Seven stories above the “Coming summer 2009” sign that’s still plastered above a boarded-up ground floor entryway of what was to be the Landmark Hotel, a splash of colorful graffiti blooms across a bare concrete ceiling. It’s not the only street art to grace the unfinished building that looms over Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall. Somebody’s tagged the inside of the ground floor, and one daredevil spray-painted a mural across exposed AC units on the roof.
The graffiti is at the heart of the latest sticking point in the ongoing saga of the site at the corner of Second Street SE and Main. Atlanta developer John Dewberry, a Lynchburg native and former star quarterback at Georgia Tech, bought the property for $6.25 million at a bankruptcy auction last June, and said he planned to start construction within the year.
The skeleton of the promised Hotel Dewberry remains untouched, and the developer has now missed another deadline: October 15, the day he was supposed to deliver a plan to the city to fix what Director of Neighborhood Development Services Jim Tolbert has called a blight situation.
“By reason of the building’s dilapidation and deleterious land use, the property has become detrimental to the safety, health and welfare of the community,” Tolbert wrote in a September letter to the developer.
But Dewberry, who has stayed off the radar in Charlottesville since buying the property, has finally spoken up. On October 21, he sent a cranky letter to the City Council and staff, insisting that he’s done enough to secure the site and reiterating his promise to move forward on the hotel only after he’s started another delayed project in Charleston.
“I am certain, if one is desirous, one can scale the wooden wall and climb onto the property,” Dewberry wrote. “Just as I am certain, if one is desirous, one can enter each of your homes,” or drape a house and trees with toilet paper. “I can no more control a graffiti artist from climbing the fence at my property than you can a bunch of teenagers head strong to ‘roll’ your home, trees, and yard.”
Read Dewberry’s full letter here:
Dewberry even said a city police officer backed him up, claiming “one of Charlottesville’s finest” told him during a recent visit to the site that he’s done his job.
His letter contained only one suggestion toward the “plan of action” demanded by Tolbert: stretching pigeon wire along the top of the plywood fence as a deterrent. But Dewberry himself acknowledged that likely wouldn’t stop trespassers.
Tolbert said he hasn’t had a chance to study the letter in detail or talk it over with the city attorney. “But I don’t think it satisfies our concerns,” he said.
That means Tolbert will still ask the Charlottesville Planning Commission to take up the blight issue in December and make a recommendation about a remedy to the City Council. According to the city code, Council can order a lien on the property to cover the cost of improvements on the site.
While Tolbert said his concern is the blight and not the fact that the project is behind schedule, his September 10 letter insisted Dewberry provide, besides a security plan and a report on the building’s structural integrity, “a detailed plan and time frame in which construction of the building will be completed.”
And if they’re going on the developer’s recent track record, city officials have reason to be worried about the project’s timeline. Fortune magazine profiled Dewberry in early 2008, when the country was poised on the edge of what would become a massive recession. Dewberry was talking a big game at the time, saying he planned to sell off a vacant strip mall outside Richmond he’d sat on for years to help finance a buying spree.
Now, more than five years later, the razed 48-acre Azalea Mall in Henrico County is still a weedy asphalt park, and the county’s director of planning, R. Joseph Emerson, said he hasn’t heard from Dewberry in more than two years. And while the developer has snapped up several properties in recent years, his vision of a boutique hotel chain has stalled. The bank foreclosed on his first hotel purchase, an Atlanta Wyndham, in 2011, and Dewberry said in his letter to Charlottesville officials that the financing for his planned Charleston hotel “has not come through yet.”
But while he’s frustrated at the delays—“much more frustrated than you,” he wrote to the city—he’s hopeful enough to put yet another date on the calendar for locals to look forward to: February 1, when he says he plans to start construction in Charleston.
“Once we do,” he wrote, “we will begin design on Charlottesville.”