Mix it up: Developer-architect Bill Atwood takes aim at West Main

The Atlantic, a mixed-use, mixed-income development from architect-developer Bill Atwood, is planned for the 400-500 block of West Main Street. Image courtesy Southern Cities Development The Atlantic, a mixed-use, mixed-income development from architect-developer Bill Atwood, is planned for the 400-500 block of West Main Street. Image courtesy Southern Cities Development

Waterhouse building designer Bill Atwood is taking another stab at a multi-story mixed-use development near downtown, and while he believes he’s got a plan for a project that will push West Main Street in the right direction, some are raising concerns that it could put traffic pressure on the surrounding neighborhood.

The Atlantic, which will straddle the 400-500 block of West Main with frontage on parallel Commerce Street, has evolved since May, when Atwood’s initial presentation of a six-story office building that annexed two historic brick structures got a chilly reception from the Board of Architectural Review (BAR). The project is by right, meaning it needs no special zoning approval. It does, however, require a certificate of appropriateness from the BAR, and Atwood said he’s committed to a building that’s right for the neighborhood. He’s since held multiple meetings to gather input from nearby residents, and the project has a new look—and a new purpose altogether.

Atwood is now proposing a mixed-use, mixed-income building, with office and retail space and about 25 apartments, including five affordable and 15 “workforce” units for lower- and middle-income residents. The tallest section of the L-shaped structure will front West Main on the property now occupied by Atlantic Organic Sleep Shop, which would be demolished; longtime shop owner Andie Levine, who also owns the property, said he’s been in talks with Atwood about relocating into the finished building. A lower, longer section will stretch west down the block behind the old brick buildings, which currently house a nail salon and an executive coaching business.

The project also includes a parking garage with an estimated total of 175 spaces, a surplus Atwood said will be a boon to Charlottesville’s growing midtown.

Not everyone is happy with that plan. The garage would have entry and exit points on tiny Commerce Street, and some local residents are concerned about a big uptick in traffic.

“I think the days of needing to garage a lot of cars are numbered,” said Schaeffer Somers, a UVA School of Architecture professor who owns a house on Sixth Street NW. “Twelve, 20 years from now we won’t be thinking about the built environment in the same way.”

There’s already parking a block away in the city-owned garage at the Jefferson School City Center on Fourth Street, Somers pointed out. Why not encourage walkability from there to West Main, and keep parking to a minimum?

“The way this part of the community has been treated, I think this is really a critical project to get right,” Somers said, referring to the razing of the predominantly African-American Vinegar Hill in the 1960s.

Officials, too, expressed concerns about the build. Mary Joy Scala, the city’s preservation and design planner, told the BAR she felt the Commerce Street apartments “do not respect the character of the Starr Hill neighborhood.”

Atwood defended the design, and said he’d continue to engage the community. He’s commissioning a traffic study to better understand the impacts of the planned garage, but he said more parking capacity is going to be essential to the growth of the West Main corridor. Just as important to that growth, he said, is development that includes both much-needed mixed-income housing and space for those apartment-dwellers to work and shop—what he calls “park your car and live” projects.

“It’s not 500 college apartments,” he said, referencing the student-centric housing developments cropping up a few blocks east. “It’s difficult to do, and it takes a lot of work. But we’re trying to move forward in a positive way and meet the needs of the neighborhood.”

  • PG Tipps

    This must be stopped. Think of what it will do to the tax base, not to mention the increase of traffic on lovely Commerce street where Jokers Barbershop has provided all the tax revenue and friendly foot traffic that any town needs. And where you gonna sit down and have a lil’ nip when all this mess comes in?

    Much as I wish it were true, the days of cars are not numbered, and the character of the Starr Hill Neighborhood is one of blight, decrepitude, and decay. Get real or at least get out of the way and be thankful that someone wants to invest in this block.

    • Thomas Kelo

      I thought the same thing. The UVA professor seems to think that Charlottesville is going to be a fantasy land where we all ride around on clouds of unicorn farts in a few years.

      And why do we still care what the BAR thinks when they have approved ugly buildings in the past? It sounds like maybe they are more interested in helping themselves and their friends than actually promoting “appropriateness”.

      • lovinggunmaker

        Oh yes, absolutely you are correct. These neighborhoods need to be monetized to the absolute maximum! That’s what I learned in business school and therefore I believe it with all my heart.

        The path to sound urban planning is to let the market decide and to hell with everything else. Any people inconvenienced by the almighty dollar were just born in the wrong place and the wrong time. There is absolutely nothing wrong with hundreds or thousands of new residential units along main street, as long as the market can bear it and some developers can make some quick cash from it. I see no possible negative outcome from overbuilding.

        Why do we care what Charlottesville will look like in 2020 anyway?!?! Build it now and let the future Charlottesvillians worry about the fallout.

        • Thomas Kelo

          Pretty weak straw man.

    • lovinggunmaker

      Thanks for posting that! Me an my other frat bros had no idea this street even existed, therefore it is completely insignificant. Good to know it’s nothing more than a future parking lot for my SUV.

      To hell with all the poor people that live in charlottesville. Let me live a good, convenient life, and that’s all that matters!

      Poor people pay less in taxes, so they should just be paved over. Thank you for commenting from this unique, unheard perspective. God Bless the Almighty Dollar!! Jesus Hates the Poor or else he wouldn’t have made them poor!!

      • PG Tips

        I saw Jesus Hates the Poor at Bonnaroo, and they sucked. This may be a large conceptual leap, but bringing tax revenue in from downtown residents, likely to be without school aged children, who opt to live amongst the diversity rather than meadow mansions brings money to use for social purposes like school, meals, and other uplifting services.

  • Pete


  • stew

    i don’t see anything wrong with developing the property, and i’m pleased the the two older houses will be retained. i don’t even think many of the comments below, sarcastic or otherwise, are actually mutually exclusive. don’t blame Atwood that parking spaces make money, we are all responsible for that. And I actually think Atwood’s heart is in the right place. I just am not that impressed by his designs and wish he would not insist on designing the stuff himself. (i’m under the impression that he does – could be wrong about that.) But ultimately there is more to be lost by preventing someone from developing their own property than by letting someone build something that is not in the popular taste. if you want to keep the street the way it is, make him an offer to buy the property. just start a kickstarter campaign to turn it into a potato salad factory. apparently that works….

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