s allowing houses to be built without having the infrastructure in place to support it, a situation many complained about in Crozet.
“You need to have a commiserate number of classrooms if you build 1,000 houses,” says Duncan. “You need to have the bike trails, walking trails and roads.”
Not everyone is applauding the building boom or the surge in population, with Albemarle growing 6 percent between 2010 and 2015, and Charlottesville’s population surging nearly 11 percent during that time after years of having stagnant growth, according to the Weldon Cooper Center.
Tom Olivier is vice president of ASAP—Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population—and he says if you have to choose between rural and growth areas, “it’s better to put development in the growth area.” Nonetheless, the county is seeing “a general loss of land in the rural areas, and the rural area is under threat from ongoing new residences.”
ASAP has long wanted the county to determine how big the community should be. And with the departures of Albemarle county exec Tom Foley and economic development director Faith McClintic at a time when the county needs to make big decisions, says Olivier, “that strikes me as kind of destabilizing.”
The city’s population boom is “putting a burden on natural resources” such as Ragged Mountain Reservoir, because all those highly educated workers the city attracts want a place to mountain bike close by, says Olivier.
And the building boom is likely to do little to help with the high cost of housing. “There’s a dearth of affordable housing below the $300,000 price point that’s desirable and livable,” says Duncan. “The new construction won’t satisfy that demand.”
What’s on the market now is moving fast, he says. In early January, Duncan had a buyer who wanted to look at four houses on a Saturday. “They were all under contract within a 48-hour period,” he says. “The spring market starts now.”
130,000 square feet commercial
Brookhill is a project of music/real estate magnate Coran Capshaw’s Riverbend Development, which brought us 5th Street Station and Whole Foods. The mega-development on nearly 300 acres on U.S. 29 North between Polo Grounds Road and Forest Lakes has not been warmly welcomed by its neighbors.
Connectivity is a key component of the neighborhood model, but Forest Lakes nixed a connection through Coralberry Place and residents have groused that Brookhill will connect to the highway through Ashwood Boulevard. Nor did Forest Lakes want to tap into Brookhill’s public walking trails, preferring to keep its trails private, according to Charlottesville Tomorrow.
“People are always reluctant to embrace change, but I am hopeful that Forest Lakes will really enjoy the Brookhill town center once it’s done,” says Riverbend President Alan Taylor in an e-mail.
Along with miles of hiking and mountain biking trails, and the requisite pool, clubhouse and gym, Brookhill offers an amphitheater. “We would like to do something similar to Fridays After Five within the town center,” says Taylor. The town center will be “vibrant” and “entertainment-focused,” with multiple restaurants and a movie theater, he says.
Riverbend is proffering up two school sites: seven acres for an elementary school and 61 acres across Seminole Trail for a high school. And to cover the other end of the demographic spectrum, Taylor also anticipates a senior living facility.
Apartments, townhomes and villas will be part of the higher-density mix at Brookhill. Taylor says it’s too early to predict what the price range will be. He does expect to break ground this summer with the first phase of housing and the town center.
In 2004, the endangered James River spinymussel torpedoed the Buck Mountain Reservoir. In 2015, a preservation group noticed an unusual emergence of the spotted salamander in the Brookhill vicinity. Fortunately for the developers, the spotted salamander is not endangered, and the project includes a tunnel under Polo Grounds Road for its twice yearly migration.
Stonehaus/Global View Development LLC
25,000 square feet commercial
Belvedere’s first residents moved in just as the real estate bubble was bursting in 2008, drawn by the idea of a new urbanist community, with kids playing outside in the village green or roaming the neighborhood on bikes.
“We certainly hit the market at the worst time possible,” says Bob Hauser, president and CEO of Stonehaus. But Belvedere rebounded pretty quickly, and “sold a bunch of homes,” he says. “When we’ve had lots, we’ve had buyers.”
Currently in phase 2A, the newest 51-lot section is 90 percent developed, and the next 51 lots are under review by the county, says Hauser.
Belvedere’s appeal starts with its location that’s convenient to downtown, U.S. 29 and UVA, and with the Rivanna River in its backyard, it’s ”the best of both worlds,” he says. But mostly it’s a neighborhood with a lot to do, including green space, miles of biking and hiking trails, a community garden and houses built close together to encourage making connections.
Hauser also points to the diverse, “great architecture” of Belvedere. “Each and every home is foresighted design that’s been thought through,” he says. “We take the back as seriously as the front.” People who live there tell him, “It’s not a cookie-cutter neighborhood.”
The Reserve at Belvedere has 300 apartments. And at least 40 of the homes have carriage houses over the garages, which is the project’s affordable housing component proffered to Albemarle. The carriage houses provide apartments from $750 to $900 a month in a county where it’s not easy to find rentals in that price range, says Hauser, and at the same time help make the houses themselves more affordable for the owners.
Belvedere sold six acres to the Senior Center, which will build the Center at Belvedere. “We’re excited for their involvement,” says Hauser.
So far its town center has a dentist’s office and a coffee shop is in the works, and Hauser expects development there to pick up over the next 24 months. “We’re looking for some restaurants and doctors’ offices,” he says.
Housing ranges from $350,000 to $700,000, with the median single family home in the low $500,000s.
Former Massanutten owner Dice Hammer’s Global View Development LLC will soon be the owner of Belvedere, says Hauser, and he will remain as a manager.
Blue Ridge views
20,000 square feet commercial
Cascadia is one of those high-density neighborhood model developments that got rezoned in 2006 and “fell on hard times during the recession,” says Southern Development’s vice president of development Charlie Armstrong. But the earth is moving now in this Pantops project on Route 20 across from Darden Towe Park.
Roads are being built, 25 houses are under construction or complete and “maybe five residents” live amidst the hubbub, says Armstrong. The pool and community center are finished.
He expects to complete 75 percent of the roads and the infrastructure in 2017, and gain about 30 residents. And the entrance to Route 20 is almost done, he says.
Cascadia is “really unique because it’s so close to downtown,” says Armstrong. “It’s a large community with housing for a lot of different segments of the market.” That includes townhomes starting in the low $300,000s up to $400,000-$500,000, and homes from the low $400,000s up to $800,000, he says.
Its amenities include a pool, a community center, playground, walking trails, its proximity to Darden Towe and a community garden.
“Cascadia is a direct competitor,” acknowledges Belvedere’s Hauser.
What really sets Cascadia apart are the “spectacular” views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, says Armstrong. “There will be an awful lot of views,” including rooftop terraces on the townhomes. We predict lots of clinking glasses at sunset.
Great Eastern Management
545,000 square feet of retail space and 135,000 square feet of office
North Pointe has the dubious distinction of being the first mixed use project to be approved in the county, but because of the housing market collapse, it hasn’t yet actually broken ground.
First there must be a way to flush, and North Pointe will start a joint project with the Albemarle County Service Authority to bring a gravity sewer line this spring, according to project manager David Mitchell.
Another first is the super-street intersection, thanks to VDOT refusing to allow eight-way stoplights on U.S. 29 north of Proffit Road for entrances to North Pointe, says Mitchell. It’s a new concept for VDOT and could be one of the first in the state. “I’m not going to even try to describe it,” he says.
That will be North Pointe’s middle entrance, and eventually there will be others, including a connection to Proffit Road. “Our development is a link in the parallel road network the county has laid out in the comprehensive plan,” says Mitchell.
In developing North Pointe, Mitchell has discovered what he says is a major problem of the comprehensive plan’s growth area, which doesn’t account for the county’s hilly Piedmont terrain and streams that limit buildability.
“We’ve lost about 20 percent of our residential units to environmental and stormwater regulations that have come along,” he says. North Pointe was approved for 900 units, but it’s now looking at more like 750 to 800 units, he says. It’s even worse for the commercial area, which needs large flat topography. “We’re likely to lose half of the commercial area,” says Mitchell. “That’s going to eat up the growth areas faster.”
North Pointe will have everything from starter homes to higher-end houses on a variety of lot sizes, up to a half acre, says Mitchell. The project proffered sites for an elementary school and workforce housing.
And it has one of the largest commercial centers of the upcoming neighborhood models. “When you’re in close like Stonefield, you can do commercial first,” says Mitchell. “Where we are, we’ll do residential first.”
Says Mitchell, “It’s a big development. You never want to be only in one market. It’s better to have a spread.”
Manor home neighborhood
Whittington is a rarity among Albemarle’s new residential development. It’s a by-right, large-lot residential subdivision on Old Lynchburg Road. That means it didn’t have to go through the county’s onerous mixed-use rezoning process.
While Whittington has had county approval for years—since 1977, according to Charlottesville Tomorrow—and was allowed to hook up to public water, Albemarle was less inclined to give it a sewer connection until 2010.
Ground broke in 2014, and Stanley Martin’s director of land development Jeremy Swink says his “best guess” is it will continue its 96-home buildout through 2019.
Houses are priced from $589,000 and “can vary wildly,” up to the $800,000 and $900,000 range, says Swink. Seventeen in the first phase have already been built.
“What makes Whittington special is you don’t really have a chance to buy homes on one-acre lots on public water that close to 5th Street Station,” says Swink.
It’s across the road from the dormant Biscuit Run State Park, which took a 1,200-acre chunk out of the county’s southern growth area. But not to worry: Whittington will have its own private trails.
Contamination cleanup continues
In industrial zoning-starved Albemarle County, a 62-acre parcel sits in downtown Crozet, ripe for redevelopment—once its years-long contaminants cleanup is complete.
Acme Visible Records was one of Crozet’s largest employers, along with neighboring Morton Frozen Foods, when the town bustled with mid-20th-century manufacturing. These days it’s an empty parcel surrounded by a chainlink fence, and its only activity is the cleanup of carcinogens in the groundwater and soil.
Since 2011, owner Wilson Jones Company has been remediating the nine contaminants the EPA identified, including arsenic, benzene, lead and trichloroethene, and six years later, the end is not in sight.
The site has already gone through groundwater bioremediation and soil vapor extraction, according to Ryan Kelly, corrective project manager with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.
Currently soil is being excavated and blended with a chemical in hopes it will oxidize the TCE. “They’re hoping that will be done this year,” says Kelly. “They’d hoped it would be done in 2016.”
In March 2014, demolition of Acme’s buildings was completed. “Those buildings were in such bad shape,” says Kelly. “The main building was located where there was known soil and groundwater contamination. It made more sense to take it down.”
Once the cleanup is complete, the property will go back on the light-industrial market. “The goal is to clean it up to industrial standards,” says Kelly. “That’s different from residential standards.” He says it’s one of the few industrial-zoned properties in Albemarle, and the county wants to keep it that way.
Sarah Huddle, a partner with the Albright Group and a spokesperson for Wilson Jones, says there are no concrete plans at this point.
“Ultimately they would like to get the property through remediation and sell it to someone for productive use,” she says.