The address of the wedge-shaped building is 550 E. Water St., but it is better known simply as 550. That’s what happens when a piece of architecture breaks new ground. It becomes a symbol, and a shorthand reference is enough to identify it.
Designed by Cecilia Hernandez Nichols and her husband, Robert Nichols—founders and principals of Formwork—550 did not come into this world quietly. Construction of the six-story building forced street closures and riled some business owners, who said it was hurting their bottom line and blocking mountain views. One complained that the building threatened the character of the neighborhood. “I really, really dislike that every open space on Water Street is going to be gone,” she told C-VILLE Weekly. “It’ll be so cold.”
The architects don’t contest the point that 550 could be a harbinger of downtown densification. And they make no apology for the high prices commanded by its commercial space and six opulently appointed condos, which are listed for as much as $2.5 million. In fact, they are proud of its elegant, contemporary design, and they believe 550 could inspire the building of more—and more affordable—downtown living space.
Over lunch at Brasserie Saison recently, they discussed 550 and much more.
Abode: There’s plenty of opinion about 550 and its potential impact on Charlottesville real estate, especially downtown. How would you explain its position in the market, and the style you chose?
Cecilia: There’s a fundamental thing you have to understand if you want to understand architecture, period: There’s style, and there’s typology. You can mix and match the two. So, you can have a courtyard building, which is a type of building, that is very modern, baroque, Tudor, or some other style. But style and typology get confused in the collective conversation about architecture, and it really mucks things up. In Charlottesville, because of the influence of Thomas Jefferson, there’s this idea that mimicking the style of his work is an architectural goal. To me, that mixes up the issues. It’s weird to apply to modern typologies what TJ did in terms of style.
Did you sense that when you were designing 550?
Robert: Yes and no. It’s easy to hear public grumbling (I try not to read the comments!) about brick color and stylistic issues. But conversations with the Board of Architectural Review are more substantive. There, and before the planning commission, the conversation was almost entirely about scale.
What makes 550 right for Charlottesville at this time, and for that location?
Cecilia: What Robert said: scale. Regardless of whether we would have liked to see an extra story on the taller volume, or how we could have slightly reshaped the massing, the foundational concept of the massing and how the volumes relate to the street are an appropriate next step for Charlottesville.
Cecilia: There exists a default attitude that building, in general, is bad. But I think for social creatures, urban density is a good thing. The world’s great cities, large and small, demonstrate this. But we must manage changes in this regard so that the scale of buildings and density of population are consistent with the needs of the community. Of course, factors other than scale also figure in: economic, environmental, and so on. In Charlottesville, we have this small, nicely scaled, walkable part of the our city that is enormously desirable, but the community often acts as if density should be resisted. We can fit more people here—upper, middle, and lower income members of the community. Density of population entails a certain density of construction, otherwise the people who work downtown return to bedroom communities at the end of the day. The question is, what will be the nature of the increasingly dense built form—the architecture—that comes along with a greater population?
What’s really new about 550? What makes it unique?
Robert: Up until 10 years ago, the thought that somebody might invest in residential construction on that tiny site, much less expensive residential construction, was preposterous. So designing for residential living at that location is unprecedented. A site that was once peripheral is now central.
Can you expand on the idea of the forms that make up the building, and why they might be a good model for future development?
Robert: 550 consists of a tall portion that completes the intersection of 5th and Water streets; a short connector piece that is somewhat utilitarian in nature, with garage doors; and finally, next to the old train station, a small volume that’s more or less the scale of a duplex. If you were to take those forms, and move them around to other potential building sites, especially close to downtown, they would create the variety of scale that makes blocks pleasing, and could also help transition to lower density streets further from the center.
Cecilia: Are you getting at the fact that we didn’t maximize the zoning envelope?
Robert: Yes, but that shouldn’t be a goal.
Cecilia: I agree. The development and design team started with the idea that we were not going to maximize the by-right envelope for many reasons. If you look at the rhythm of the buildings on both sides of Water Street, it’s very higgledy-piggledy. One block from 550 is a huge parking garage. That blows the massing equation out of the water. We were just looking at what a livable meter might be along the street, and trying to fit the project to that. There’s the C&O restaurant right across the street, for God’s sake.
At 550 you have the most expensive living spaces in the city. Is that a point of pride or shame?
Robert: There’s a couple of things going on. One is super-tight proximity to the center of town, where there’s a lot of pressure on land values. Housing that’s considered affordable—especially if it’s going to benefit from some incentive or subsidy—can’t be expensive to build. And so, a site like that, small and close to downtown, where it’s difficult to benefit from economies of scale, precluded 550 from playing a role as affordable housing.
Parking is a major issue downtown. How did it influence the design of 550?
Cecilia: We had to accommodate cars at the base level. In a sense, we designed around the parking spaces we needed to include, but it doesn’t look that way. In the end, we wanted to design spaces that were enjoyable to live in, and we wanted the building to be beautiful. I hope people think that it is, and if the design brings a premium to the price, that’s a total point of pride!
What statement does 550 make, design-wise, in the context of other downtown buildings?
Robert: I think it says that tackling any empty or underutilized site is worth a stab. It would be great if the mechanisms imposing constraints, economic or regulatory, would support greater density. I mean, when we built this building and the Holsinger, we heard a lot of people lamenting the loss of a parking lot. And a parking lot, especially a surface parking lot, is not something to be desired downtown. I would like to think that any site should be seen as fair game for building up and tightening up the urban fabric.
Cecilia: Sites should be exploited for what they are. There needs to be a sliding scale. You figure in whatever incentives are available, and our priorities as a community, and hopefully that makes for a healthy mix of housing that includes everybody.
But doesn’t 550 cut against that grain?
Cecilia: Just because 550 has expensive apartments doesn’t mean each piece of land downtown should be exploited in the same way. The scale of the building was what alarmed many during the approval process. They said, “That’s a huge building!” But it’s not a huge building. I think if people get comfortable with the approach to scale that 550 demonstrates, we will be able to fit a lot of us here, downtown, in a very livable, walkable way, at every income level.