For a brief moment last week, it looked like the towering unfinished shell of what was to be the Landmark Hotel was doomed to be reduced to rubble, as the Charlottesville Planning Commission declared the structure blighted and debated demolition as a fix: Should the city, as former commission chair Genevieve Keller suggested, “un-Landmark the Landmark”?
Ultimately, the recommendations the body chose to pass on to City Council were tamer, but Charlottesville is headed for a showdown with John Dewberry, the Atlanta-based developer who owns the city’s most famous eyesore.
The concerns that ostensibly drove the commission to consider a blight declaration were primarily ones of access. Trespassers are clearly getting into the open, nine-story structure, as evidenced by the graffiti on ceilings and walls, even on an exposed HVAC system on the roof.
Months ago, city staff requested Dewberry take some security measures or risk a blight declaration: higher perimeter fence, a second-floor fence, and fencing over the opening to the stairway. But the developer—a former Georgia Tech quarterback* who bought the Landmark at auction for $6.2 million in 2012 after the project had sat untouched for three years—snubbed the city with a testy letter.
“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.”
At last week’s hearing, from which Dewberry and his company reps were conspicuously absent, commissioners aired more concerns, calling into question the structural integrity of the steel-and-concrete shell and the brick-and-marble facade of the former bank building on the site.
“We have no idea how sound it is, and it is right in the middle of one of our most prized possessions in the city,” said Commissioner Lisa Green.
Ultimately, the commission voted 7-0 to recommend giving the developer 30 days to secure the building or be billed for the work, and 90 days to complete a structural report, with quarterly updates to follow. Hanging over the strict timetable is a failsafe: a chance to reconsider demolition should Dewberry do nothing.
That pleased Michael Williams, who lives less than a block away from the stalled hotel in a building he owns with his wife on the corner of Third Street SE. In the last year, the couple has had a front-row seat to the property’s growing problems. At night, they can see flashlights darting around the open floors. New graffiti appears regularly.
“It’s an enticement to any kid in the world to run up to the top of it,” he said. “I probably would have done it when I was 16.”
It’s long past time for the city to force the new owner to stop the activity, he said. But like many property and business owners Downtown, frustrations over the Landmark go a lot deeper for Williams.
“The swells who constructed that thing and left it at half staff—the city didn’t get a performance bond to make them finish it,” he said. “The swell who owns it now is probably going to sit on it for 10 years.” Millionaire developers are allowed to forge ahead without a safety net, he said, “and the public is given no consideration here.”
But while Williams said he was delighted to see some commissioners, particularly Keller, recommend a hard line, demolition would bring new headaches.
“Whoever takes it down should have to be insured beyond all creation against damage to the surrounding properties,” said Williams.
Bob Stroh, co-chair of the Downtown Business Association and general manager of Charlottesville Parking, which owns the garage across the street from the Landmark, said he was glad to see the commission push for a report on the building.
“It looks like the dickens, but it really is a structural and safety question more than anything at this point,” said Stroh. He knows the kind of damage exposure to the elements can do. Parking decks like the one he runs stand open to all weather, “but whatever we do is sealed seven ways from Sunday. Even the structure inside the structure is sealed and contained. In a building like the Landmark, typically none of that is done.”
Dewberry himself hasn’t spoken up since the commission made its recommendation. Multiple calls placed to his secretary and his firm’s PR coordinator have remained unanswered. He did, however, appear on local conservative talk radio program “The Schilling Show” earlier this month, defiantly reiterating his plans to complete on his own time what he said would ultimately be a $30 million project, part of a planned hotel chain he said was a promise to his dying father.
“I can fight the city of Charleston, Iraq, Charlottesville, and everyone else to do what I told my daddy I am going to do,” he told host Rob Schilling. Charleston is home to another Dewberry-owned, long-vacant building he’s promised to turn into a boutique luxury hotel—a project he says needs to be completed before he tackles the Charlottesville property, but which has also stood untouched for years.
It’s an unsubtle hint that if the City Council approves the Planning Commission’s recommendations at its February 3 meeting, the battle could end up in court. Mayor Satyendra Huja, who talked to Dewberry by phone the day of the commission meeting, made his own position clear this week.
“He needs to improve protections, and if he doesn’t want to do it, we’ll do it for him,” Huja said.
The Charlottesville Planning Commission recommended declaring the Landmark Hotel on the Downtown Mall blighted last week, and passed on a string of recommendations to the City Council.
*A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Dewberry was a linebacker.