Wendell Wood, NGIC, and Places29

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.

13 thoughts on “Wendell Wood, NGIC, and Places29”

  1. I don’t doubt that Wood has no customers looking to open up a small dress boutique…but does that mean there are no customers like that in the world? Isn’t this some kind of circular reasoning–Wendell Wood typically deals with a certain kind of customer (e.g., Target) and therefore that’s the kind of customer that seeks him out? Could we talk to some other developers who have worked successfully with small businesses and haven’t decided simply to roll over for Wal*Mart?

    I hope this area isn’t so small-town and naive that when the big impressive local land developer pontificates about what is and isn’t obsolete, people take him at his word.

  2. I guess it’d be like taking a poll of downtown developers of who among them regularly receives inquiries about big box stores. None? Then clearly demand has dried up. Or not.

  3. This was really about keeping the federal government here. The article shows that the county work hard and keep NGIC here. The vote was 5-1 and that has to stand for something.

  4. Wood’s assertion that small businesses are “obsolete” is staggering in its ignorance, shortsightedness, and flat-out wrongness.

    I agree that Mr. Wood is incorrect in his observations about “small business.” However perhaps what he (and most developers) are hoping for are the long term leases that big boxes bring to commercial real estate. Whereas commercial space leased to a “small business” is more likely to turn over more frequently as those fold or relocate.

  5. I don’t think it is as simple as Big Business versus Small Business, as Wood and others tend to paint the issue. I can point to several home-grown small businesses that appear to be doing quite well. Maybe the little shops that sell dresses aren’t what people need, but that doesn’t mean that they want nothing from smaller businesses at all… Obviously, he’s never tried to buy Chocolate the week of Valentines day from Gearharts, or had a beer from Starr Hill.

    I agree with Waldo here, that this is a disturbing window into the way that developers manipulate the zoning. After all, what good does it do to even have zoning if someone like Wendell Wood can just work the system to do whatever he likes anyway? Has there ever been one single notable case where a developer has fought to develop an area in the County and the County has stood its ground and said NO? Sure, they might ask for a proffer or two, but it seems that basically people do what they like, as long as they have enough money to influence the system.

    I even recall some stats published this year that said that growth in the so-called rural areas was keeping pace with the growth areas. We were sold on growth areas because we were told it would protect the rural areas, now that’s turning out not to really be true. Govenment is supposed to represent the people, not just Wood and NGIC. After all, would Wood really be so stupid as to let NGIC walk away? Of course not. This was all part of the game plan from the beginning.

  6. Every big business started as a small business. Wal-Mart began as a single, small location in Rogers, Arkansas. Target as a discount store in Roseville, Minnesota in 1962. Lowe’s was Carl Buchan’s North Wilkesboro Hardware Company, in North Carolina.

    I’m sure you’re right, Kempis — Wood and other developers must prefer chains in a great many regards. But that’s no reason for them to pretend that makes big box stores and chains inherently better.

  7. Sorry, a few more thoughts here… Did the footnote indicate that there was also a move of other land elsewhere from Urban to Rural to compensate? That would be relevant to me.

    Also, I found it really interesting that Wood can argue for big box shopping, as something that the community needs more of, but then say ““Everybody’s working at Wal-Mart, selling hamburgers to each other. But these are jobs that move people up in life and raise the standard in the community.”

    Lastly, while Thomas earn my respect fro standing her ground, after reading this whole article, I do understand Slutzky’s decision. I think it must have been tough for the BOS to be stuck in this situation, especially with them being threatened by both sides. It’s even stranger that NGIC refused to have public meetings so that they’d be covered by FOIA. It still appears clear that Wood was working the system here, but maybe I was too quick to judge the BOS. Of course, since much of this deal apparently happened behind closed doors, then maybe we’ll never really know…

  8. This is Brian Wheeler’s report on the building permits in rural and growth areas.

    For the SFD permits detailed above (last 12 months), 64% were in rural areas …

    It is easier to build by-right in the rural areas than it is to maneuver through the various levels of government in Albemarle. If the County would streamline their processes for approval, and encourage building in the growth areas, theoretically there would be less building in the rural areas.

    However, if Mr. Slutzky’s TDR proposal gains approval, the rural -v- growth areas argument may very well be moot.

  9. However, if Mr. Slutzky’s TDR proposal gains approval, the rural -v- growth areas argument may very well be moot.

    Yes, I’ve been intrigued by this idea, but there’s part of it I just don’t understand… If they’ve already increased the density of the growth areas then what is there to really trade for? It seem that those in the growth areas can pretty much develop at a high density just using “by right”, without needing to buy rights via TDR. (But I suspect I’m missing part of the process here…)

    Seem to me that it’d have been much more effective to have had the TDR in place before they created the growth areas. Then there’d actually be something to trade for. Of course, even in the growth areas, it’s still important that we have some control over how growth happens. Is it possible that TDR will negatively impact residents of places like crozet by allowing developers to basically ignore the master plan via TDR?

    I agree about streamlining the processes though. I think there needs to be some kind of carrot in place to reward those who are trying to develop in a sustainable way. Maybe TDR can be that carrot, but i just don’t know enough about it yet to say for sure.

  10. But that’s no reason for them to pretend that makes big box stores and chains inherently better.

    You’ll get absolutely no disagreement from me on that. I am all about trying to shop locally when I can afford to, and in some instances I find the prices are only a few cents different.

    Sure, they might ask for a proffer or two, but it seems that basically people do what they like, as long as they have enough money to influence the system.

    And the irritating part (as I recall from another cvillenews thread) of that is that the BoS isn’t even asking for “enough” of a proffer to cover the counties actual cost of providing infrastructure to it’s new residents.

    …this is a disturbing window into the way that developers manipulate the zoning.

    I can’t really say any of this surprises me. I’m think there might be a few Crozet residents who find none of these shenanigans surprising. And really, Did anyone honestly think the (now defunct) proposal for a james river pipeline down south 20 was really about fixing the urban area’s water problems? Or was it perhaps more about trying to install infrastructure that would make the area more habitable for developers? I of course think the latter.

  11. I just wanted to comment on Slutzsky’s plan. First it would double and in some cases triple the number of development rights coming out of the rural area. Second, it asks no proffers from developers, essentially making development “By Right” in these additions to the growth area. I certainly don’t see any growth area communities lining up to be the first to be supersized.
    As for the rural area, the board had the ability to limit development in the rural area and choose not to do so. Instead, they listened to rural residents tell them that not only did not care about rural protection, but depended on not having it so they could sell land.
    This is not to mention the board is going to cut the tax rate and therefore cut off money to some of the services that are needed, while handing out millions in tax breaks to the rich. I don’t know when growth area residents are going to wake up and see it’s their communities that are going to get screwed.
    If the board is going to cut funding to the schools and public safety then they ought to keep their hands down when the next rezoning comes before them. Take a look at Brian Wheelers CvilleTomorrow and see that Biscuit Run will have a negative impact of 134 million, but only 88 million if done by right. Mark my words, someone on the board is going to make the excuse that if the developer doesn’t get to develop the whole 3,000 homes they’ll have to be built in the rural area. If you believe this BS, I got a bridge in Brooklyn I can let you have real cheap. Approving Biscuit run is nothing more then a tax increase.

  12. I heard rumors from two people today that funding for Albemarle Place had fallen through. Anyone heard anything about this, or only a rumor?

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