Downtown Charlottesville offers jobs, restaurants, shopping and entertainment, a combination of features that bring a growing number of homebuyers wanting to live in a community that is vibrant, urban and walkable. Of course the highlight of the downtown area is the lively pedestrian mall—one of the few of its kind still thriving after years of operation. Downtown also appeals to a growing number of companies making it an important job center for the area and a place where employees can walk on the mall during breaks, eat interesting food for lunch and enjoy the many entertainment venues available there after hours.
The City of Charlottesville dates back to 1762 when the Virginia General Assembly set aside 50 acres of land around the Albemarle County Courthouse. Called Charlottesville, the fledgling city was named in honor of Queen Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the wife of King George the III of England. The original city was laid out in half acre lots on four east-west and five north-south streets that today form the heart of downtown.
In 1982, Charlottesville’s entire Historic District—88 structures—was added to the National Register of Historic Places, an official list of properties considered worthy of preservation and administered by the National Park Service. The City also recognizes these properties and requires their owners to seek approval from a Board of Architectural Review before making changes to their exteriors. These carefully preserved historic structures offer Charlottesville residents a continuing connection to the past, while at the same time, a growing tech sector is moving our city firmly into the future.
Individuals and families who live near downtown enjoy a contemporary lifestyle in a walkable, urban setting that offers a range of prices plus housing styles that include condos, cottages, and historic homes. Downtown truly has something for everyone.
The Downtown Real Estate Market
There is no question that the downtown market is doing well, although it is limited by a lack of inventory. Robert Ramsey with Roy Wheeler Realty Co. portrayed it as “strong,” and a place where bidding wars are increasingly common.
He described a recent sale of a 1920s two-story brick colonial north of downtown and five blocks from the mall. The home was next to an adjacent, vacant lot that was also for sale and could have gone to a separate buyer. The house had not been renovated since the 1960s and although it had a modern electric panel box, there were no grounded outlets and the plumbing was original. Ramsey described its overall condition as “deplorable.” The house listed for $640,000, the extra lot for an additional $225,000. Both sold the first day to the same family who wanted the vacant lot as play space for their children.
Rob Alley with RE/MAX Realty Specialists said the market is the best it’s been in the last ten years. He told of a recent listing near downtown on Druid Avenue that was “aggressively priced at $249,000” and sold in less than 30 days. “Four years ago that would not have happened,” he said.
This kind of demand for homes can only be good news for sellers. Inessa Telefus with Loring Woodriff Real Estate Associates recently had 40 different parties show up at an open house in Belmont. The home received multiple offers and ultimately sold for significantly more than the asking price. She attributed this in part to the lack of inventory, and in part to the fact that the home was in good shape with “a lot of character.” Earlier in the year she took a listing in the neighborhood near the old Martha Jefferson Hospital. A small brick ranch, it sold as soon as she put the sign in the yard.
Cynthia Viejo, with Nest Realty Group is also enthusiastic about the current downtown market that she said “continues to be very strong.” She added that, at the same time, “prices are going up,” and often buyers are forced to compromise on the amenities they want in a home or must be willing to do serious renovations.
While downtown primarily offers older homes, buyers that want the benefits of new construction have a few alternatives. Charif Soubra is the Sales Manager for Southern Development Homes’ Burnet Commons, a neighborhood of new homes and town homes just eight minutes from downtown. In reference to the market he declared that “everything is hot,” and while buyers are snapping up resale homes, many see the value in new construction where they can enjoy more amenities. He gave as examples the contemporary design his company offers along with roof top decks. Watch for two new developments coming soon from Southern Development Homes, Belmont Station and Belmont Point.
A big part of the appeal of living downtown is walkability. For families that live very close-in some even give up one of their cars while others use them less, preferring to walk or bike to work, to shop, or to meet a friend for lunch.
In addition to convenience, walkability makes economic sense. A 2015 study conducted in Austin, Texas—home to the University of Texas—found that a one percent increase in a neighborhood’s walkability score was associated with a $1,329 increase in property values. Less walkable, but close-in, areas benefited as well although to a lesser extent.
And a May 15, 2015 Press Release from the National Association of REALTORS® stated that walkable areas are “inherently more affordable” since individuals living that close-in usually spend only 43 percent of their income on housing and transportation, compared to those living in non-walkable areas, who spend nearer 48 percent.
The centerpiece of downtown Charlottesville is the pedestrian mall, the first phase of which was completed in 1976. Clearly the planners deserve congratulations as our mall is one of just a few such attempts at this model of downtown renewal that have survived. 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.
“When you live downtown you can walk to restaurants and entertainment,” Telefus said. Viejo described the downtown area as a “happening” place where people enjoy walking around and eating in the many local restaurants. Another downtown feature that she says adds “vibrancy” to the area is the Charlottesville City Market, open Saturdays from 7 a.m. until noon from April through December.
“Walkability is the number one desire” of buyers that come to Burnet Commons looking for their next place to live, Soubra said, referencing clients who walk to work downtown and a professor who bikes to UVA. Downtown buyers also appreciate “being part of Charlottesville instead of just living in it,” he continued.
Living downtown also appeals to home buyers for whom green values are important. This could be expressed as making an older home more energy efficient or buying a new one. “However,” Soubra said, “while sustainability and walkability both add value to a home, walkability trumps it all.”
Robert Ramsey with Roy Wheeler Realty Co. is very familiar with downtown and all the changes that have occurred there over the last 60+ years. His family’s home on Park Street where he grew up was just three houses from the country long before the bypass or the Downtown Mall. Today he offices on 8th Street in the same building where his mother once went for appointments with her obstetrician.
Ramsey described some of the people who today call the downtown area home. Prominent among them are downsizing Boomers. These are folks who once moved out to Ivy and other outlying areas when they had families, but now are ready to give up a car. “Cutting down on drive time saves on gas, mind and soul,” Ramsey said. Others relocate to be free of taking care of a home and yard choosing a condo, while still others prefer the reduced maintenance of a small house and yard.
Some who choose the downtown area love the prospect of renovating older homes, Ramsey explained. They take homes built between the 20’s and the 50’s and modernize them keeping what’s good. For this group, starting over with a new house is less appealing, in part because they often sit on small lots that are “a deterrent to Boomers, especially if they come from two to twenty acres out in the country.” While these buyers no longer want the acreage they still like the idea of a yard with a garden, Ramsey explained.
Downtown draws the “full gamut” of buyers, Viejo said. She has worked with young people, both single and married, young families and retirees attracted by popular downtown features such as the Ix Art Park just south of the mall. The Art Park offers many free cultural and civic activities such as outdoor concerts and an artists’ showcase, and visitors can also enjoy a variety of eating establishments without leaving the property. Ix property manager Erin Hall encourages everyone to come join the festivities stating that “the Art Park is busy every day.”
Downtown neighborhoods can also be a good source of rental properties for investors, Soubra said. The area’s easy access to the local hospitals makes it a popular place for medical residents along with other young professionals needing to rent a home in a convenient location.
Alley called the Belmont area “investor friendly” since landlords can expect rent payments to cover their monthly mortgage obligation.
While downtown can be pricey, it still attracts first-timers. Telefus worked with a couple, both with jobs at the medical center, who were able to afford a first home in the mid-$300,000 range and chose to locate near downtown. She said that a lot of buyers in the market now understand the advantage of the current low interest rates, though she warned they should act now since things could look very different come spring.
Families who love living in town are willing to pay higher prices and possibly compromise on amenities to be as close as possible to downtown. They come from out of the area, from out of state, and even from out of the country, but many come from as close as Albemarle County or the Route 29 corridor. These are people who are looking for an “urban community,” Ramsey said.
Charlottesville’s many cultural activities are very attractive Telefus explained, but a huge benefit of Charlottesville is the nice views. She has sold property to clients who looked at a variety of homes and locations and ultimately bought downtown for the convenience and walkability, but it was often the beautiful view that finally clinched the sale.
If you want to live where you can walk to the Downtown Mall, ask your agent about moving to one of the close-in neighborhoods where you can be part of a vibrant local music and restaurant scene, buy vegetables at the City Market and most of the time, leave your car at home.
Celeste Smucker is a writer, blogger and author who lives near Charlottesville.