Block party: Charlottesville’s downtown, long a subject of controversy, is settling into its own

Photo: Skyclad Aerial Photo: Skyclad Aerial

Charlottesville’s downtown has been a source of debate and controversy for nearly a century. Could the debate finally be coming to a close?

For the first time in a long while, some agreement has emerged about how to balance downtown development—residential versus commercial, shared versus dedicated space and parking in particular.

“The downtown area is a vital part of the economic engine of our city, and there is great demand to do business there,” says Bob Kahn of Bob Kahn Realty & Investment. “This is where folks want to live and work, and I think it’s important that we continue to nurture it in a positive way.”

Kahn served as the listing agent for the Main Street Arena, purchased by Brands Hatch LLC and Jaffray Woodriff, who did not respond to requests for an interview, for $5.7 million in 2017. The arena will be torn down to make way for a 170,000- square-foot tech hub called the Center of Developing Entrepreneurs (formerly the Charlottesville Technology Center).

The center is one of several major transformations currently happening on and around the Downtown Mall, and together they stand to drive the future of one of C’ville’s most critical commercial areas.

The proposed Center of Developing Entrepreneurs (rendered above), a 170,000-square-foot tech hub that will replace the Main Street Arena, is at the center of several major transformations on the Downtown Mall.

Brick by brick

It was a windy path for the Downtown Mall to get where it is today. The story starts in the 1970s, when, as downtowns nationwide searched for ways to bring people back from the suburbs to do business in the city, pedestrian malls emerged as the answer. According to The Charlottesville Downtown Mall, a 2010 documentary by producer Karl Krause, more than 200 U.S. cities adopted the concept of the pedestrian mall around that time.

Unfortunately, only a handful were successful, and the numbers dwindled to about 30 by 2010. The staying power of the Charlottesville mall, according to Krause, was owed to a combination of a smallish, active population, and the nearby university.

The heart of the city prior to its bricking, looking west toward the Vinegar Hill neighborhood.

The mall also in part owes its existence to one of the more controversial developments in Charlottesville’s history—Vinegar Hill. The largely black residential area, situated just west of what is now the Downtown Mall, was razed in 1958. For a decade, it stood idle.

What Vinegar Hill eventually became—a commercial strip and roadways—is still an emotionally charged subject for many, but its redevelopment went hand in hand with the launch of the mall in 1973. The urban planning firm that recommended destroying the Vinegar Hill residences also originally conceived of a downtown pedestrian walk, according to an article by Sarita Herman in the Magazine of Albemarle County History.

The mall, too, had its detractors at the beginning. Council members said Charlottesville wasn’t amenable to a “mall concept.” But a narrow vote pushed the redevelopment plan through, and a San Francisco design firm created a pedestrian thoroughfare that has more or less stood the test of time, both functionally and formally—a rebricking in 2009 brought the surface up to date along with the mall’s commercial opportunities.

Into the future

The mall’s original conception incorporated several spaces that never came to be, including an anchor farmer’s market on the east end. That’s contributed to much of the surrounding developments’ fluctuation over the years.

Now, residential spaces are in the works that should bring more housing to Charlottesville’s downtown—and with it residents with disposable income.

In the zone

Valerie Long helps shape the city’s landscape

By Erika Howsare

As a longtime local real estate attorney, Valerie Long—who’s been in the business for nearly 20 years, and with the Williams Mullen firm since 2006—has represented developers of some of the biggest projects to reshape Charlottesville in recent memory, including Stonefield and Fifth Street Station. We asked her to share some of her expertise regarding development in the city’s Downtown.

Valerie Long. Photo: Amy Jackson

C-BIZ: What are some of the biggest challenges for developers in Downtown Charlottesville?

Valerie Long: I think probably the most challenging thing right now is that the process has become so contentious in many cases. So often developers are met with skepticism from the beginning. There are reasons for that, but I’ve been trying to figure out ways we can improve that process. It helps to work with residents near projects and trying to develop those relationships better and earlier in order to understand the perspective of residents who live and work near projects.

How does the need for affordable housing play into these issues?

Everybody shares the goal that we need substantially more affordable housing units in the city. That often means that in order to make those financially viable, we need market rate units coming online at the same time. Sometimes that’s seen as counterproductive, so we’re trying to make folks understand they can be complementary.

Under the current zoning ordinance, the density limits are set relatively low in terms of what you can do by-right. The incentive is to obtain a special use permit (SUP), but now with the process being more expensive and time-consuming, it’s creating a disincentive. For the economics of a project to work, the incentive is to have fewer units at higher prices or rental rates. We’re advocating for higher density levels as an incentive to provide affordable and lower-cost housing. But people perceive higher density as a real negative—they start worrying about traffic and the impact on their neighborhood.

How do historic designations affect the process?

Much of Downtown is located within a historic district, so any time you have a project within that, it has to get design approval from the Board of Architectural Review (BAR). If you do need SUP or rezoning, as part of that process, the BAR will have an initial hearing. That’s to provide guidance to the Planning Commission about whether the BAR thinks the request for an SUP is appropriate for that historic district. The application for SUP goes through a two-step process: first the Planning Commission for a non-binding recommendation, and then it’s ultimately approved by City Council. Landscape design is also within the BAR’s jurisdiction, as well as signage.

What changes have you seen in your career that are positive for the community?

In the last five years the city started requiring community meetings for SUPs and rezoning applications. It comes down to earlier communication and outreach. That’s always a positive. It’s an opportunity to explain to adjacent neighborhoods and community members the details of a proposed project. In the vast majority of cases, that results in a better project.

“This community needs residential development in the worst way possible,” says David Mitchell of Great Eastern Management Company, the developer working on creating up to 126 condos at East Jefferson Place (1011 E. Jefferson St.). “No one can say we don’t need more residential development.”

What type of residential development is more a subject of debate. Mitchell calls East Jefferson “workforce housing” that “complements the neighborhood.” Across the mall on Water Street, a mixed-use property would add another 85 residential units, as well as a permanent home for the City Market.

The Water Street project, West2nd*, has been in the works for several years, and construction is finally slated to begin this fall. “That is a prime example of how the city is well managing the growth of downtown,” Kahn says. “These things are complicated developments, and they take time for the details to be worked out.”

Low-income housing at Friendship Court has been renewed for the next two decades through an agreement between the Piedmont Housing Alliance and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Photo: Skyclad Aerial

West2nd developer Keith Woodard, whose Woodard Properties also owns McIntire Plaza and properties on and around the Downtown Mall, was unavailable for comment on the status of the project. But local media reports indicate construction should take about two years once it begins.

Meanwhile, the low-income housing at Friendship Court (418 Garrett St.) has been renewed for the next two decades through an agreement between the Piedmont Housing Alliance and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The 150 units meet the HUD definition of affordable housing, and while detractors might be concerned about the residents’ ability to fuel commerce on the mall, some local business owners recognize their importance.

Tight fit

Downtown parking vexes city

By Erika Howsare

Looking for a parking spot? You’re not alone. Parking has gotten tougher Downtown, and it will probably get tougher still. In
the words of the city’s parking manager, Rick Siebert, “There is an impending and significant parking shortage” due to development projects still in the pipeline.

The last few years have been a stormy time for the city as it’s tried to address the parking problem. By Erika Howsare

Here’s a breakdown of recent events:

1986, 2000 and 2008: City commissions study of the parking situation downtown.

2015: A new study recommends establishing a city parking department, installing meters Downtown and setting garage rates lower than meter rates.

March 2016: Mark Brown, owner of Water Street Parking Garage and president of the Charlottesville Parking Center (CPC), sues the city over a dispute over rate increases on the 973 public spots in the garage. The city and the CPC, equally represented on the board that governs the garage, had deadlocked over whether rates could be raised to reflect market rates. This led to Brown’s suit, which demanded $1 million in damages and the city’s removal from decisions on rate-setting.

April 2016: The city countersues.

September 2016: Rick Siebert is hired to oversee the city’s Parking Action Plan.

November 2016: The city announces it will pay $2.85 million to buy the lots on East Market Street currently occupied by Lucky 7 and Guadalajara, in order to build a new garage.

September 2017: Parking meter pilot program is launched with 105 spots around downtown. Parking at these meters costs $1.80 an hour. Simultaneously, garage rates are lowered. The program earns $18,000 in its first month for the city’s parking enterprise fund. However, in an online city-conducted survey, 57 percent of respondents say the meters have caused them to avoid coming downtown.

January 2018: City Council votes to end parking meter pilot program about two months earlier than planned.

July 2018: The city and the CPC finally reach a settlement under which the city will have full control over Water Street operations. The city will pay $413,000 to buy another 73 garage spots, and will lease the remaining 317 spaces from CPC for $50,000 per month for 16 years.

Dave Norris, CPC manager and former mayor, tells C-VILLE that the settlement “is really a good thing for all parties,” even though he and other CPC administrators will lose their jobs. (Other garage employees expect to keep theirs.) Siebert believes efficiency will result: “We intend to operate Water Street exactly as we currently operate the Market Street garage,” he says. “If you’re coming to park, you can choose whichever facility is most convenient for your trip.”

So, once the change is in place later this year, patrons will pay $2 per hour (first hour free) at either existing garage. As for meters, Siebert says the City Council will “consider reconsidering” the idea early next year, with mid-2019 being the earliest possible point that meters could be reinstalled.

“The expected revenue from meters would help defray the cost of a new garage,” he says, adding that garage revenue already goes into a separate fund intended for that purpose.

Meters or no meters, the new garage will be built—though its size and design are yet to be determined. One reason is that the city and Albemarle County are negotiating over whether county courts will remain within the city; if they do, the county is asking for 100 dedicated parking spots to serve those courts. “If we supplied the county with 100 spots,” says Siebert, “it would limit public spaces.”

Traffic patterns are also a sticky issue. “East Market’s pretty busy,” Siebert says. “Where will those cars go after they exit?” He calls it a “very real possibility” that the existing lot in front of the S&P building could become part of the garage, too, though if the garage becomes too big, traffic problems will grow as well. Public preference for keeping Charlottesville’s skyline low is another limiting factor.

Bike racks, anyone?

“That land is particularly valuable, and I’m glad PHA…doesn’t want to throw away the culture and the neighborhood,” says Hunter Smith, owner of nearby Champion Brewing Company and a PHA board member. “When it comes to housing, my business is not my first thought.”

Smith says the downtown commercial sector is also seeing a resurgence due in part to last summer’s Unite the Right rally, with business owners coming together to drive their mutual interests via dialogue and marketing efforts.

Restaurateur Will Richey, Smith’s partner in Downtown Mall restaurant Brasserie Saison, agrees. “Last year distinctly hurt us—there are no two ways about it,” Richey says. “I kind of feel like we are in a correction period, and we’ll be even stronger than we were before.”

Kahn says downtown parking, particularly settling the issues surrounding the Water Street garage, is also finally finding its groove. Parking, he says, can make or break the success of a downtown area.

Businesses like Richey’s, certainly, rely on folks being able to access the mall—not to mention enjoy the spaces once they get there.

“We always worry about these big projects that will be two to three of years of construction, but on the other side, they are going to be great and bring more people downtown and give them new things to do and new places to work,” Richey says. “It’s a cool transition.”

*On Tuesday, August 28, after this story went to press, it was announced that developer Keith Woodard would abandon the project. 

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