The Fifth Street Station will eventually feature 470,000 square feet of retail, a five-level parking garage, and a connector road between Fifth and Avon Streets.
The entrance will include a widened bridge over Moore's Creek.
Two and a half years after selling a 1,200-acre property known as Biscuit Run to the Commonwealth for use as a state park– and eight months after suing the state in an effort to nearly triple the $11 million in tax credits investors received for the property– developer Hunter Craig is winning praise for something. Like Biscuit Run, it's another south-of-town development, but this one promises to reward, not charge, the taxpayers.
"I think it'll be a great benefit to that side of town," says fellow developer, Katurah Roell, whose own projects include an effort to bring a national chain restaurant to a parcel he has optioned on neighboring Fifth Street.
Besides Craig, Fifth Street Station is also backed by DMB manager and Biscuit Run investor Coran Capshaw. The two have secured 89 acres spanning the distance from the Hardees and Exxon on Fifth Street Extended to an old landfill just north of I-64 and the Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail on Avon Extended.
The developers promised the County that development would happen all at once. When complete, it will have nearly half a million square feet of retail space including Wegmans, another yet-to-be-named big-box anchor, and a five-story parking garage. Supporters say it will boost County tax rolls, add as many as 1,500 jobs and, most importantly to some, add a connector road between Avon and Fifth.
"It's something that's been long needed," says Roell, who was frustrated when Cracker Barrel pulled out of lease negotiations for his three-and-a-half acre Fifth Street property back in February. The Wegmans deal, he says, has helped him attract another restaurant, although he declines to identify it pending lease finalization.
Roell is not the only one pleased by the Wegmans announcement.
"We're excited," says Harris Road resident David Storm, who spoke in support of the project before County Supervisors back in 2008 where he presciently named Wegmans as his wife's top pick for an anchor. He cites the lack of selection at the Fifth Street Food Lion as the impetus for his family's frequent forays to big grocers on 29 North and asserts there's a large enough customer base to support a south-of-town shopping center.
"It's been a real boom area for growth," he notes of the Fifth Street corridor, where residential developments including Redfields and Mosby Mountain have blossomed residents, but where commercial development has lagged.
It's not for lack of effort. In fact, the Craig-led development team is the third to make something happen on Fifth Street. The first was a planned 1990s office park called "University Corporate Centre" which got sidelined as University of Virginia-backed office parks took off. Next up was venture capitalist Jim Murray, who in 1999 tried and failed to get a Walmart approved on the former site of Willoughby, a Civil War era mansion that fell into disrepair and then burned in 1991.
After Murray withdrew his application, the Coran Capshaw-backed development firm took over and expanded the site to 89 acres by purchasing the former Grand Piano Warehouse parcel and the 20-acre Avon Landfill site. The Craig/Capshaw team won the rezoning back in 2008, but getting big box anchors to the table proved elusive– until the Wegmans deal.
Roell thinks it was smart business for the New York-based grocery chain that's been expanding south.
"I think it's bold to go to that side of town because I have talked to a lot of restaurants, and they say, nobody's there," Roell says. "I say, 'That's the point: you've got a great market to tap.'"
"We've had wonderful success with other stores in the state, and we thought Charlottesville had some of the characteristics we were looking for," says Wegmans' Rochester, New York-based spokesperson Jeanne Colleluori, who credits the chain's success to extensive employee training and a focus on customer service.
Hugh Underwood is excited about Wegmans arrival. In the more than four decades he's lived on Fifth Street, he says traffic has increased exponentially.
"It's like an expressway out here in the morning and afternoon," says Underwood, a retired postal worker who moved to Fifth Street in 1969 when the area was rural and now makes regular trips to 29 North to obtain home improvement supplies from Lowe's and groceries from Kroger.
The Fifth Street Station development, he says, will save him and his neighbors time and gas money even as it adds money to county coffers.
"I'm glad to see the county finally waking up," says Underwood, mentioning the Walmart and Lowe's that opened in Louisa County as losses for Albemarle. "Those two stores have got to be costing them some tax revenue."
Indeed, in 2009, after those stores opened, the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce released sales tax data showing that Albemarle and Charlottesville retail sales dropped while Greene and Louisa grew.
Underwood says he hopes to see the Wegmans joined by a Home Depot or a Costco when the project gets underway, something the Craig and Capshaw's property management firm says could happen as soon as mid-2013.
Even with a signed lease from a top national grocery chain, there are plenty of hurdles to leap– and questions to answer. Do they actually intend to fulfill the proffers that helped win them rezoning approval in 2008 over the protest of conservation groups?
In addition to the construction of the Bent Creek Parkway, which would carry drivers between Fifth and Avon, Craig, operating as River Bend Management, agreed to take on mitigation and maintenance of the old Avon Landfill, a 20-acre site over which the parkway will cross. They also agreed to harvest at least 25 percent of the rainwater that falls on the roof.
(At the 2008 public hearing, Jeff Werner of the Piedmont Environmental Council questioned why the County wouldn't demand 100 percent rainwater capture, and Morgan Butler of the Southern Environmental Law Center also pressed supervisors to set even higher environmental standards for the development.)
County supervisor Dennis Rooker voted to approve the project back in 2008, and he says he remains in favor– assuming the developers don't renege on the proffers, in particular the connector road.
"I've heard some discussion about the developer wanting to make some changes in the plan," says Rooker, who says any proposed changes would have to go through an approval process.
According to Alan Taylor, spokesperson for Riverbend Management firm, all proffers– including the road– will be fulfilled, and the company is in the process of preparing to go before the Board of Supervisors for final approval. Among the improvements to the property, says Taylor, is a widening of the bridge leading from Fifth Street over Moore's Creek and a series of biking and walking trails that are still in the design phase but which will connect to the Rivanna Trail system.
Taylor, who answered questions by email, says having an inked deal with Wegmans is already attracting interest from other tenants.
"We're confident," he says, "that we will bring the project to fruition in a timely manner."
Pre-print correction: David Storm lives on Harris Road, not Harris Street.
Post-print correction: While an investor in the project, Craig is not a principal in River Bend Management, the firm overseeing the development, according to Alan Taylor, Riverbend vice president of River Bend Management, and so the word "Craig's" was removed from the front of our mention of that firm–editor.