The concept of urban placemaking surfaced in the 1960s, when writer and activist Jane Jacobs successfully led the fight to block a planned highway through New York’s Greenwich Village, and urban planner William “Holly” Whyte began the Street Life Project, documenting how built environments shaped the way people behave and interact. Today, Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Whyte’s The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces are required reading for architects, landscape designers, and planners—and their pioneering work has established the baseline idea that development is more about people’s everyday lives than it is about simply putting up buildings.
Shannon Worrell’s Tenth Street Warehouses project, at the threshold of Charlottesville’s 10th and Page neighborhood, is an exercise in urban placemaking. The pocket of thoughtfully designed commercial and residential spaces is comprised of the historic Coca-Cola bottling facility, a handful of new apartments designed by Wolf Ackerman, Peloton Station restaurant and bicycle repair shop, and a thoroughly modern new Mudhouse coffee shop.
If you’re headed west along Main Street and turn right onto 10th Street, you will immediately see the Coke warehouse—with its patinaed red brick and black metal casement windows—and after about 40 paces you will enter an open space that provides relief from the claustrophobic corridor between the monolithic façades of the Flats and Standard apartment complexes. You may also sense that you are in a deliberately composed setting, alive with pedestrians and cyclists, folks enjoying a sandwich and a beer on the patio at Peloton, and people coming and going at the shops, small businesses, and studio apartments of the Coke building.
As the local population continues to grow, Charlottesville is molting its big-town shell and emerging as a small city, creating an imperative for more spaces like the Tenth Street Warehouses. We must commend the developers of Six Hundred West Main Street for preserving the Blue Moon Diner and the building next door. Likewise, kudos to the Quirk hotel designers, at West Main and Fifth streets, for sparing two adjacent 1920s streetfront homes. As a whole, the streetscape between Tavern & Grocery restaurant and Seventh Street presents many pleasant places, including the street-facing dining area outside Public Fish & Oyster and Oakhart Social.
The Tenth Street Warehouses represent an opportunity for more than commodious living. It is a connector between Main Street and the Westhaven public housing and 10th and Page neighborhoods, both of which absorbed African Americans displaced by the city’s shameful demolition of Vinegar Hill in the 1960s. Worrell is fully cognizant of this history, and also aware that the neighborhood is threatened with gentrification. It could be argued that Worrell’s project contributes to that. But by creating a cohesive, modestly scaled development, she is announcing her commitment not to wall off one of the city’s less affluent communities. On the contrary, she hopes that the Tenth Street Warehouses will act as “soft, connective tissue” between the neighborhood and West Main Street and the university.
We spoke with Worrell, a former poet and musician, about this and much more.—Joe Bargmann
Abode: How did the Tenth Street Warehouses project begin?
Shannon Worrell: You can trace it back to about 20 years ago, when I bought the Coke bottling factory building. That was the company’s original facility in Charlottesville, but they outgrew it and built another one, which is now Kardinal Hall, over on Preston Avenue. The first building became a shirt manufacturing place—maybe not what you’d call a “factory” but certainly bigger than a tailor shop. Since I’ve owned it, it’s been a commercial and residential space, with big lofts and a few smaller spaces tucked in on the ground floor.
How much work have you done to the building?
A lot of the original details were preserved in a renovation by the previous owner, and I’ve continued that idea to this day. The space has been updated—it has to be useful—but I’ve been adamant about keeping all of the amazing old materials intact. It was a large, industrial space, and I’ve stayed true to that spirit and aesthetic. If anything, I’ve opened it up more rather than breaking it up into a bunch of smaller spaces.
What other elements have you added over the years to make what is now the Tenth Street Warehouses?
I bought the building and some land adjacent to what most people remember as the old C’ville Classic Cars shop. It was built around 1930, and for many years it was a machine shop where car parts were made. But it’s always been industrial and automotive.
The transformation into the space that is now Peloton Station and the Mudhouse is night and day. What was your vision in the beginning?
The first thing was just to save the building. There had been a lot of deferred maintenance. There was literally water rushing through it and the roof was falling in, and there were environmental issues because of the industrial use. So, I addressed and mitigated those issues. I was attached to those big, slanted, sort of Art Deco windows and the shape of the building, so I decided to revive it.
What option did you have?
None that I was willing to consider. I could have done what’s going on all over the city, and especially up on Main Street, which is to knock down the old building, put in parking on the ground floor, and then build up as many stories as the city would allow. But I live in that neighborhood, and I’ve been watching the changes over the years, and there’s no way I was going big. I can’t say it was the greatest financial decision [laughs].
I’m sure! And I can appreciate the aesthetic choice, but why was preserving that building so important to you?
I remember when I was a kid, there were all these great old quirky buildings. There are just a few that remain, including a couple on Main Street, that remind me of my childhood. The big box housing developments on West Main Street change the whole scale and feeling of midtown. On the positive side, there are more pedestrians and The Corner is truly being connected to West Main and downtown. The downside is that some of these buildings look out of place in the original cityscape—more suburban and homogeneous in their design and material use. We saw an opportunity to make a project that was more architecturally unusual, while showcasing the old car dealership storefront. The Standard looms over us in a way that urges us to want to create something visually appealing in the shadow of its backside. We are working with them, Westhaven, and The Charlottesville Mural Project to create a park behind the apartment building.
How do you compensate for or counteract that?
We’re looking at our options right now. I’m working on getting a big mural painted that will break up some of that visual monotony of the back of the Standard.
Part of your goal is to improve the way the space looks, but there’s also a practical side to how you’re designing and programming it, right?
I like to describe the Tenth Street Warehouses property as connective tissue. When the classic car shop was in the Peloton building, there were a lot of fences in the space between it and the Coke building. I mean, a whole series of chain link fences were breaking up the space. I had them taken out. It’s important to my commercial tenants and the people from the neighborhood to be able to walk down from, or up to, Main Street.
Playing devil’s advocate, could someone call your project simple gentrification?
That’s fair, to an extent. I have been called a gentrifier. But at the same time, I’ve also deliberately sought out people’s point of view. I suppose I need to do more of that—have a stronger connection with my neighbors. But they’d have to admit that the space is now more walkable and open, a more pleasant place to engage with others. I like to think of it as kinder, gentler gentrification, if there is such a thing [laughs]. I want people to understand my point of view. I could have cleared the land and put up the biggest possible building, in order to make more money in the near term. I’m committed to a different approach. I have an open mind and an open heart. I have to run a business and make money, but I’m confident that if I do the right thing, that will happen in time. That sounds utopian and naïve, but time will tell and I’m just going to keep trying.
What’s going to happen with that lot on the other side of Tenth Street? It would be nice if you could have something there that continued in the vein of the warehouses.
Well, the university owns that land, and right now it’s used as parking for faculty and hospital staff. I think I’m like a lot of people from the neighborhood who have a love-hate relationship with the university. It obviously employs and educates and enlightens a lot of people, and it provides all of us with lots of wonderful diversions and resources. But people also see UVA as a gentrifier that’s encroaching on the city.
But the story isn’t so simple, is it?
No, of course not. And I think [UVA president] Jim Ryan is really interested in having more of a dialogue with the community and enhancing UVA’s relationship with the city. What happens with the land that’s now a parking lot? I don’t know. I guess it could end up being student housing.
Have you spoken with anyone at the university about that parcel?
No, I haven’t. But I hope to. And generally speaking, because of president Ryan and also the aftermath of August 12, I think the university is more sensitive to how it interacts with the city. It’s certainly more sensitive than an out-of-town developer who really has no community connection.
It seems to me that it would be beneficial for the city to leverage some of the talent from the School of Architecture—architects, landscape architects, planners…
That kind of integration would be really great. There are some amazing people in this community who are either at the university now or who have come out of it. I have had professors and students work up plans for sites in the past, but nothing ever seems to get off the page. There’s so much capital here—creative, intellectual, financial—that it would be great to be put it all together to solve some problems. The biggest problem now is affordable housing. It would be interesting to see what could happen if we all put our energy into addressing that.
What connection to the university do you see there?
There’s some student housing on grounds, but a lot of them need to live off campus. I think the relationship between student housing and affordable housing is contentious. We need to talk about that and make sure everyone has a seat at the table. I’m not saying I know how to make that happen. I’m sitting here in my utopian bubble! [laughs] But I am a developer, I have a stake in this, and I like to think I’m conscientious. I’m aware of the housing redevelopment process—I’m part of it in some small way. I do some volunteering for the public housing association president, and I’ve been talking to Habitat for Humanity about some housing initiatives. I’m trying to find a way forward and make a difference. I want to figure out the best way to do that.
What drives you to keep going along that path?
The creative part is what inspires me, and my desire to use that creativity for people in the community. There are a lot of things we could have done with the Tenth Street Warehouses space. We chose to create what you see now.
The apartments above Peloton Station and Mudhouse, designed by Wolf Ackerman, are very modern. How does that style mesh with the other buildings, which are industrial and from different eras?
The Coke building has very large, loft-style apartments. Their size and scale is dictated by the building itself—industrial space with really high ceilings, lots of windows, and wide-plank wood floors. I wanted the new apartments to be similar—with a warehouse-industrial feel and high ceilings—but the architects were like, “Man, there’s a lot of red brick in this town, and I don’t think we want to go there.” I agreed. We were looking at Scandinavian architecture, very spare, and also Japanese. So we coined the term Scandinese industrial. [laughs] It doesn’t mean anything on its face, but it became our shorthand way of talking about the style we were going for. It’s an extension of the industrial history of the site but also contemporary.
There’s a rawness to the whole site. Would you say that the Tenth Street Warehouses are still a work in progress?
Definitely. My tenants all understand that, too. We want to hear from people in the community —we welcome their opinions with open arms—about how the space can work for them and be meaningful to them. There will be changes. I think we’re really just getting started.