Charlottesville’s downtown

Charlottesville’s downtown

Downtown Charlottesville is a unique combination of historic properties and a lively contemporary pedestrian mall, one of the few of its kind that continues to thrive after years of operation.  Downtown also offers employment opportunities, as well as some of the area’s best restaurants and entertainment venues, a combination of critical factors that make living there increasingly popular amongst buyers of all ages and income levels.

Walkability is a big part of the appeal of living downtown, and it is not uncommon for families who live there to give up one of their cars.  Regardless, many enjoy walking or biking to work or to the mall to shop, go out to dinner or to meet a friend for coffee or a night at the theatre.  This trend is not just about convenience or a preference for green living.  A 2012 Brookings Institute study found walkability to be good for the local economy, increasing retail revenues and housing values while reducing transportation costs.

While downtown has new buildings, the preservation of local historic structures offers residents and visitors a continuing connection to the past.  Charlottesville was formed in 1762 when the Virginia General Assembly set aside 50 acres of land around the Albemarle County Courthouse.  Laid out in half acre lots on four east-west and five north-south streets, the city was named in honor of Queen Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the wife of King George the III of England.

Today these original lots form the heart of Charlottesville’s downtown, and in l982, the entire Historic District  (88 structures) was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, an official list of properties considered to be worthy of preservation and administered by the National Park Service. The City of Charlottesville also recognizes such properties and requires that their owners seek approval from a Board of Architectural Review before making changes to their exteriors.

Today’s downtown residential real estate market includes a range of choices from condos to townhomes to cottages and grand historic homes. In the current market, prices start at under $200,000 for some condos and go as high as $1.6 million.  Downtown truly offers something for everyone and living there is a great way to enjoy a contemporary lifestyle in a setting with ties to a distinguished past.

The Lure of Urban Living

The downtown mall, the first phase of which was completed in 1976, is clearly the main attraction for people living in this part of town.  The familiar pedestrian mall with its bricked walkway is one of a few such attempts at downtown renewal that have survived.  In fact, a recent article at urbancurrent.org reports that only 11 percent of pedestrian malls in the US have survived as such, the others having been removed or put to other uses.

Charlottesville’s mall is longer than most, comprising seven blocks closed to traffic, with over 30 restaurants and 120 shops and boutiques of all varieties.   It also features family friendly activities such as the Virginia Discovery Museum and the ice rink.

Karen Ball, with Nest Realty, lives on Park Street and is investing in a renovation project nearby.   She and her husband moved there before the birth of their two children and enjoyed the ease of walking downtown following the alley ways behind the homes.  Today they use the same route but push children in strollers and take their dog, which goes off leash during part of the trip.  “The mall is very kid friendly,” she said describing the Virginia Discovery Museum one of their favorite stops. She added that people who live nearby think of the mall as “their big back yard.”   Today Ball and her husband still walk to the mall to eat out on date nights.

“When you live downtown you can walk to restaurants and entertainment,” said Inessa Telefus, with Loring Woodriff Real Estate Associates, a firm based in the downtown area.  She also referenced the job opportunities within walking distance and states that some of her clients don’t own a car.  Recently she worked with a professional couple who purchased a home in this area, and the ease of walking to downtown figured large in their decision.

Charif Soubra is the Sales Manager for the Woods at Burnet Commons, a pocket community of new homes and town homes just eight minutes from downtown, developed by Southern Development Homes.  He described some of the joys of living in this area, such as visiting the farmer’s market or meeting a friend for coffee on Saturday morning.  “People who live downtown get to enjoy being part of Charlottesville instead of just living in it,” he said. “Often when they work downtown they can depend on one less car.”  He described clients who walk or bike to work daily including a UVA professor who bikes to his job at the University.

Downtown Dwellers

Robert Ramsey, with Roy Wheeler Realty Co., grew up on Park Street in a home that was then three houses from the country, and long before the bypass was built.  Today he works in a building on 8th Street which, at the time of his birth at Martha Jefferson Hospital, was where his mother’s obstetrician had his office.

Ramsey described several different groups of people moving to the downtown area today.  One of these is the Boomers, many of whom are downsizing.  These are the folks who moved from town out to Ivy and other outlying areas when they had families, but now like the idea of owning one less car, walking to the mall and paying less for transportation expenses.  Some like the no maintenance aspects of condo living while others choose a small house and yard within a mile of town.  Often these Boomers are people who are not fully retired, and, Ramsey said, “cutting down on drive time saves on gas, mind and soul.”

Ball added that people who are retired with more time to enjoy the area want what she called a “lively environment,” something which is very evident downtown.  Of course those who “crave the country can visit there easily from anywhere in Charlottesville,” she said.

A second major group moving close to downtown is young families.  The main road block for these buyers is the expense of being very close to the mall, Ramsey explained, so often they move a little further out to a neighborhood like Belmont.  A draw for this group is the good reputation of the public schools as well as what Ramsey called a “burgeoning number of private schools,” which are accessible to the downtown area.

Still other people who like the downtown area are those who love the prospect of renovating older homes, Ramsey explained. They take homes built between the 20s and the 50s and modernize them keeping what’s good.  Many of the renovators are people for whom new construction is not appealing in part because the homes often sit on small lots.

“Small lots are a deterrent to Boomers,” Ramsey said, “especially if they come from two to twenty acres out in the country.”  They may not want that kind of responsibility any more, but many still like the idea of having a yard with a garden, he explained.   

On the other hand, for those who like the idea of living near downtown but want to be free of yard work, condo living is an option.  Telefus explained these can range in price from one currently under contract and listed for $149,000 to another, also under contract, which listed for $599,000.

Another option for those who don’t have the time for yard work, or who no longer enjoy it, is the Woods at Burnet Commons, where owners have no responsibility for landscaping chores.  Soubra said this neighborhood appeals to professionals, many of whom may be moving up from their first home and looking for a higher level of amenities such as granite countertops or nicer interior wood finishes.   

Burnet Commons is also a popular choice for downsizers who want to give up their large square footage house and yard for a smaller home with lots of amenities, including a high level of energy efficiency and no yard work. While these buyers can’t experience the excitement of renovating a beautiful old home, they do get to help design their new one before they move in. The attached homes in this neighborhood start at $319,900; the detached at $344,900.

Living downtown appeals to homebuyers for whom green values are important.  This could be expressed as making an older home more energy efficient.  It could also mean buying a new home built to EarthCraft standards, which is prewired for solar, as they are at Burnet Commons.  Either way, the energy savings and reduced automobile usage are appealing to these buyers.  “However,” Soubra said,  “while sustainability and walkability both add value to a home, walkability trumps it all.”

Downtown neighborhoods can also be a good source of rental properties for those looking for an investment, Soubra said.  The area’s easy access to the local hospitals makes it a popular place for medical residents along with other young professionals looking for a place to rent.

Charlottesville’s Urban Lifestyle

For people who love living in town,  it is worth it to pay the higher prices to be as close as possible.  Some come from out of the area and from out of state, but many come from as close as Albemarle County or the Route 29 corridor, Ramsey explained.  These are people who are looking for an “urban community,” he added.

“Lots of people come from other cities looking to be near cultural activities,” Telefus said.  However, when they move to Charlottesville they also get the additional benefit of nice views.  She recently sold a property to someone who looked at a variety of homes and locations but ultimately bought downtown and it was the beautiful view from there that clinched the sale

Ball described the mature trees in her neighborhood, which are appealing to many of her clients.  She mentioned the dogwoods blooming in the spring as a real highlight of urban life in Charlottesville along with the mountain views.  “Outdoorsy types love to run or bike in the downtown neighborhoods and many races start and end at the downtown mall,” she added.

Of course the mall is an endless source of interest.  “You never know what you will happen upon there,” Ball said.  “It’s very refreshing with young kids, and always entertaining,” she continued. She also enjoys the farmers market every Saturday where she goes to pick up her vegetables for the week.

If you are looking for an urban lifestyle close to the mall, ask your agent about what is available downtown.  There is something for everyone there and you may find a home that is perfect for you within walking distance of some of the best sights and activities in Charlottesville.

Celeste Smucker is a writer, blogger and author who lives near Charlottesville.

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