Charlottesville is holding its breath as the eight-story brick behemoth of an apartment building known as The Flats at West Village prepares to open in five weeks along West Main Street.
City officials, business owners, and developers are worried that the 622-bedroom apartment building has not been leasing as quickly as owners predicted, causing some to wonder if developers’ big hopes for a student housing corridor on the underutilized artery between downtown and the Corner may fall flat.
Beyond that, however, The Flats is a testing ground for many of the city’s efforts to make streetscapes more friendly to pedestrians, commuters, and businesses.
“The Flats actually becomes the canary in the coal mine for a lot of reasons…as we start looking at other projects not just along West Main Street but in other parts of the city as well, because it starts to give us an idea of what should be happening everywhere,” said Charlottesville Planning Commissioner John Santoski, referencing both the Belmont bridge project and the recently approved City Market building downtown.
“This is going to be one of those things for planning commissioners—at some point in the future, either people will love it or they’re going to really despise what we did,” said Santoski. “I think we’re all really waiting to see what happens when The Flats finally opens their doors.”
Directly across the street from The Flats is the site of another approved apartment building called The Standard, which boasts a prospective 612 beds. And at the end of the block, on the corner of West Main Street and Roosevelt Brown Boulevard, yet another apartment building—known only as 1000 West Main Street—is slated to go up. Both were pitched to the city as being aimed at students.
John Matthews, principal at the Mitchell-Matthews architecture firm, which is heading up The Standard and 1000 West Main, said the owners of both buildings are in a holding formation to see how well The Flats does.
“That has got everybody a little concerned,” he said. “The folks who are putting their money down are thinking, ‘Well, let’s just see how that goes. Should we delay a year? Should we proceed full steam ahead?’ But I think most of these projects will go ahead and all lease-up, but they just may not lease-up as quickly as they had hoped.”
Megan Taylor, the general manager of The Flats and its head of leasing, would not reveal how many units had been leased so far, saying only that their numbers “are steady and growing every day,” and that all construction will be completed and units opened on schedule on August 15.
But a source with inside knowledge of the project—who asked to remain anonymous to avoid jeopardizing employment—said that The Flats had been slow to lease its units because of high rental rates, adding that it’s hard to sell apartments while they’re still under construction.
In January, according to Charlottesville Tomorrow, The Flats had only managed to lease about 9 percent of its space, or 56 of the 622 bedrooms. Rent ranged from $589 to $1,650 per bedroom. As of press time, according to The Flats’ website, 10 apartment types—which are all named after famous musicians—are still available out of the 22 total options. Over the last two weeks, several of the types of units have sold out, according to a comparison of the website over that time period.
Taylor said that Flats developer Asset Campus Housing is monitoring the market closely, and will “base our rates off of supply and demand to remain competitive in the Charlottesville market.”
Matthews said he has been surprised to hear that a lot of the people who have been leasing apartments at The Flats have not in fact been students, but young working professionals.
“It looks like a lot of people who were not considered to be prime candidates are leasing there,” said Matthews.
Matthews said word of the slow leasing at The Flats has caused owners of the 1000 West Main Street property to come up with an alternative plan, which reduces the number of beds from 638 to about 375, and the number of stories from 10 to six.
“That could jump back up,” he cautioned. “It’s not out of the question that when The Flats is fully leased, that they decide to go back to the original scale building. I think that’s all still in play. We’re just looking at different strategies so that we have a plan should The Flats not do as well as folks expected.”
Charlottesville City Councilor Dede Smith has been a naysayer since the new residential development along West Main was proposed, arguing that there wasn’t enough need for more student housing in the area and that it wouldn’t relieve the pressure on surrounding neighborhoods who see a seasonal spike in students renting rooms and houses.
“I don’t think the kind of renter who is renting in our neighborhoods is going to be attracted to that option, which is more dormitory-like,” Smith said of The Flats, which includes cable, Internet, electricity, and water in its rent, as well as the free option of a furnished apartment.
While she hasn’t yet changed her negative opinion of the project, she said she remains “ready to be surprised.”
“I hope I’m wrong,” she said. “I just never bought the argument that this was going to be good for West Main Street.”