After years of sluggish growth, a string of new projects is poised to transform West Main Street from an underutilized row of dead buildings into a thriving retail corridor. A new annex to the bustling Main Street Market is now home to restaurants and shops, and there are plans for an eight-story hotel at the corner of West Main and McIntire. The newest proposal is for the Plaza on West Main, a 200-plus-unit student housing complex on the south side of the street just west of the Amtrak station.
That’s a lot of change in a year. But whether there’s really a Renaissance afoot largely comes down to the will of the developers who can make the big projects happen—and they’re not all on the same page.
The property that will house the Plaza was once a tire center, but has belonged to Coran Capshaw, the corridor’s biggest property owner, since 2002.
“I think he’s just been waiting to do the right thing over there,” said Alan Taylor, head of Riverbend Management, a Capshaw-owned development company. Riverbend is partnering with a student housing builder, and while Taylor said he’s been in close conversation with UVA, the University doesn’t have a stake in the project.
According to Taylor and to plans presented to the Planning Commission last week, the Plaza on West Main will have approximately 600 beds—maybe fewer—in about 200 units. The 9,000′ building section fronting the street will be five stories high, but a second structure, separated by a courtyard, will rise to eight stories and 101′. A wide sidewalk will allow room for bike storage, and a couple of retail spaces—probably a restaurant and a small market, said Taylor—will share the ground level with amenities for residents, including a fitness center and an open plaza with a cafe.
There will undoubtedly be shifts in design. There’s a sense that college students and balconies over busy streets don’t mix well, said Taylor, so the fifth-floor walk-outs currently drawn into the plans will probably go. But Riverbend is doing everything it can to keep the planning process open and flexible, he said, because they want zero hangups.
“The student housing business is very time-sensitive,” Taylor said. Miss some deadlines and you’ll miss a critical window for signing leases before students return to town —and thus an entire year’s worth of potential revenue. “If you’re not open for business in the fall, you’re screwed,” he said.
Construction is expected to take about 14 months, which means Taylor hopes to be signing leases in 2014. Before he can break ground, he needs special use permits required for height and density greater than what’s automatically allowed in the city and the go-ahead from the Board of Architectural Review.
Winning the approval of the BAR is something city developers are used to. The nine-member review board has a lot of say in the design of new construction within the city’s historic districts, and Taylor said he’s never had a problem with that. His Plaza project includes intentional Jeffersonian elements—red brick and white paint, a portico overhang—as a nod to the past. “I don’t think we’re going to have a Rotunda,” he said, but so far, the response has been positive.
Gabe Silverman has had a different experience. “Coran is more of a 600-pound gorilla,” said Silverman, a partner at development and design firm Townsquare Associates. “I’m just a chimpanzee.”
Silverman, who owns much of what Capshaw doesn’t along West Main, is behind several high-profile renovations of decrepit buildings there, including the Main Street Market and its newly opened annex across the street. Both are total overhauls of former garage and industrial sites, and both have been praised for their design. He said he’d never attempt anything like that again.
Silverman said he won’t make money on his latest $3.5 million renovation for 10 years. But the lack of return isn’t what frustrates him.
“If I’m going to bring attention to West Main Street, I’m going to build something that’s so good that it’s going to stop you from passing by,” he said. He’s tried that, and felt thwarted by the BAR, which shot down several elements of his latest project on the grounds that it wasn’t in keeping with the essence of an existing building, which, Silverman pointed out, “was a piece of shit garage.”
If the city wants to speed development of an underutilized corridor, he said, it has to embrace and encourage good design, and not cede big decisions to what he sees as a backward-looking and arbitrary panel.
Mary Joy Scala is Charlottesville’s preservation and design planner and the city staff member who advises the BAR. Its decisions might be slow and deliberate, she said, but they follow guidelines designed to make the process consistent and objective.
“We’re building a city,” Scala said. “It’s important work. We need to have it say the right thing, both in the historic districts and out of them.”