Cat Thrasher opened the doors to her photography studio in the Random Row Warehouse at the corner of West Main Street and McIntire Road during the summer of 2009. She invested money and elbow grease into getting it up to snuff, and even got married in the space. Four years later, her picture-perfect warehouse studio is set to be demolished to make room for a 140-room Marriott hotel.
“I’m going to be in there until they bring in the wrecking ball,” Thrasher said.
Thrasher is among a handful of business owners who will soon vacate the rundown former garage that’s housed everything from consignment clothes and jewelry to cupcakes and poetry readings since 2009, and she said she hasn’t yet found a new home for her studio. Developers and city officials have been in discussion over the parcel of land for years, and after a false alarm last fall, tenants are finally packing up to make way for the new hotel.
The Charlottesville Board of Architectural Review just approved the first architectural renderings of the proposed seven-story Marriott Residence Inn, and last week city staff recommended that City Council approve an ordinance to adapt new sanitary sewer and storm easements on the property. The drawings show the hotel with two conjoined elements—a three-story, brick building facing West Main Street with a seven-story stucco structure behind it.
“It’s a nice healthy blend of traditional architecture and a different material which is more modern,” said Tennessee-based LLW Architects’ Paul Lague. “We wanted to come up with something that is really a statement of today, and not trying to replicate what was done 150 years ago.”
Lague is working closely with local civil engineers at Daggett + Grigg Architects PC to ensure that the design will comply with zoning regulations and fit with the overall scope of West Main.
“It certainly is a unique property,” Lague said.
Bob Mooney inherited the property and the aging warehouse from his grandfather, who bought it in the 1930s.
“That’s where I stomped around when I was a little kid,” he said. “It has many, many memories for me and my family, and it’ll be tough. But it’s time for another chapter to be written here.”
He’s been receiving offers for nearly a decade, Mooney said, and the cost of taxes and upkeep became too much. He said he understands the community’s concern about losing local businesses like Random Row Books, but he’d kept it up and running as long as he could.
“I’m glad that they had a place to go for the past four years,” he said of his tenants. “It could have been a big hole, just an empty lot, as are many other places around town.”
Mooney said he accepted the offer of West Virginia developer Charles Wendell —who did not respond to phone calls requesting comment—on the property because he wanted someone with the experience and vision to transform the corner into a functional anchor that will bring business to both the Downtown Mall and West Main.
“Having a hotel on this corner adds a lot of traffic to West Main, and the Omni just doesn’t do that,” Mooney said. “If you stay at the Omni, you’ll have a tendency to walk out to see the Downtown Mall, but rarely will you cross McIntire.”
As for the project’s timeline, Mooney said it’s still technically not a done deal. The contract is nearly complete, and he expects the title to change hands by the end of the summer.
Director of Economic Development Chris Engel said the new Marriott is expected to bring more than $500,000 in annual tax revenue to the city, and will create at least 50 permanent jobs once it’s up and running. Despite the public’s fear of losing local charm, he said the hotel will breathe even more life into Charlottesville’s broader hospitality industry, which is already responsible for more than $400 million in annual impact and 5,000 jobs in the area.
“Community concern is a natural reaction to change, and in this day and age it is rare to find a project that doesn’t concern someone on some level,” Engel said. “Business owners who choose to lease space always face the possibility of relocation if the property owner decides to sell. Fortunately support for local businesses in Charlottesville is strong and certain to follow to a new location.”
City Clay owner Randy Bill said her only complaint about the ceramics studio’s location at the corner of West Main and McIntire was that its proximity to a busy intersection made certain parts of the day intensely noisy. But aside from the traffic, she described it as the perfect spot, and said she would never have moved to the Harris Street location under different circumstances.
Tourists don’t visit new towns to see the same things they pass every day at home, she said, and she worries that locals won’t have any connection to the new hotel.
“Charlottesville is starting to look more and more like Northern Virginia,” Bill said. “I understand the business end of it, but the shame of it is that you get a national chain there, and all of a sudden everything’s gone that has any local color.”
City Councilor and architect Kathy Galvin said she understands the desire to keep Charlottesville local and “charming,” but there’s more to maintaining a town’s color and charm than just preserving building and streetscapes.
“Are one-story buildings surrounded by surface parking lots, built in an automobile-centric era when no one was supposed to walk anywhere, ever again, charming?” Galvin said. “Is a 1950-60s commercial strip built for easy access by automobiles, not pedestrians, reflective of Charlottesville’s local character, especially when our historic areas are used as models for smart growth in other communities and our comprehensive planning goals call for pedestrian-oriented environments?”
Galvin said the hotel’s plans meet existing zoning guidelines and conforms to the goals of the city’s comprehensive plan, and the lack of pedestrian infrastructure at the intersection is more problematic than a large hotel taking over the space.