The City Yard is large, central, under-used, and under government control–so why hasn’t it been developed?
By Jake Mooney
To attempt a walk west from Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall, through the former site of Vinegar Hill and towards Preston Avenue, is to feel the full weight of city leaders’ historic disregard for the people and places at the center of town.
Distances that fly by in a car stretch out interminably on foot. In the sprawling grid of parking lots between the Omni hotel and a drab office building called the City Commonwealth Center, sidewalks curve in directions you do not want them to go. As you navigate muddy paths worn into the grass, you may ponder whether bygone planners’ attitude was something more like contempt.
Heading west across Ridge Street-McIntire Road, between a pair of fast-food drive-throughs, you will come to Fourth Street Northwest, and see, past it, what looks like a shortcut heading west by the city Public Works building.
If a gate is open and your timing is right, you may pass unchallenged into an expanse that is both larger and more isolated. Here, in the lowlands between the Jefferson School and Preston Avenue, you will find rows of city work trucks; a series of low-slung corrugated metal maintenance buildings; and, inside another fence, a tangle of gray pipes with posted signs warning you not to smoke because of the presence of gas.
You will be standing near the geographic center of town, in a vast 9.4-acre donut hole on the map of Charlottesville, in a spot close by the kinds of services that, in theory, support residential neighborhoods. Ahead, you will see a railroad overpass, where a formerly public street once led to the 10th and Page neighborhood.
It has been fenced off for the last 44 years. Here, in the public works lot known as the City Yard, you will have reached a dead end.
“The worst thing we could possibly do”
A century ago, there was a neighborhood where the City Yard now stands. Its largely black and mixed-race residents, according to 1910 census data, included several born before the abolition of slavery, like Isabel Henderson, 66, who worked as a cook for a private family, and Roda Cosby, 73, who worked as a house-cleaner.
Their neighbor George Jones, 31, was a charger at the gas works nearby; he lived at 422 Page St., near the middle of the current public works lot, with his family: Hester, 24, a “washer woman,” 12-year-old Lizzie, 3-year-old Laura, and 1-year-old Talf. Other neighbors included waiters, laborers, blacksmiths, and one, 17-year-old Morriss Starkes, who was a jockey at a race track.
The neighborhood gradually disappeared over the ensuing decades, squeezed out by municipal uses and some of the same forces that killed nearby Vinegar Hill. Still, for much of recent history, when people outside the Public Works department have thought of the City Yard, they have recalled its potential to hold something other than dump trucks.
Especially intriguing, in a real estate market where finding sites to build affordable housing is difficult, is the fact that the City of Charlottesville already owns the land. The City Yard is large, central, under-used and under government control—a tantalizing combination. So far, though, plans for change there have generally fizzled, stymied by City Hall’s reluctance to move its maintenance facilities, and by long-circulating but largely unconfirmed reports of contamination in the ground from the old gas plant.
Now, as Charlottesville’s housing crisis worsens and the city’s dearth of affordable housing gains more attention, the yard is once again beginning to draw scrutiny. In November 2018 the City Council awarded $500,000 to New Hill Development Corporation, an African American-led nonprofit group, to study redevelopment in the Starr Hill area, which includes the City Yard.
The city’s proposed capital budget also includes $300,000 for the 2020 fiscal year to study the level of contamination at the yard. Interim City Manager Mike Murphy says he has directed staff to explore enrollment in a federal Department of Environmental Quality remediation program that could help clean up all or part of the property.
“My thought is, whether it gets redeveloped or not, we should do the exploration,” Murphy says. “We’ve got employees down there, and I want to know what we can do for the site.”
Advocates of housing development say the costs of leaving the yard as it is are high.
“We can’t just set aside all that space for surface parking. It’s a nightmare, just from a financial perspective,” says Lyle Solla-Yates, a city Planning Commission member who has studied the troubled racial history of the City Yard and other Charlottesville sites.
Even if the site is not fit for housing, “What we’re doing is the worst thing we could possibly do,” Solla-Yates says. “Taxes are very important; the city needs tax revenue. City Yard is one of the most potentially valuable pieces of real estate in the city.”
Yet, he adds, past City Councils have never taken the initiative to move redevelopment of the yard beyond the talking stage. But why?
“I don’t know,” he says. “My suspicion is that it’s an ugly story and they don’t want to stir it up.”
A vanished neighborhood
The site of the present-day City Yard has long been defined by its topography. Lying downhill from West Main Street on one side and Preston Avenue on the other, along a polluted spur of the creek known as Schenck’s Branch, the land has been, for the better part of two centuries, a place for the city to put the services it didn’t want to see.
Charlottesville’s gas works opened there in 1856, and its presence came to define the neighborhood, which was considered distinct from the Vinegar Hill and 10th and Page districts. In subsequent years, the facility expanded to hold two large gas tanks—roughly on the site of the current Public Works building. From 1887 to 1896, a hospital “for the sick of both races”—unlike segregated Martha Jefferson Hospital, which opened in 1903-—operated in an old brick house next to the gas works. Later came the city’s street cleaning department and, in 1936, its jail.
Throughout those years, the gas house district had residents. An 1897 sales listing refers to two tenement houses, likely across Gas House Street—present-day Fourth Street Northwest—from the plant. Solla-Yates theorizes that they were among fewer than a dozen apartment buildings in the city that were open to black people.
Maps of the area from 1907 and 1920 also show a row of dwellings along Cox Row (later known as Page Street), through the middle of what is now the City Yard site. Some of their houses were directly adjacent to the gas works. Brian Cameron, a UVA student who is writing his undergraduate thesis on segregation, land use, and gentrification in Charlottesville, calls their siting an early example of environmental racism in the city.
“It’s definitely an indicator of the quality of the land that Charlottesville would allow African Americans to live in under Jim Crow,” he says.
According to a description of the area from a 1929 masters thesis Cameron unearthed, entitled “The Negro in Charlottesville,” the houses were typically clean and in better condition than in some of the city’s other largely black neighborhoods. Still, “many of them are not attractive,” the paper’s author, Marjorie Irwin, wrote. “This is the district of the washwoman and cook.”
Though the neighborhood did not possess an atmosphere of hopelessness, Irwin added, “There is, however, a stream which leaves the gas-house, carrying away the refuse from it, and making the entire bowl smell of the gas.”
“It is an unsightly and unsavory stream, and the houses are built close beside it, so that at times it overflows into the yards and even floods the first floors of the houses,” she wrote. It was “rather amusing,” she added, that some of the largely rented properties, perched on hillsides above the creek, “give the impression that they are in momentary danger of sliding down on each other.”
Artist Frank Walker, who grew up in the Starr Hill neighborhood above the site, remembers sledding down the same hill, at the end of Fifth Street Northwest, and hearing dogs barking from a city pound at the yard. He also recalls an explosion at the gas plant in the 1950s, and notes pointedly that the segregated Jefferson School built in 1926, was right next door.
“If you read the history of African American schools, oftentimes they were put next to something that’s dangerous or not good for your health,” Walker, 65, says. “That’s what I call an American covenant to do that.”
Retired teacher Pat Edwards, who lived on Eighth Street Northwest as a child, walked through the yard every day when she was a student at the Jefferson School, and remembered inmates at the jail waving to her and her friends as they passed. More darkly, Edwards, now 70, has a searing childhood memory of workers at the pound shooting dogs in view of passing kids.
“That was how they euthanized them,” she said. “As I grew up, I kind of wondered if they didn’t time it for us coming through.”
The explosion led to the gas plant’s closing, but with it gone, its neighbors soon faced another threat: The expansion of the yard’s municipal uses, which steadily edged out residential properties in the district. A 1953 map shows most of the row of houses along the stream gone, replaced by an auto repair shop and buildings storing cement and equipment.
What remained of the neighborhood died out in the late 1960s, after Vinegar Hill was torn down. In 1975, in another City Yard expansion, the City Council moved to close Page Street under the railroad bridge. The closure blocked off foot traffic through the property, and also had the effect of preventing easy access from the predominantly black 10th and Page neighborhood to downtown.
Even in the years leading up to the last City Yard expansion, the former gas house district still had some residents, says William Harris, who moved to Charlottesville in the 1960s, served for eight years on the city’s Planning Commission, and was UVA’s first dean of African-American affairs.
Still, “It was nowhere near the intensity, in terms of population density, of Vinegar Hill,” Harris says. “If there were stores there, it never bloomed into very much. It was very much the lower end of Charlottesville.”
A generation later, at a city-hosted meeting in 2005, Starr Hill residents called for talks with City Hall about the property’s future, citing ongoing problems with standing water and mosquitoes.
Looking at the unruly vegetation on the lot’s border with Brown Street, some of them told city staff, “is much better than looking at the Yard.”
Despite its condition, the City Yard site could have notable advantages for a new developer. Solla-Yates has mapped sites in the city within a quarter-mile of transit, grocery stores, day care centers, and parks, and found that the property is among the best-located in Charlottesville by those measures.
The site is also much larger and more flexible than the city-owned West Second Street property off Water Street downtown, where the City Council has navigated years of controversy over plans to develop a farmer’s market building topped with luxury apartments. Its low-lying terrain, long a disadvantage, now means that even a large building on the site would have a relatively low profile—a key consideration in a town where neighbors routinely object even to small new development projects.
“City Yard is in a hole,” Solla-Yates says flatly. “Anything you do there will look pretty good.”
Harris, too, acknowledges the property’s appeal, but he calls the City Yard “complicated,” adding, “I think the issue has been, is there anyone willing to put in the fiscal resources to develop that site? And if the city were willing to make a deal to let it go.”
City government has, in fact, considered moving its public works yard before, developing a site plan in the mid-2000s for a new location on city-owned land on Avon Street in Albemarle County. Today, Murphy says, that plan is obsolete: It is more than a decade old, and the price tag to move the whole yard to Avon Street today would be “huge”—though there may be other, less costly approaches that would split different uses among different new sites.
Then there is the contamination. While the money currently budgeted for the site is intended mainly to find out what pollutants are there, estimates for cleanup range from $250,000 to $3 million, depending on what investigators find, Murphy says.
Regarding residential development, “There are parts of the yard where it would be cost-prohibitive” because of cleanup costs, he says. “But it wouldn’t prohibit other kinds of uses.”
Finally, the site’s future hinges in part on New Hill. The group, which formally incorporated in 2018, arose out of discussions among a group of African American entrepreneurs and business leaders about expanding black entrepreneurship in Charlottesville—talks that were initiated by council members Wes Bellamy and Kathy Galvin, New Hill CEO and Board Chair Yolunda Harrell says.
Bellamy, who served for a time as a New Hill board member but stepped down before the council voted to fund the organization, did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Mayor Nikuyah Walker, who cast the sole vote against the funding. Galvin called the process that New Hill is now coordinating, to create a so-called “small area plan” for the broader Starr Hill neighborhood, critical to soliciting the community’s wishes and ideas for future uses. The group has begun meeting with neighborhood residents, and its agreement with the city calls for the plan to be completed by the end of 2019.
“The beauty of doing this small area planning exercise with a group like New Hill is they are 100 percent committed to doing this with the welfare of the community in mind, and they are driven by a mission to empower the African American community in particular,” Galvin says.
With new construction creeping toward the neighborhood from West Main Street, Ridge Street and Preston Avenue, she adds, “we’re in danger, if we’re not intentional, of having Starr Hill being redeveloped by private developers, based on our existing zoning, with no community input at all. And that would be a travesty.”
The City Yard site could be an important piece of the larger jigsaw puzzle that is central Charlottesville, helping organize a broader vision for the area, Galvin says.
“The urban core should be the more diverse and a little bit more intensely developed area,” she says. “Certainly more than just a big asphalt parking lot where we store our brine for de-icing streets. It’s a real terrible waste of precious land.”
A new partner?
In the short term, many of New Hill’s efforts have little to do with real estate development or land-use planning, focusing instead on efforts to support and maintain Charlottesville’s black middle class, through entrepreneurship training with a focus on improving credit scores. In the future, though, the group’s work will involve creating “opportunities” for people to live and work in the era, Harrell says.
Has the group thought about the City Yard’s development potential?
“Oh, absolutely,” she says. “Very much so. Absolutely, absolutely. That’s one of the largest opportunities that exist.”
Critically, she says, the group has partnered with the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a New York-based nonprofit that receives funding from banks, corporations, foundations, and government agencies, and then finances local community development groups like New Hill. Among LISC’s roles, Harrell says, could be to raise capital for any actionable ideas that arise from the small-area planning process.
While the city has considered moving its public works yard before, “Part of being able to make that happen is that we’ve got to give them a good reason to do it, and a good plan for what could be done,” she says. Another part, she adds, could be raising money so that the city does not have to pay for such a move itself.
“If we’re trying to be a partner to the city, then to me that’s what partnership is all about,” Harrell says. “It’s not only looking at what needs to be done, but then how do we get it done?”
Fresh on the scene and unfamiliar as New Hill may be, some advocates of affordable housing are open-minded.
“I really have a sense of crisis, and I don’t think a lot of the people making these decisions have that sense,” Solla-Yates says of the city’s housing shortage. “I feel like the house is on fire, all hands on deck.”
When it comes to building at the City Yard, he adds, “It doesn’t have to be perfect. People are hurting.”
Harris, for his part, says taking a side on an early planning concept would be premature. Still, he says, “If they can all do something to improve the quality of life of African Americans in Charlottesville, then hell, I’m all for it.”
Even so, New Hill will face skepticism: Many Starr Hill residents were surprised to learn about the group’s efforts for the first time from newspaper and television reports. While the developer has since met with the neighborhood association, many residents are “concerned, based on the city’s track record,” says Edwards, the former teacher who is now one of the association’s leaders.
“You can’t help but wonder, obviously, what impact is this going to have on us?” she says.
Activist and filmmaker Tanesha Hudson, who grew up in Westhaven, a short walk from the yard, says she could support development on the site if it created housing affordable for working people, and opened up streets through the property to provide easier access to the surrounding neighborhoods. She does not support New Hill, though, and argues that the group is using “minority faces” to get city funding for a business agenda tied to wealthy white board members, including John Kluge, son of the late billionaire, and Champion Brewing Company’s Hunter Smith.
“Any prime real estate, nobody of color can afford in Charlottesville at this moment,” Hudson says. “We have all these people that build all of these plans, and then they start off with including us, but then over the years, it starts to dwindle down.”
Noting the group’s name, which evokes the history of Vinegar Hill, she adds: “I don’t think it’s going to be for people of color. And you can’t give it a name like New Hill if it’s not going to be for the people that the Hill was taken from to begin with.”
Due for scrutiny
Looking forward, one challenge for the City Yard site is its blankness: Any visible history, or tangible connection to the surrounding neighborhoods, faded away decades ago.
Moreover, those neighborhoods have a diverse range of needs and priorities: Starr Hill, on one side, is heavily commercial and its residents are largely middle-class, while Westhaven, on another side, is an aging public housing complex with entirely different challenges. Someone from one side of the yard, like Edwards, might like to see single-family workforce housing there, while someone viewing from a different angle might prefer to see as many new units as possible, in an attempt to help residents being displaced by rising property values.
What is clear, though, is that the low-slung parking lot, hidden in plain sight near Charlottesville’s core for decades, is due for some scrutiny.
“When you look at a city such as Charlottesville, that is not going to go greatly vertical, that is dangerously close to being a built-out city, when you see even a postage-stamp size piece of land that hasn’t been developed, generally you want to ask the question,” Harris says. “Well, damn, why hasn’t anyone done anything here?”
Behind New Hill
New Hill Development Corporation’s agreement to develop the small area plan for Starr Hill has gotten the group most of its attention, but it has a broader goal: developing Charlottesville’s African American middle class.
CEO and Board Chair Yolunda Harrell, who had a long
career as a hotel manager before New Hill formed, says the group is focused on the importance of credit scores, which are central to a person’s ability to buy a house or car, secure financing to launch a new business or, increasingly, even get hired at many jobs.
While there are multiple organizations in town emphasizing financial literacy, New Hill is unique because of its focus on the black community, and its aim of working with people across the economic spectrum, not just the very poor, Harrell says.
“There’s plenty of Americans that are not financially resilient, that don’t have a good plan in place, so that if anything falls apart, if anything goes wrong, they can find themselves in a very critical situation,” she says.
One of the group’s partners in its education efforts is the Community Investment Collaborative, a fellow nonprofit that pairs its entrepreneurship training and mentoring programs with micro-lending. Harrell hopes, though, that New Hill will help the people it works with improve their financial health enough to qualify for loans from a variety of capital sources, including traditional banks.
With new storefronts opening up around town in development projects like the Dairy Central project on Preston Avenue, “Our goal is to say, ‘Okay, this is coming. Let’s let individuals get ready for this opportunity,’” Harrell says.
Beyond that, of course, New Hill is interested in building new spaces itself, where the people it aims to help can live and work. Another of its nonprofit partners, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, could theoretically help line up financing for a development project: The New York-based group, founded in 1979 with money from the Ford Foundation, works to connect public and private funders with “underinvested places and people.”
LISC’s chairman is former U.S. Treasury secretary and Goldman Sachs co-chairman Robert Rubin, and its board is stocked with current and former Wall Street executives. Its president and CEO, Maurice A. Jones (not the former Charlottesville city manager) was previously Virginia’s secretary of commerce.
The group could help New Hill, in part, by sourcing funding for a development project that would involve moving the current municipal uses at the City Yard, Harrell suggests.
“Part of my goal is to say, okay, is there any other way that we can look at paying for this without it being taxes and bonds?” she says. “Are there any other sources out there at the state level, at the federal level, that would help with this? Or is there the opportunity for our local anchor institutions like the university to help?”
New Hill also has some deep-pocketed board members of its own, including John Kluge, the son and namesake of the onetime richest man in America. Kluge, an angel investor who has worked to fund clean toilets in the developing world through another of his organizations, has committed to direct 95 percent of his late father’s assets toward philanthropy.
Other New Hill board members include attorney Melvin Burruss, Abundant Life Ministries director of community engagement Anne Brown, UVA orthopedic surgeon A. Rashard Dacus, Virginia National Bank President and CEO Glenn Rust, and Champion Brewing Company President Hunter Smith.