Growth spurt

The past and future collide in Crozet

Photo by Matteus Frankovich/Skyclad AP

The four-and-a-half square-mile community of Crozet—or Wayland’s Crossing, as it was called 140 years ago—was renamed in 1870 in honor of Colonel Claudius Crozet, a French immigrant who constructed the area’s Blue Ridge Tunnel, which was the longest tunnel in the United States at that time.

But a lot has happened since that infrastructural feat in 1856, and while some residents insist that the living’s still easy in “quiet” and “quirky” Crozet, others think poor Claudius is likely turning over in his grave (or at least flabbergasted that it took six years to build a sidewalk on Crozet Avenue).

So here’s a look at how things were, how things are and how things may soon be.

Destined for growth

In 1980, at a time when Crozet was still brimming with apple and peach orchards, Albemarle County designated it a growth area—meaning the county saw the potential for it to one day be a vibrant, active center with attractive neighborhoods, high-quality, mixed-use areas and thriving businesses supported by infrastructure, services and transportation networks, while at the same time protecting the county’s remaining rural area. Out of Albemarle’s 726 square miles, the county set aside 5 percent, or 35 square miles, of land solely for this purpose.

At the time, Crozet was already succeeding, making it even more attractive to county staff. Big businesses like Morton Frozen Foods manufacturer ConAgra Foods, the Crozet Lumber Company and Acme Visible Records employed hundreds of residents, and in 1964, the county built Crozet its own independent water supply called the Beaver Creek Reservoir. Crozetians, and specifically those storing apples and peaches, needed their own water to make the ice that chilled the fruits of their labor.

The area grew rapidly after the county designated it as a development area. Large acreages were bought quickly for developments, and when locals began to fear their town could soon get too big, the county drafted Crozet’s master plan in 2004—the first master plan for any of the development areas—to use as a guideline for growth. And it hasn’t stopped growing since. A 1980 population in the low 2,000s has more than tripled.

Ann Mallek, the White Hall representative on the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, says every 20 years or so, the discussion of whether Crozet should be incorporated surfaces.

“It will come up and fly right out the window again,” she says, because community members usually decide it would be best not to tax themselves.

However, the town does have its own advisory committee. The first Crozet Community Advisory Council was appointed by county staff in 2004, shortly after the county, hearing concerns from hundreds of community members at a series of public meetings, drafted the master plan.

“They were basically to take the heat,” Mallek says, and to help the community get involved with the way the master plan was being implemented. The CCAC reports its findings to the BOS.

The first massive rezoning under the master plan was at Old Trail Village, the initial mixed-use neighborhood community in the works, in which only a small by-right section existed before the plan was implemented. Mallek says those going into a related public hearing expected a maximum build-out of 800 homes at Old Trail—quite a number, they thought, because Crozet only had about 1,200 homes at the time—but by the end of the hearing, the BOS voted to zone for 2,200 units in that neighborhood. (Old Trail developer March Mountain Properties has indicated it will likely cap the project below 1,500—252 units have already been built with plans for 190 new apartments just announced.)

“The people went ape,” she says. There was major pushback against the CCAC and the BOS, and to this day, Crozetians are still characterized by their tenacious civic engagement and presence at community association meetings, she adds.

Mallek says three things will be on residents’ minds this September, when the items will be discussed and ruled on by the board.

1. The owners of Restore ’N Station, a “mega gas station” and convenience store next to Freetown, a historic black neighborhood on the south side of Route 250, will go before the Board of Supervisors September 14 to ask for a special-use permit to expand their station’s footprint from 3,775 square feet to about 20,000 square feet.

2. At the same hearing, developers of proposed neighborhood West Glen will ask for a special-use permit to build a bridge across a stream and fill in the floodplain, though residents fear this won’t uphold the water protection ordinance, says Mallek.

3. Kyle Redinger, developer of Adelaide, a proposed 80-unit development, had asked to build 5.5 units per acre, though the master plan calls for only three to six units per acre. When the Board of Supervisors seemed likely to reject the rezoning proposal September 7, he asked for it to be deferred.

If you build it, they will come

It’s probably no surprise that residents’ biggest concerns are the barrage of build-outs in their area.

With about 1,000 proposed or approved units in the pipeline right now, plus more than 2,000 allowed for in the original rezoning for Old Trail, Mallek says the major concern with new and longtime residents is that “their lovely little community is going to be changed if it turns out to be one apartment building on top of another.”

Phil-James_A.Jackson
Phil James. Photo by Amy Jackson

“To me, Crozet looks like a bedroom community for Charlottesville,” says longtime resident Phil James, who remembers what it was like to grow up in downtown Crozet in the ’50s. He writes a history column for the Crozet Gazette called Secrets of the Blue Ridge. “The local fruit industry was replaced by a whole lot more housing,” he says.

James remembers Crozet as a “self-contained” town with promising jobs, multiple grocery stores, a train station and a movie theater.

“The fruit industry had really built the town,” he says, but Acme Visible Records and Morton Frozen Foods plants (the latter replaced by ConAgra, which Coran Capshaw bought and then he installed Starr Hill Brewery and his Musictoday, which was acquired by a San Francisco-based company in 2014) were what was really fueling it. “That was the Crozet I grew up in.”

  • A mid-1950s aerial view of downtown Crozet shows the then-active Barnes Lumber Company east of the C&O Railroad Depot and The Square. Photo by Mac Sandridge; courtesy Phil James Historical Images Collection

  • A 1950 aerial view of downtown Crozet looks northeast from present-day Mountainside Senior Living. In the 1950s, the businesses north of the C&O Depot, fronting Route 240, primarily served local farmers and fruit producers. Older orchards, such as the one in this photo’s background (present-day Wayland Park subdivision), still backed up to the commercial district. Photo by Mac Sandridge; courtesy Phil James Historical Images Collection

  • Morton Frozen Foods (later Del Monte/ConAgra), photographed in 1959, At one time this manufacturing facility operated around the clock and was Albemarle County’s largest employer. Photo by Les Gibson; courtesy Phil James Historical Images Collection

  • Crozet Pharmacy vintage postcard, circa 1910. Present-day Mudhouse, on The Square. Courtesy Phil James Historical Images Collection

Most fondly, James remembers the forgotten “lifeline” of Crozetians in a place where everyone knew one another. As a kid he played marbles and rode his bike around town.

“From an older person’s perspective, who remembers when downtown Crozet was where the community gathered, you knew so many people, or you at least knew their families, so you felt connected to most of the people that you saw,” says James. “Now, I think that connection comes within neighborhoods, but not within the town as a whole. I know that when I go into the village, I don’t feel connected to the village…I think it’s just gotten much too big for that.”

The central community gathering place he remembers is exactly what residents and developers are striving to recreate. The master plan, updated in 2010, has a laundry list of recommendations for how to rebirth downtown Crozet.

It started with sprucing up The Square, a historic 13,500-square-foot mixed-use strip in downtown Crozet, home to classics such as Crozet Hardware and Parkway Pharmacy, and newcomers like the Mudhouse coffee shop—a Downtown Mall staple in Char-lottesville. Then came the new Crozet Library in 2013, for which residents lobbied 11 years and raised more than $1 million to stock the shelves, buy computers and furnish the inside. And this fall will usher in the grand opening of Piedmont Place, a four-story mixed-use building across from the library, which promises a local market, several restaurants including Smoked Kitchen and Tap—the reincarnation of the popular Downtown Mall food cart—shopping, yoga, apartments and a rooftop bar.

But perhaps the most anticipated project has been the development of the old Barnes Lumber Company—a 20-acre site at the head of The Square.

“It’s gotta be a place that has a heartbeat,” says Mike Marshall, a Crozet resident of 35 years who started the Crozet Gazette in 2006. He calls it “the single most important development project for the future of Crozet.” He adds, “We don’t want a Fashion Square, we want the Downtown Mall.”

J. Bruce Barnes opened what was then called the Crozet Lumber Company in 1922. Carroll Conley, who started as a truck driver there in 1968, bought it in 1985, and it remained prosperous until the recession in 2008. He and his wife then placed the lumberyard on the market, laid off their last employee in 2011, and the property was sold to Union First Bank in 2012. In December 2014, Milestone Partners closed on it.

At the time of its purchase, the group’s members knew they wanted to build a mixed-use plaza or community center, with commercial and residential units.

“People want to make sure that downtown Crozet feels like an authentic place,” says Frank Stoner, a founding Milestone partner in charge of the redevelopment. “And that’s a really interesting challenge. It’s not that Old Trail’s bad, or that any other place is bad, but I think a lot of people in Crozet feel like Old Trail’s not a reflection of the real Crozet. It’s kind of a new thing and I think it’s nicely done, but it doesn’t capture the authentic character.”

Frank Stoner. Photo by Amy Jackson
Frank Stoner. Photo by Amy Jackson

So what is that true character? If you ask Stoner, it’s “unpretentious, kind of eclectic and funky,” he says, adding that he’s noticed an ongoing effort from citizens and county leaders to articulate Crozet’s brand.

“I think it knows who it is,” he says. “If you talk to residents there, they’re kind of clear about it, but it’s hard to articulate in a few words. Part of the challenge is to try to clarify that and find and attract those businesses who could benefit.”

With public feedback, his group’s vision for the center has evolved over time—most recently with a negative response to his plans for residential units, which he says could later be converted into commercial space, proposed on the first floor of the plaza. Downtown Crozet doesn’t allow first-floor living spaces in mixed-use buildings without a special-use permit.

“The community had a hard time with that because the master plan didn’t support it,” he says, but overall, Milestone Partners hopes to create “something that respects the past, but also looks forward to the future and also helps set a vision to the future of Crozet.”

It hasn’t been easy, Stoner says, because “Crozet is a little bit disjointed.” The design process for the plaza has just begun, but the developer already sees issues on the horizon—two of those being parking and access.

“Parking is a major issue downtown,” he says, because the zoning code requires only one parking space for every 1,000 feet of commercial space. “I think the county wants to develop this sort of compact, urban core that doesn’t have a bunch of parking lots all over it, but to do it, we’re going to need parking structures.”

And in Crozet, there are only two direct ways to get downtown: from Three Notch’d Road or from Route 250 and Crozet Avenue.

“We’d like to see another way into downtown,” he says, and mentions the county’s plan to extend Library Avenue to Parkside Village, which would then ultimately connect it to Western Ridge and all of the neighborhoods to the east. His group initially proposed to build its own road but ultimately nixed that plan, and he maintains that access from under or across the railroad tracks would be ideal.

The necessary building blocks

Although development in Crozet is certainly in the plans, Mallek says it’s becoming built up faster than the necessary infrastructure.

“We know people are coming and the plans are made for people to come,” she says. “What is missing are the sidewalks, the street crossings, those building blocks to allow smoothly for all the new approvals that have already been granted to be carried out well. That’s where the balance is off.”

But Kyle Redinger, the developer of Adelaide, a proposed 80-unit neighborhood adjacent to the Cory Farm subdivision on Route 250, disagrees. He notes that Albemarle has invested 40 percent of its capital improvement money, or at least $29 million since 2010, in Crozet, but only 5 percent of the county’s population lives there.

Eastern Avenue, a planned road that would join existing and future Crozet neighborhoods by connecting Route 240 and Route 250, is part of the master plan and has been discussed for many decades. It will traverse the proposed $4 million Lickinghole Creek Bridge, which would also help unite neighborhoods, though there is no current proposal to build it.

sidebar

And remember that Crozet Avenue sidewalk? The grant for the $270,000 path, which stretches just under a mile long from Crozet Elementary to a subdivision on Ballard Drive, was awarded in 2010, though little sneakers didn’t touch it until this year.

It’s not the Blue Ridge Tunnel, but it’s something.

The Crozet Gazette’s Marshall, a former CCAC member, doesn’t mince words when he says “infrastructure issues” are a major concern—primarily within the schools.

Enrollment in Crozet-area schools was 87 students above projections this year, though overall, county enrollment is only 47 students above projections, according to Phil Giaramita, a spokesperson for the county school system. Crozet Elementary School is above capacity, and Western Albemarle High School can only take three more students before capacity is reached.

“We just can’t keep up with the number of kids that are coming in,” Marshall says. He estimates that Crozet’s current population is about 7,500 people inside the growth area, just a tad higher than the county’s estimation of 6,854.

And schools aren’t the only place where population is increasing: The growth area’s population capacity is 18,000 people, and Albemarle’s most recent projections show that the number of people living in Crozet could more than double by 2030, to 16,299 at the highest estimate.

And although housing options for newcomers are certainly increasing, the question becomes: Will they be able to afford them?

With population numbers expected to move closer to the designated growth area’s capacity of 18,000 in the next 15 years, here’s an overview of the town as it currently stands, including some of the landmarks that give it its character, as well as development projects already underway and set to come online.

The Crozet culture

Jim Duncan, a real estate broker with Nest Realty and a Crozet resident since 2002, says the available inventory of affordable housing has declined significantly over the years.

In 2010, the median price for homes in Crozet was $310,000. This year the median price is $415,000, compared with $339,000 in all of Albemarle.

“With any small town, as it grows, you start to see folks that have been there for generations finding that they have been priced out,” Duncan says. “And it’s also not the town they grew up in, so they feel less comfortable there.”

But history columnist James says he hasn’t felt pushed out.

“It’s a sweet area of the county to be in,” he says. “I don’t begrudge anyone for wanting to live in western Albemarle. It’s the good side of the county. It’s pretty. The mountain backdrop can’t be beat.”

And Marshall says the community is traditionally friendly and welcoming to new members: “What Crozet is trying to do is accept this enormous number of new residents and get them to try to adopt our culture, which is, ‘Hey, let’s be nice. Let’s be friends.’”

One newcomer says Crozet is still a great place to live.

Dave Lemon, a Charlottesville resident since 2003, moved to Old Trail in 2011 with his wife and two kids.

“We moved out there mainly because we liked Crozet, not necessarily Old Trail,” he says. “We liked the small-town aspect of it and being closer to the mountains. Living out there is kind of like being on vacation on the weekends. It’s quiet. It’s slow.”

Old Trail, which offers a hodgepodge of houses and condos, has a golf course, swim club and its own community center with restaurants and an ACAC Fitness & Wellness Center. Lemon says his kids can get their hair cut and teeth cleaned without leaving the neighborhood.

The subdivision will soon have its own law enforcement, and that’s not including former Albemarle police chief Steve Sellers and current Chief Ron Lantz, who both live there. The Albemarle County Police Department has proposed a satellite office at Old Trail, which will be not be manned 24/7, according to Captain Gregory Jenkins.

Though Lemon’s impressed with his neighborhood and its services, he does recognize its inevitable growth.

“I’m not going to complain too much about growth in Crozet. We’re contributing to it,” he says. “I suppose any time you live in a neighborhood that’s not finished, you just don’t know what the final product is going to be. It’s a little bit of a concern.”

As with any growth period there is a sense of uncertainty, a what-will-it-look-like-in-the-end? mentality. But one thing is definite: Crozet is not the same sleepy community it once was.

“It’s going to grow and there’s no good way to stop it,” Duncan says.

Corrected September 14 at 1:40pm to reflect that current zoning under the Crozet master plan calls for three to six units per acre at Adelaide, a proposed 80-unit development. It was originally reported that only three to five units were allowed.

Corrected September 15 at 2:00pm to reflect that the proposed police station at Old Trail will not be manned 24/7.