Big box bickering: Why some locals are wailing over Wegmans

This rendering shows the backside of 5th Street Station. Courtesy of Valerie Long This rendering shows the backside of 5th Street Station. Courtesy of Valerie Long

The Fifth Street development project, now known as 5th Street Station, is soon to be a big box retail sanctuary with almost half a million square feet of space, an abundance of parking and a buffet of popular brands—and it only took about two decades to build on this historically sought-after plot of land previously owned by Grand Piano and Coran Capshaw, that once housed a landfill.

Since the ’90s, ideas for the site have been repeatedly pitched, supported, shot down and deferred. Approved in 2008, 5th Street Station is officially underway, promising popular shops like Wegmans, Field & Stream, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Mattress Warehouse, Panera Bread, PetSmart, Sprint, Great Clips, Hair Cuttery, Lee Nails, Jersey Mike’s Subs and the Virginia ABC. Eight other leases are currently in negotiation.

And, as the story goes, many are thrilled to have these big brands within reach.

“Wegmans—that’s the best thing since sliced bread. They make Whole Foods look penny-ante,” says Blake Caravati, owner of Vector Construction and former mayor of Charlottesville.

Though Vector isn’t involved with this project, Caravati stays on top of local construction.

“The only unfortunate part is that it’s in the county,” he says, jokingly, as a city resident acknowledging that a large sum of tax dollars will be pumped back into Albemarle as a result of the shopping center.

However, not everyone is excited about the presence of this big box development.

Mike Meintzschel, nature lover and local resident of over 20 years, is concerned about the project’s negative impact on Moores Creek. And he has photos to back it up.

According to Meintzschel, he and other residents of the Willoughby neighborhood thought they had reached an agreement with the developers, a “small victory” he says that has not been fulfilled. The developers, he says, originally planned for the shopping center to be situated closer to Moores Creek, one of the area’s most polluted water traces which surrounds three sides of the development, but agreed to push the shopping center inland far enough that it would not interfere with the watershed, and to stabilize the floodplain by filling it in with dirt.

“They’re right up against the creek, there’s no denying that,” Meintzschel says, concluding that “the preliminary stuff that we see along the creek bed is not what we expected.”

He doesn’t like the rock that’s been put around a few storm drains, and says the stones are small and one storm could wipe them all away. Meintzschel says the developers “just sort of threw the rocks down,” while the county and city set a better example by meticulously laying larger rocks around storm drains during other restoration efforts on Moores Creek.

“What’s happening doesn’t match the intelligence of the city,” he says.

But the attorney for the developers, Fairburn, Georgia-based S.J. Collins Enterprises, says they have volunteered to go beyond what the county required to carry out a number of site improvement projects. Those efforts include cleaning up the old landfill on the property two years earlier than mandated, implementing stream bank improvements to Moores Creek and removing invasive plant species that are crowding out native species on the riverbank, says Valerie Long of Williams Mullen law firm in an e-mail. The developer also plans to implement a water treatment facility to detain polluted water that runs off the highway and treats it before it reaches the creek.

Richard Randolph, planning commissioner for the Scottsville district where 5th Street Station is located and a Board of Supervisors candidate, says he gives the developers the benefit of the doubt.

“It’s easy for one to take photographs and point fingers, but this is a process of transition and it’s not completed,” he says, noting that the health of Moores Creek actually increased from a very poor rating to a rating of poor in nonprofit StreamWatch’s latest assessment, which was released in June.

According to Randolph, the results of the assessment are “hardly a point where we declare victory,” but he hopes to see the water quality of Moores Creek improve further with the help of S.J. Collins and “there is an expectation that it will.”

The health of Moores Creek isn’t the only concern locals have, and even Caravati, a fan of the project, notes that access to the shopping center could be “a bit strained,” as Fifth Street is already a busy road during rush hour. He says traffic is usually backed up from cars that are headed downtown from I-64, and 5th Street Station will add to that congestion.

On the bright side, folks living on the south side of town won’t have to make the long drive up Route 29 North just to get to an upscale grocery store, says Long. She says this new convenience for southsiders may result in reduced traffic congestion on Route 29, and the long-awaited connector road between Avon and Fifth streets will also significantly improve the transportation network.

And beyond traffic or stream health, there’s the undeniable glee that many people seem to feel from the impending arrival of the beloved grocery chain.

“We are told that shoppers come from up to 90 miles away to shop at Wegmans,” Long says.

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