Slow going: Water Street coal tower restoration project at a standstill

The stairs that led to the top of the coal tower have been removed, but the base and surrounding dirt area are easily accessible. (Photo: Matt Weyrich) The stairs that led to the top of the coal tower have been removed, but the base and surrounding dirt area are easily accessible. (Photo: Matt Weyrich)

Charlottesville’s C&O train station closed its doors in 1986, but that hasn’t kept the building and its adjacent coal tower out of headlines in the three decades since.

The site of both a double homicide and an apparent suicide, the abandoned tower became a popular hangout spot for drug users and the homeless in the early 2000s. Despite the structure’s checkered history, the land surrounding it on East Water Street was bought out and developed into C&O Row, a string of pricey townhomes that some residents have already moved into while construction for the rest of the buildings is underway.

While the luxury residences are being sold around $1 million apiece, conditions at the coal tower itself have deteriorated; graffiti and overgrown vines line the exterior walls of the base, and a hole on the side of the tower opens up to a crawl space littered with dirt, garbage, and chunks of concrete. A small construction fence separates the tower from the sidewalk, but it’s only a few feet tall and doesn’t wrap around the entire structure.

 

A proposal to turn the area underneath and around the tower into a pocket park complete with a covered patio, bocce court, and dog park was approved by the Charlottesville Board of Architectural Review on August 21, 2018, but construction on that project—and the rehabilitation of the tower in general—has yet to begin, and no one seems to know why.

“The maintenance, improvements at the structure, they could’ve been doing those whenever,” says Jeff Werner, a city planner with Neighborhood Development Services. “As far as the [park], I don’t think you need a building permit for a bocce court.”

There was a holdup on the project in July 2018, when the BAR postponed the proposal over some original 1940s metal the developers wanted to remove. They came up with a resolution a month later, meaning the only thing standing in the way of property owner Choco-Cruz LLC, a Richmond-based company operated by local developer Alan Taylor, moving forward with the project is an application for building permits.

“The other elements like the vent stacks, the pulley on one side, those things that date from the original coal tower will be retained,” says Joseph “Jody” Lahendro, a historic preservation architect on the BAR.

Taylor, the president of Riverbend Development in Charlottesville, didn’t respond to requests for comment, and Riverbend’s Vice President Ashley Davies admits she isn’t up to speed on the project. She says it’s being overseen by project manager Joe Simpson, who Davies says recently celebrated the birth of his child (Simpson also didn’t respond to a request for comment).

Over at City Hall, urban designer Carrie Rainey says Choco-Cruz still needs approval for a light fixture design and historical landmark sign, but Werner insists that shouldn’t be holding up any progress on the rehabilitation of the coal tower. There were questions surrounding the design for a retaining wall and stormwater drainage as well, but those have since been resolved.

Werner has reached out to city building inspectors and asked that they examine the structure’s conditions to determine whether there are any safety hazards. He says there’s confusion among C&O Row residents over who’s responsible for the coal tower’s upkeep, and one has already contacted him to complain about the state of the structure.

For now, there’s no indication as to what the timeline will be for both the rehabilitation and park projects, but the Certificate of Appropriateness that allows for Choco-Cruz to apply for the building permits required for construction expires by March 2020. The company could request an extension if needed, but would have to appear before the BAR again in order to do so.

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