West Main St. Slowly Developing

West Main St. has been coming along slowly but surely. For years it’s been lined with increasingly-decrepit buildings, serving as a serious barrier to pedestrian traffic between Downtown and UVa. For the last few years, though, it’s been increasingly lively, and much bigger plans are on the horizon. Brian Wimer has an extensive story in this week’s C-Ville, which can be read here by clicking “Read More” below.

Walk along West Main Street and you won’t notice much activity. A bit of traffic, here. Someone with a new futon, there. But don’t be fooled–something is happening. With a keen eye, you can spot the conspirators. A man with a magenta paint brush in a parking lot. A City inspector in the bushes behind the train station. Are they busy revolutionaries, working toward a common cause? What cause? Something that private and public interests have talked about for decades: renewal.

West Main Street is a long-neglected corridor between town and gown that has often been teased with the promise of development. It’s been called the “heart” of Charlottesville, between the “brain” of the University and the “guts” of Downtown. Conventional wisdom has held that change would arrive abruptly with a seismic, landscape-altering development project.

“For years there have been those who’d hoped that there would be some sort of multi-million dollar development big bang…and, in fact, a lot of energy has been invested in trying to make that happen,” says Charlottesville Councilman Maurice Cox.

“The reality of West Main Street,” he continues, “is more likely to be a whole series of smaller things that happen along the edges of West Main Street. …If you look really carefully you can get a glimpse of what’s to come.”

Main Street, once Three Notch’d Road, was a major hub of commerce in a growing city. But deterioration and decline were followed by vagrancy and vandalism, then the demolition of Vinegar Hill in the 1960s and the Starr Hill youth riots of 1975. A 1977 study by the Central Piedmont Urban Observatory concluded that the City should abandon all hope of ever rejuvenating Starr Hill, the neighborhood north of West Main from McIntire to the train tracks. Leave the neighborhood’s fate to “market forces,” the study’s authors prescribed.

Enter Mayor Frances Fife at the urging of residents, merchants and property owners. In 1978, the City received a $1.1 million Federal Community Block Grant, using it to plant trees and repair the roads and walkways. Artists adorned the sides of historic buildings with flower murals.

Then, in 1996, the bridge was remade in a nobler image and later named after local hero Drewary Brown. The Marriott Courtyard moved in, despite heated criticism. Same for the Hampton Inn.

Lee Danielson, father to the ice park and Downtown movie multi-plex, proposed a 17,000-seat sports arena for the 10-acre City Yard in 1999. He was rebuffed. Developer Gabe Silverman began the first stages of a $20 million multi-purpose, retail/residential/bus depot/subterranean-parking-plaza, Union Station, down at the Amtrak station. At the 11th hour, that project was axed by City Hall.

There were other false starts, too. The empty promises of the “go-go” ’90s, for instance, gave rise to the hope of a “high-tech corridor,” which failed to materialize when the markets went sour, save for a few start-ups in the humble halls of Corridor 1, Category 4, the Darden Incubator, the short-lived biotech training center and the still-promising Virginia Piedmont Technology Council, which remains at 999 Grove St.

“I, too, was very seduced by a ‘big bang’ for West Main Street,” admits Cox. “But after having watched so many of these incredible efforts to make something singularly extraordinary happen there, I came to the conclusion that we can’t put all of our eggs in one basket. …We have made an about-face and are embracing a much more diverse and dynamic view of Main Street–one where smaller development sparks happen all throughout the corridor.”

Those sparks started a small fire on April 16, when Charlottesville’s Board of Architectural Review approved three West Main Street demolition projects. One was the partial demolition of the 87-year-old Priority Press building to make way for a congregational center for the Reverend Bruce Beard’s First Baptist Church, a controversial decision cheered on by a crowd of local residents. Although Reverend Beard was unavailable for comment for this story, it’s clear his vocal leadership will be important in reshaping West Main Street.

The other two projects given the green light were the demolitions of the Merchants Tire and Payton Pontiac buildings, which are owned by superstar band manager and local businessman Coran Capshaw.

No one wants to reveal exactly what will be built there, but the buzz is “mixed-use,” residential and commercial space. Already those involved are appealing for zoning amendments, seeking flexibility on the City’s building-height limit of 40 feet. “The time is coming quicker than you think for condos and apartments,” says Capshaw’s architect Jim Grigg.

Capshaw, for one, thinks the time is now. On May 2, his team held a City Hall Preliminary Site Plan Conference, discussing the Fifeville Apartments–225 residential brick and stucco units planned for five and a half acres between Sixth and Seventh on Estes Street. Named for the neighborhood south of West Main Street, it’s the most significant project in what’s being called the City’s new “transition zone.” The development, which could break ground in August, will include a swimming pool, a fitness center, 264 parking spaces and a greenspace.

Grove Street between Ninth and 10th streets may also host new live/work units. And Dogwood will soon build its 100th low-density, mixed-use structure. A community development firm run by Eugene Williams, Dogwood serves racially mixed, underserved populations like single mothers, the elderly and disabled throughout the Fifeville and 12th Street area. Even a parcel of the City Yard on Brown Street is being actively considered for residential development.

“We haven’t had this kind of urban housing type and in these numbers yet in Charlottesville,” says Cox. And it’s about time. During the first week of May, on the CAAR listing, a mere 19 houses were listed for under $200,000 in all of Charlottesville–many of them in the formerly off-limits neighborhoods surrounding West Main Street.

“In this market, it’s almost not even necessary to clean up your house or give it curb appeal,” says Michael Burkoff, a Montague Miller realtor who, in just one day, sold a 1920s-era property across the train tracks off Seventh Street. “In this market, they’re lining up to buy [these houses] without them being fixed.”

Moreover, many of these houses are selling at prices far above their assessed values.

As prices skyrocket, Piedmont Housing Alliance Executive Director Stu Armstrong makes it his business to keep housing affordable in the area. The PHA rehabs or builds new homes and sells them at cost (or lower) for families earning $18,000 to $35,000 per year.

PHA started its community work in the early ’90s with five houses in Starr Hill, and a $450,000 budget. It progressed to $650,000 to rehab six houses in Belmont and then a budget of $3.2 million to work on 24 structures in the 10th and Page area. Now, a 19-unit restoration is underway in Fifeville, on a $5.5 million budget. Although the City has fallen on comparatively tight times, Council allocated $107,008 in its new budget for PHA. About $400,000 for the Fifeville project was donated by Capshaw.

“When you do $20 million worth of work in a six- or seven-year period of time, when there has been little to no significant reinvestment in these neighborhoods for 20 years, you make change,” says Armstrong. “Money makes change happen.”

Change is not good in all eyes, of course. West Main’s quiet boom is already having real ramifications for the current community, with future effects almost a certainty.

“Some people say PHA is contributing to gentrification,” says Armstrong. “What we’re trying to do is change renters into homeowners, and rehab houses that nobody would ever invest in, which then helps the community.

“But it does create change. And it creates accountability. …You have more vested folks in a given area, creating financial accountability and behavioral accountability through home ownership.

“Compound that with other developments on the Main Street corridor on the private sector side, you now have a lot of change happening in Charlottesville,” says Armstrong.

Clara Jamison, for one, a resident and hairdresser at Hair Doctors, one the few remaining African American-owned stores on the strip, isn’t keen on recent developments. “They are taking all this property from the poor people and using it the way they want and making a million dollars,” she says.”I wish some people would realize what they have here and stop selling everything.”

Jamison and many like her have come up short in the exchange. “There’s no place for young kids. We’ve got an ice rink that half the people don’t even use. They should put in a roller skating rink.”

The disconnect between the needs of the local community and many of the private and public developers on and around West Main is inevitable when there isn’t a guiding hand, a missing force that developer Silverman says is crucial. “The logical thing is to have a master plan incorporating everybody’s pieces of property that are to be developed,” he says.

Logic is in short order, says Silverman, whose disaffection with official Charlottesville took shape in relatively princely donations to the Republican Party and failed Democratic challenger Waldo Jaquith in the recent election season. “The thrust of Coran, or myself, or the City doesn’t relate to what Bruce Beard is doing with the Baptist Church…it doesn’t relate to what the community is doing,” he says. “None of it relates.”

The missing factor, says Silverman, is dialogue. Five years ago, just such a give-and-take was attempted. The Soul of Charlottesville project brought together land owners, developers, neighbors from all sides and 50 volunteer professionals. They talked and pored over six major studies spanning the previous three decades. The Soul of Charlottesville came to a joint conclusion.

The City would have to get actively involved with development. Additionally, major structural changes like parking and transportation were things that any one small business couldn’t afford to undertake. Some large–and presumably responsible–party would have to do it.

Silverman says the job description would be “benevolent dictator.” He names an unexpected role model: UVA.

“Look how much better it’s run than the City. You walk through that campus and you say ‘Jesus Christ, it’s gorgeous.'”

Although not all of Silverman’s plans for the corridor have worked out as envisioned, he shares credit for change on West Main Street. For example, located in the old MacGregor Motors building is the Main Street Market, an enticing assortment of specialty purveyors of cheese, fish, chocolate and the like–even a French take-out deli, Ciboulette.

Ciboulette owner Jose de Brito, formerly a truffle importer in New York City, likens West Main Street to Manhattan’s East Village or Tribecca, relatively speaking. “It has character,” he says, comparing West Main to the City’s other retail centers. “Route 29 is very convenient, but it has no diversity. It’s not ethnic. It’s nothing.”

Next door, Kate Collier, who owns a similar store, Feast!, hopes the Market will mesh with the community. “Food is hopefully accessible to everyone,” she says. “Locals wander in to see what is here and inevitably find something that is in their price range.”

Jamison disagrees. “It’s outrageous,” the hairdresser says. “I went up there and I said, ‘You want that much for a piece of cheese? I don’t want cheese that bad.'”

Silverman doesn’t see it that way and neither do some other longtime locals like Starr Hill resident Alicia Lugo. Until now, “There were no central City markets, particularly where you can get fresh produce and fresh fish and bread right out of the oven,” she says. “That’s a real added bonus for us, living in walking distance.”

There are other conveniences the residents would welcome in a make-over. “It would be nice to have a drugstore in the area,” says John Gaines, president of the 10th and Page Neighborhood Association.

Gaines has more comprehensive issues, too. “I’m really disappointed that I didn’t hear [safety] debated by any of the candidates for City Council,” he says. He’s also concerned that rising home assessments are driving long-termers out of the neighborhood as real estate taxes go up.

“Last, but not least, there’s the University to contend with,” Gaines says. “The University can almost do whatever the University wants to do…that’s one of the fears that many of the folks in this area have…that the University will eventually buy up property in the area and the neighborhood.”

Fifeville and Starr Hill residents need look only a short distance east to see the truth in that prediction. The University successfully supplanted a row of historic buildings around 12th Street in favor of the sprawling Marriott. It announced plans earlier this year to tear down Trax/Max on 11th Street to create storage space. In the process, UVA will push the Music Resource Center out of its home on the second floor of that building. Just beyond Grounds, the Lewis Mountain neighborhood is engaged in battle with UVA over the fate of a tract of land on Ivy Road, which the University intends for a five-storey parking garage.

Starr Hill matriarch Teresa Price knows that game all too well. “My family has been constantly on the move,” she says. “My grandparents owned the house where City Hall is. Eminent domain took that. They owned a house where Burley School is. Eminent domain took that. So I would not be a bit surprised if eminent domain doesn’t take this one [we’re in] on Sixth Street.

“You can’t stand in the way of progress.”

It doesn’t take much imagination to see an existing collegiate development model in the renovations on Charlottesville’s main drag.

“The West Main Street corridor appears to be more and more like Georgetown,” says Price. “If Mr. Silverman has his way, he’ll just cultivate that whole space between the University and the Mall, and it will be a walking area like that. It will be crowded like Georgetown.”

She’s not far off. Silverman’s most ambitious vision is for a piazza. “Like in Venice,” he says.

But, through it all, Price does see some benefit. “We have continued to improve. More and more people have wanted to move into town,” she says. “So they’re coming into Starr Hill that was formerly all black. We are totally integrated now.”

Lugo agrees, “What goes around comes around. If you live long enough, you see it all.

“It’s probably more reflective of Charlottesville around the turn of the century when neighborhoods were more integrated than they were subsequently.”

Photographer Paul Whitehead is a recent addition to the neighborhood. “The first time I drove through this neighborhood, I thought I’d never live here. Dilapidated houses and so on.” he says. “Turns out I ended up buying a dilapidated house because I was poor. It was the kind of house I could afford.”

Graphic designer Lawren Spera is another addition. A home-owner in the 10th and Page area for five years, she downplays the neighborhood’s stigmas. It may not be paradise, but it could be worse.

“Some Rush Limbaugh type told me that he wouldn’t go into my neighborhood without a gun,” she says. “I laughed at him because if he lived in Richmond he’d be eaten alive.”

Some City officials hope mixed-use development, anchored by urban housing, will raise the area’s security in a way that the average City police force cannot. “An eye on the street 24/7 is going to make the street much safer,” says Cox.

A discussion of West Main would be incomplete without mention of Jefferson School, the last vestige of the long-lost Vinegar Hill neighborhood, which fell prey to the wrecking ball. The run-down, century-old brick building continues as a subject of sore debate and its eventual fate will affect the area’s renovation, too. Local historian Christine Madrid French, a director on the board of Preservation Piedmont, says the school “could be a model for Charlottesville that the nation could look at.”

“Schools are notoriously hard to reuse. …The biggest issue is that the City is going to want to make it somewhat profitable, but perhaps its best use is as a community center,” French says. “Where is Charlottesville going to get another property that large that it can dedicate to a community function?”

Other changes are in the works for West Main Street, too. Silverman will expand the Main Street Market. He is also considering new uses for his most recent acquisition, the Zion Church building on Ridge Street. And there are plans for the Ten Center, a five-storey office building to be built at West Main and 10th Streets.

On the more extreme side, there is talk of yanking up the asphalt, finding the rails that were once there and putting in a fixed rail. Somebody might even have the guts to pave over the entire street and make another pedestrian corridor similar to the Downtown Mall. At that point, the quiet boom would be quite audible.

One of the more probable eventualities will be a 10-foot easement on all properties on the south side of the street. From Jefferson Park Avenue to the 10th Street realignment to the Drewry Brown Bridge to First Baptist to the Lewis and Clark statue, there are only about three buildings that actually come near the road. Getting passage of the easement before further development occurs could result in 20-foot-wide, “pedestrian-friendly” sidewalks on West Main Street.

Loud boom or quiet boom, with all the change happening and in the works, West Main Street may soon live up to its name as a true center of the City.

“West Main Street is the perfect vehicle at this time to tie all of the communities together,” says Silverman, “to tie the University together, the communities surrounding West Main Street together, the Downtown Mall…and to build from there.”

As John Gaines observes, “It will be interesting to see what develops.”

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