Preserve the coal tower? It’s a hard sell. Coran Capshaw has plans to develop it, but until that gets underway it remains the sort of place where a squatter can go unnoticed for months until he lashes out violently at trespassers, as happened six years ago. That’s when Craig Nordensen murdered two people after a botched robbery attempt. More recently, in June 2005, three men were charged with malicious wounding and attempted rape in an attack that took place on the railroad tracks between the coal tower and Douglas Avenue. Certainly, transforming such an area into a place where you’d feel comfortable letting your kids play unsupervised is a reasonable goal. But losing the land around the coal tower means more than transforming its location into the right side of the tracks.
Move over Madonna—from beacon of industry, to crime scene, to kitschy condo landmark, the coal tower is the new queen of reinvention.
The site plans filed with the city direct that the coal tower development project “protect [the] existing coal tower during all phases of construction.” This is to be done so the tower can be sandwiched between a row of five townhouses and an office-retail-restaurant-condo complex, one of three to be built, with plans for a future fourth. Among the shops, condos and parking garage, the coal tower will rest alone as a relic of a bygone era, propped up in a cordoned-off 70’x70′ grassy knoll as a kitschy landmark meant to lend character to the coming development.
Currently, the coal tower juts defiantly into the sky above Downtown, its jagged silhouette rising from the untended brambles and scrap lumber littered about its base. There’s a sort of latent industrial danger to the place, a vestige of the tower’s original capacity as a power source for the C & O Railroad, a vast network stretching from New York to St. Louis at the height of its reach. The tower hints at Charlottesville as it once was, a symbol of industrial efficacy set against an uncultivated natural backdrop. The bulldozers and backhoes are on their way, but once they’re gone, the coal tower will take on a new life as a static, cute marker of a condominium community.
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