In last Sunday’s Daily Progress, Jeremy Borden looked at the progress of Places29, Albemarle’s plan to turn 29 north from a blight on the landscape into a place fit for humans. The bit that really got my attention was this quote from developer Wendell Wood:
I know what my customers want. I have no customers looking to open up a small dress boutique. They are obsolete. … [Stores like Target] is where the new marketing is. A lot of people say, ‘We’re hurting the guy at the little hardware store.’ But that’s life.
Wood’s assertion that small businesses are “obsolete” is staggering in its ignorance, shortsightedness, and flat-out wrongness. To the extent to which Wood and like-minded developers have their hand on the rudder of Places29, we are all in deep trouble.
After reading Borden’s article, I was primed for Jayson Whitehead’s article in the current C-Ville Weekly describing the unusual sale of Wood’s land to the National Ground Intelligence Center. Whitehead managed to get a remarkable level of access to nearly every decision maker in the process, providing a level of detail about commercial development in the area unlike anything I’ve read before.
The sketchy deal went a little like this. NGIC (famous for a little claim about aluminum tubes, nuclear materials, and Iraq) has outgrown their brand-new facility up 29, and has decided that they need to expand by 60% in the next five years. (Developer Wendell Wood sold them the 29 acres that they’re on now, back in 1997, for $1M.) Since he owned land adjacent to NGIC, zoned as a Development Area, he offered to sell them 47 acres for their expansion. He was offered $7M for the land. Wood believed that the land was worth something closer to $16M, which you’d think would be the end of the story. ($16M being almost exactly 1,000% more than the adjacent chunk of land was worth ten years ago.) But that was when Rivanna Supervisor Ken Boyd got a telephone call from an NGIC employee, whose identity he won’t disclose, saying that if he didn’t do something, the deal would fall through, and NGIC may simply pack up and leave town.
When Boyd got in touch with Wood, the developer proposed a solution. He had 30 acres of land along 29, designated Rural, preventing any development. If the county would redesignate that land as Development Area, he’d be willing to part with his land for the offered price. The board was pressured into voting on this in just a few weeks, after being told by federal representatives that it was conceivable that NGIC could leave. When the vote was cast it was 5-1 in favor of the deal, with Sally Thomas dissenting, arguing that it was simply bad planning and a bad use of land, and that it didn’t make sense to for the county to be used as a bargaining chip with the feds by a developer. (See Charlottesville Tomorrow for the podcast.)
Places29 — or any plan for development — can never succeed with enormous exceptions being carved out. The question about this deal is whether the county was taken for a ride. That may never be answered.