Grave matters: At Ridge and Cherry, new development plans and an old battle

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The Charlottesville Planning Commission will consider a zoning change to a long-vacant property at the corner of Ridge Street and Cherry Avenue this month, but some believe development there could disturb a hidden historic cemetery. Photo: Jack Looney The Charlottesville Planning Commission will consider a zoning change to a long-vacant property at the corner of Ridge Street and Cherry Avenue this month, but some believe development there could disturb a hidden historic cemetery. Photo: Jack Looney

On May 12, the Charlottesville Planning Commission will chew over the next chapter in a decades-old development story as Charlie Armstrong, vice president of Southern Development, pitches the latest zoning amendment request for the company’s property at the corner of Ridge Street and Cherry Avenue at a public hearing. Plans for the still-vacant corner, eventually to be known as William Taylor Plaza, have evolved in the last decade from residential to mixed-use, and Southern Development now hopes to sell a portion of it to a Marriott branch for a hotel. Armstrong is facing a tough crowd; commissioners didn’t take kindly to the plans when they came up for review in January. He’s coming with new promises this time, including more open space and LEED certification for the eventual hotel.

But the return of the project to the planning docket has another critic stoking the fires of an old controversy over the possibility of a once-forgotten cemetery on the site.

Antoinette Roades first encountered Allen Woodson Hawkins’ name on a deed for the house on Oak Street between Ridge and Fifth Street SW that she and her husband bought in 1987. Hawkins had built their home in 1852. And as Roades, a writer and editor, dug through more 19th century deeds, estate papers, court records and correspondence, she learned he’d built much more than that.

Hawkins, born in 1800, was a teenager when he came to what was then a Piedmont hamlet to lay brick for Thomas Jefferson’s brand-new university. He stayed and taught and built for others, black and white, and he left his mark on the growing city. On Ridge, on West Main Street, on Oak and Dice and Fifth and Fourth streets, elegant brick homes built by him and his family still stand. When he died deeply in debt at 55, the block he owned, bound by Ridge, Cherry, Fifth and Oak streets, was divided up. In 1883, some of his descendants sold off part of that land, and according to the deed of sale, they reserved “the family graveyard” for themselves. The deed doesn’t say where it lies.

Now Southern Development owns a large portion of that block. For years, Roades, whose property is near the company’s but not adjacent to it*, has insisted the graveyard is somewhere on the Southern-owned 0.8-acre lot fronting Cherry known as Tax Map 29’s Parcel 157. The location relative to the original Hawkins house on Fifth Street SW, the relatively flat topography and the fact that two locals have distinct memories of seeing tombstones in the 1950s along a creek on the lot all point to Parcel 157, Roades said. There would likely be more evidence, she said, but somebody ran a bulldozer through the property in 1999 (a stop-work order believed to be issued by the city at the time remains elusive).

Over the years, experts have backed up her analysis: Lynn Rainville, an archeologist and cemetery expert at Sweet Briar College; Benjamin Ford, then president of Preservation Piedmont; and most recently Cinder Stanton, a former senior historian at Monticello, who wrote a letter to city officials in January urging them to insist on a careful archeological survey of the lot, “the only way,” she said, “to recover information about this historic cemetery and to ensure the respectful treatment, both legally and morally, of the Hawkins remains.”

A Virginia Department of Historic Resources (VDHR) review from 2006, conducted as part of an Army Corps of Engineers permitting process, also found the presence of remains likely enough that a state archeologist recommended a careful machine-stripping of the area to expose subsoil, which could reveal graves. “It is essential that the possibility be explored further prior to construction or construction-related activities,” she wrote.

All of this is familiar to Armstrong, who had sharp words for Roades in a 2008 letter protesting the inclusion of the lot in a historic district. “Our neighbor has been searching since 2004 for a way to limit our ability to build on this parcel because it adjoins her back yard,” he wrote. “In an act of good faith, we chased her wild goose.”

Armstrong said his experts have found nothing definitive. Title searches by his attorneys found no documents point specifically to Parcel 157 as the cemetery site, and a report he commissioned from Rivanna Engineering & Surveying says a visual inspection of the lot turned up no physical evidence of a graveyard. He also points to the permit eventually granted by the Army Corps in 2006, which, despite a nod to the VDHR review urging further investigation and a reminder that state law requires diggers to stop if they encounter remains, ultimately downplayed the likelihood of the planned development disturbing graves and gave it the go-ahead.

For all that, Armstrong said he’s committed to being “100 percent sure” there’s no cemetery before any construction happens, and he agrees stripping the topsoil away to look for evidence is the right way to do that. But, he said, “until there’s an approved site plan and somebody is about to start building, we don’t want to take trees down.”

But by then, said Roades, Southern Development hopes to have the land and the project off its hands, and she doesn’t trust Armstrong’s insistence that his company will stay involved.

“In football, it’s called running out the clock,” Roades said. “The moment he sells it, it’s somebody else’s problem.”

Chester “Chip” Hawkins is a great-great grandson of Allen Hawkins who now lives in Maryland. He’s followed the development plans closely since learning they could impact his ancestors’ final resting place. He wants to see officials push for more study now, before new approvals are granted.

“It is difficult for me to understand how a group of leaders who have been entrusted with the stewardship of an extremely historical area would permit the gross disruption of the resting place of someone who had participated so significantly in the initial construction of The University of Virginia, now a World Heritage Site, and who then remained in the area constructing a goodly number of homes in an area of what is now their city,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Maybe they lack my sense of history; if so, that does not constitute an excuse.”

*The print version of this story said that Roades’ property backs up to Southern Development’s. In fact, their properties are not adjacent.