Taking Residence: $25mm hotel targets Random Row site

Even before the Landmark mess gets sorted out, a developer has made plans to build a new hotel in Charlottesville that will transform a high-profile corner of West Main Street where a funky used-book store and other businesses have set up shop.

A Marriott extended-stay Residence Inn, comprising seven stories around an interior courtyard standing atop an underground parking area, would be one of the largest buildings ever built in Charlottesville at about 113,000 square feet of space under roof. The developer is Charles Wendell of Virginia Inn Management Inc., and he says Charlottesville's in for a treat.

"If you're coming from the Interstate and come up Fifth Street," says Wendell, "your eye will take you across to the corner, and it's just going to be stunning, especially at night."

Plans submitted to the City show a series of low-rise red-brick forms facing West Main. Amenities include an indoor swimming pool, a two-story "hearth room," and a firepit-equipped courtyard. There would be two levels of in-ground parking with 133 rooms and suites above.

The new hotel will be the 21st that Wendell has owned or developed, but this will be his first in Virginia. His previous efforts have included lodgings in North and South Carolina– plus in such college vicinities as Athens, Georgia; Morgantown, West Virginia; and Jacksonville, Florida.

"We like those towns," says Wendell, who expresses hope that Main Street– whose transformation has long been the dream of local planners– will see more development between the University of Virginia and the Downtown Mall.

"I lived in Charlottesville once and always loved it," says the 63-year-old native of Fayetteville, West Virginia. He worked here in 1970 as a recently-trained (and recently-married) certified public accountant with Hantzmon Wiebel and would return to visit when his youngest son attended UVA Law.

As the sidebar to this story indicates, the Charlottesville area appears poised to experience a bumper crop of new hotels, and that has caught the eye of hotel economics expert George Overstreet, who teaches at UVA's McIntire School of Commerce.

"That's gonna be a pretty decent shift in supply," says Overstreet, who counts the current number of local rooms as 3,100. The four publicly-confirmed projects would add a total of 508 rooms in the next two years, a 16 percent jump.

"When you get a shift like that," says Overstreet, "you typically get a drop in prices and occupancy."

Overstreet notes that the Omni and Boar's Head Inn, two major players in the high-end market, have each launched or recently finished major room upgrades that should help them weather any glut.

"I think this is good for Charlottesville and the county," says Overstreet. "But will it be good for the existing hotels? The really weak ones would find themselves in a financial bind."

With another one located beside the Barracks Road Shopping Center, Wendell's Residence Inn would become the second such outpost of the Marriott chain in Charlottesville. There, the recent price of an overnight ranged from $164 for a studio to $204 for a two-bedroom unit.

Meanwhile, rooms at downtown's only major hotel, the Omni, typically start at $225. A reporter asked Wendell if he's concerned about the possibility that the Landmark– an 11-story boutique hotel on the Downtown Mall– might reemerge as downtown competition.

"There's always gonna be competition," says Wendell. "You concentrate on what you do well and let that take care of itself."

In keeping with its location in "downtown corridor" zoning, Wendell needs no special city permission other than approval from the B.A.R.– the Board of Architectural Review. His team's May presentation was withdrawn after Board members reportedly expressed concerns about a thick and continuous cornice running along the facade facing Main Street.

The new rendering, submitted by Daggett & Grigg architects, retains the concept of low-rise, red-brick buildings along Main with the seven-story hotel block tucked behind, but this latest design opens up the central courtyard to give the impression of separate structures fronting Main Street.

Two structures that won't survive the transition are the complex at 301 and 315 West Main that long held RSC Equipment Rental and before that an auto dealership called Mooney Oldsmobile. While the buildings narrowly escaped demolition in 1962 when city leaders razed most of the Vinegar Hill neighborhood and its adjacent commercial district, the B.A.R. approved their demolition in 2010.

A reporter finds Bob Mooney, grandson of the late dealership founder, on the ground level at what had been the old Mooney Oldsmobile body shop. After RSC moved out about five years ago, he began transforming the two buildings (three, if you count his ground-level warren) into a hodgepodge of businesses. The one-acre site now includes two auto repair shops and his own wood-working shop on the ground floor, as well as a cornucopia of colorful retail businesses above.

"I tried to find one tenant to take the whole property, and I couldn't find one," says Mooney. "But I was finding people who needed a nook and a cranny."

As Mooney sought redevelopment offers– which included a CVS pharmacy whose design the BAR rejected and a nine-story condo tower that couldn't find financing– a wave of young creatives moved into the nooks and crannies. The businesses include a public ceramics studio, a hip-hop clothing store, a bicycle repair shop (that recently closed), a confectionery, and a sprawling bookstore. They also include the studio of Cat Thrasher, a photographer who snared the old RSC parts department due to its pair of 20-paned casement windows.

"That's a photographer's dream to have giant north-facing windows," says Thrasher.

Thrasher liked the space so much that she held her own wedding there, and she feels sad about the prospect of leaving just as Main Street is getting a renaissance of sorts. An expansion of the Main Street Market with a pho restaurant and a meatballery come on the heels of all the foot traffic that's been generated by Random Row Bookstore and the rest of the Mooney complex.

"We've all been getting sorta successful, so it's really depressing," says Thrasher. "Not only will I not find another space like this in Charlottesville, I don't think I'll find a space like this anywhere."

She harbors no ill will toward Mooney since he's been open about his intentions, and she says the rents always reflected the future uncertainty. The developer says he might break ground as soon as Christmas.

"We all knew this was coming," says Thrasher. "We always knew we were gonna get kicked out, and that's why it was feasible."

With the developer estimating his total investment, including land and furniture, topping $25 million, even the soon-to-be-displaced photographer calls the hotel a "win" for the city.

"We've been waiting for it to happen," says Charlottesville planning director Jim Tolbert, enthused about this hotel as well as the expansion of the Main Street Market and the $141 million Battle Building that the University is erecting near 11th Street.

That doesn't mean anyone relishes the prospect of development.

Inside Random Row Books– which has carved a hip name for itself by hosting controversial speakers, poetry slams, and up-and-coming musical acts– the thousands of books lining the walls will have to go somewhere. But where?

Says owner Ryan DeRamus: "I have no idea."



"your eye will take you across to the corner, and it's just going to be stunning"

You know what's stunning - being able to see the mountains and the surrounding C'ville community, not a monstrous 7 story building. I hope the BAR is very tough on them and make the building fit the surrounding area and architecture. This is also going to be a nightmare for traffic in the area, which is already bad. Boooooo.

Agree Dude, that's now one of the most beautiful views in the city - soon to be an electrified brick wall.
I prefer the studios space for local artists and believe that as mega-buck developments move onto Main Street and the surrounds artists will be sent packin, and a distinctly commercial feel will replace the unique sense of place that now exists . Too bad we can't require affordable space for artists in these new developments, just as we require a % of affordable dwelling units for housing.

Yeah, those buildings and vacant lots really do create a fantastic West Main Corridor. Come on folks, let's not pretend that the street is the Champs Elysees. The owner has the right to try and sell his land to someone who will pay the most. I trust many of these readers own houses. How would you like it if some arbitrary group of elected and appointed officials tried to dictate how you sell your property, and at what price point. Also, when you sell your house, you have to reserve some space for a homeless artist who couldn't make ends meet selling their products at fully priced commercial space. Comments are filled with partisan readers who cannot put aside their political and social leanings to view things through an unbiased lens. Think and speak rationally. Most of the current and former tenants of West Main St have struggled east of UVA. There needs to be renovation and development to build a place where people will go and shop. Right now you have a corridor that is lacking, and connecting UVA to downtown (as much as most of you will hate it) is a reasonable way to see tax dollars increase to pay for our city/county needs since most of you won't pay higher taxes on anything without crying.

And before you go killing me, just know that I'm a Democrat.

And the BAR and ARB are the most overbearing, intrusive set of boards in town that make development (your increase in tax dollars!) unbearable and too costly. Ride up and down 29N, have you seen most of our buildings and shopping centers along the route? It ain't that pretty...

After the City bailed out (what is now) the Omni, and the Hype of how the Landmark would be different, then it was worse, a big Landmark fiasco, the buyer should be on notice of the local history of grand hotel ideas that were flops and not expect any bail outs from the City or any taxpayers if it doesn't go well.

The prime engine of development is the University which for over twenty years has one of the ambitious building programs in the country. U expands, more students, more students stay in cville after grad, need jobs , their parents retire nearby, yes there are many good things about an more urbanized and prosperous charlottesviile but you have to wonder too if the line has been crossed: prices, over population, traffic, a sight lines, urban densities ....

Sam, what you said is true, but you don't think a developer worth his salt has done his diligence on the property and the market need? An extended stay hotel that caters to the University seems like a no-brainer.

Actually I think a downtown retirement complex is a better fit . We've seen bubbles before and this looks like too much of what we already have in that area

@Wake up Call - Take a deep breathe. I am all for capitalism and selling your property for maximum value. I am also all for making Main St. a more useful and productive connector between the Corner and DTM - that could be a really cool street (esp. if they add more free parking).

I am simply stating that building a 7 story tall complex is an eyesore. You could put a lot of things in that space that wouldn't be so overbearing. And a hotel adds no value to C'ville citizens who may otherwise shop or eat in that area in that I will probably never go inside that place. It will only increase congestion and take away nice views.

Here is the City's chance to the rails back onto Main Street and pedestrians UNDER Fifth Street.
I bet they blow it (again).

Boring architecture-- so middle America. Charlottesville deserves better.

That's one huge, ugly building they're taking about putting in. I'm all for letting the BAR and ARB be as overbearing and intrusive as possible here. Just because 29N is totally mucked up doesn't mean we should let West Main get totally mucked up as well.