City’s move to give special protection to underused West Main buildings draws criticism

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The former Team Tire building, long owned by the Knauf family, is one of seven West Main Street structures granted special historic significance by the city—a designation the building’s lease holder doesn’t welcome. Photo: City of Charlottesville The former Team Tire building, long owned by the Knauf family, is one of seven West Main Street structures granted special historic significance by the city—a designation the building’s lease holder doesn’t welcome. Photo: City of Charlottesville

In a split vote Monday night, the Charlottesville City Council approved changes to historic designations for several buildings on West Main Street, a move that at least one developer says could chill the kind of redevelopment the city has long sought for the corridor.

The change, proposed by the Board of Architectural Review in September, affects seven buildings that front West Main between Fourth and 11th streets. Most are one- and two-story brick structures dating to the 1920s and ’30s, many of which were gas or service stations at some point in their history. Some are newer, and look it: the little glass-and-aluminum building that’s now home to Mel’s Diner; the 1950s-era Sears Roebuck store that became UVA’s Stacey Hall.

For reasons unexplained by the BAR, all were left off the original list of “contributing buildings”—structures of historic or architectural significance—when the West Main Street Architectural Conservation District was established in 1997. But development along the corridor is ramping up, and BAR planner Mary Joy Scala said the board felt the seven structures deserve an extra level of protection because their former use or design means they embody West Main’s past. Now, if the buildings’ owners want to tear them down, they must get special approval from the BAR.

It’s not an insignificant change, said developer Mark Green, and it comes with consequences.

Green’s firm, Blue Springs Development, recently acquired a long lease on the former Team Tire building at 1001 West Main, which has a typical pedigree for the street: single-story cinder block, built in the 1920s, long used as a service station, now empty. Green isn’t pleased that it’s also now considered historically important. There are no plans to tear down the building in the near future, said Green, but the addition of another hoop to jump through should demolition be put on the table makes redevelopment less attractive. He’s been burned in the past by long city approval processes that ultimately end in rejection.

And that makes the decision to add further protections to old, underutilized buildings on West Main a head scratcher, he said.

“This is basically a backdoor to downzoning” in a section of the city that, since the 1990s, has been targeted for overhaul, he said. Despite some recent qualms over the sudden influx of luxury student housing, Charlottesville officials have made it clear that they want high-density development on West Main Street.

Vice Mayor Kristin Szakos echoed that sentiment Monday night.

“One of the concerns about that corridor is how underused the land is, and it was largely underused because it was all gas stations and car dealerships,” she said. So why make a move to preserve a building that typifies the kind of land use the city was trying to put in the past?

City Councilor Kathy Galvin agreed. “I feel like this is really going to stymie some development,” she said. “And it’s premature.” After all, the city signed off on spending $350,000 to develop a plan for a comprehensive streetscape for West Main, which will be unveiled with much fanfare in a ceremony this Saturday at the Jefferson School City Center. Defining what buildings deserve extra protection before getting the consultants’ report on plans for the street’s future appearance makes little sense, said Galvin.

But she and Szakos were ultimately overruled. To Green, it looks like an overreach by officials who want an extra measure of control over a redevelopment process they themselves set in motion.

Now, he said, “they can stand in the way of people redoing their properties to the zoning that’s allowed.”