409 fight: Developers square off over City parcel sale

news-emmetjpalandsaleThe parcel lies west of the new South Lawn project (still a parking lot in this old image).
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Two prominent Charlottesville businesspeople squared off in City Council Chambers Monday over their respective efforts to buy a piece of publicly-owned land with one of them calling the process "unusual" and the other branding it "unfair."

Corner District restaurateur John Crafaik was the apparent high bidder in a Request for Proposals process that the City of Charlottesville conducted in October. However, a fellow proposer appeared in Council December 20 to urge Council to accept his company's matching bid.

Littlejohn's restaurant owner John Crafaik, appearing with architect Gate Pratt, urged Council to accept his proposal to pay $250,000 to construct a neo-classical student apartment building. After all, he noted, he turned in his proposal with the apparent high bid by the deadline.

However, the president of Management Services Corporation stood up to tell Council that his company had a better idea. Noting that his company owned all the adjacent parcels on Woodrow Street, he said he would keep the parcel the way it is now: forested.

MSC president Rick Jones said that obtaining the parcel–- technically known as 409 Stadium Road even though it lies at the intersection of Emmet Street and Jefferson Park Avenue– would allow him to keep the parcel pristine because it would allow higher housing density on the adjacent parcels.

Noting an irony that Council, which voted a few minutes earlier to create its first-ever "Tree Commission," would smile on Crafaik's tree-felling proposal for the lot, Jones urged a halt to any vote even though City planning director Jim Tolbert had been calling for Council to vote on the sale at the meeting.

"It's kinda strange to hold a public hearing on a real estate deal," acknowledged Jones.

Crafaik might agree with that, and he called it "a little unfair."

Councilor Kristin Szakos agreed with that, expressing concern that the process was getting sidestepped. However, on a motion from fellow Councilor Satyendra Huja, the Council voted unanimously to hold another public hearing–- this one set for January 18.

Tolbert told Council the land has a value of about $300,000.

Nobody seemed particularly eager to embrace the the third-highest proposal which would purchase the parcel for $60,000–- or the other proposal: Someone named Alex Hancock offered to take off Council's hands for free and build five apartments.

19 comments

"This whole process seems totally unfair and strange. I hope MSC and its president wins the fight!"

But isn't the "unfairness" the fact that Mr. Craifak's bid, which was on time and the largest, somehow managed to not be the winning bid?

Props to MSC and its president. Leaving the parcel forested is a great idea! MSC/Woodrow actually fixed the "rather decrepit" rental house on the corner and it looks fabulous! This whole process seems totally unfair and strange. I hope MSC and its president wins the fight!

@Big Boy, a deal is not a deal with this Board of Supervisors either since they hae turned their backs on the orginal deal devised by Mr. Tropea for a bladder and dredging. And, do we need to mention the agreed upon Western Bypass that was part of the Three Party Agreement? Maybe you should learn more and stop repeating what opportunists say.
@GSOE, I agree with what you said about the Crafaiks with the exception of what you said to Scott. Also, I appreciate Rick Jones. Now, they should accept neither and re-open to everyone in a bidding-war atmosphere. That's the way it is in the real estate world. Too bad the city didn't do that with the land it sold to Frank Stoner at the old treatment plant.

@Antoinette W. Roades, It's "who you know." Hasn't a family member of an ex-councilor worked for SD? This is what you get with one-party rule. They don't tell on each other. I am glad there's at least one other person that knows that Council holds the views of most residents in the city with disdain. Although it appears most people in city are in favor of a phased-in dam-building plan there are rumors flying that at least 3 Councilors are planning to adopt the county's plan in the name of "cooperating with the county." I wonder if there's a future job in there somewhere as with Overrun O'Connell.

Old Timer and Cville Eye:

Although I personally know of no Council family member working for Southern Development, I wouldn't be surprised. Certainly, Councilor and Mayor Maurice Cox's energetic currying of Dr. Hurt's favor on public time was intended to win opportunities for his and his wife's architectural firm, among other things. And inappropriate relationships (aka chronic cronyism) of all kinds skew City Hall decision-making every day.

That said, I have wondered whether there's a blood tie between Charlie Armstrong of SD and Stu Armstrong of Piedmont Housing Alliance -- that bloated legal non-profit that otherwise operates as just another commercial developer, albeit one with a stainless steel safety net. For years, PHA has been channeling money extracted from taxpayers into building houses that most of those taxpayers couldn't possibly afford. Asked at a neighborhood meeting several years ago why units in PHA's next project would be priced upwards of $300,000, the PHA rep responded indignantly, "We have salaries to pay." Right. The problem exactly. Meanwhile, the SD resume of County resident and taxpayer Charlie Armstrong includes his chairmanshp of City Council's Housing Advisory Committee. Kin or not, however, both Armstrongs regularly benefit by being very, very, very good friends of City Councilors.

Re Ridge-Cherry: Satyendra Huja has been deeply involved in that project's details since plans were first drawn for the site in 2003. And, of course, then Mayor Maurice Cox was also deeply invested, having been the promiser to Dr. Hurt of the two City-owned Ridge Street parcels that were crucial to the plan both financially and logistically. Huja has treated Charlottesville as his own personal Monopoly board since arriving decades ago -- not for personal gain, I think, but because he's never met a landscape he didn't want to rearrange according to his "vision." In Cox's case, however, he relentlessly blurred his roles as public official and private professional. Indeed, he hijacked a neighborhood task force process -- one he'd first boycotted when he was told that as an elected official, he couldn't be paid public money to be the task force consultant -- to develop Burnet Commons, the Hurt property-pantry unbundling for which SD was created ten years ago.

And P.S. Cville Eye: Charlottesville doesn't have one-party rule. It has one-faction-of-one-party rule. The entrenched crew has no problem throwing fellow partisans for whom they have no use under various forms of public transportation.

I mostly agree with Ms Rhodes' assessment, except to say that I don't believe that many of the current group of counselors are as prone to cronyism as some of those in the past (Cox et al). However, their desire for affordable housing sometimes blinds them to wolves in sheep's clothing. "The road to hell is paved..." Affordable housing is a must, and I personally have no problem paying for it with my tax dollars, but counsel needs to watch who they are partnering with to get it. Most of these fellows are only trying to line their pockets at our expense.

Charlie Armstrong should have never been allowed to head up the Housing Advisory Committee. Stu Armstrong and PHA compromised their once-noble mission long ago. Is there anyone left in the city that's still snookered by this bunch? But to tell the complete story, you should consider the role played by Dan Rosenzweig and Kurt Keesecker on the Planning Commission. Despite chairing Habitat for Humanity and operating nose-to-tail with for-profit developers, he has been allowed to remain on the Planning Commission to push his agenda down Charlottesville's collective throat. Rosenzweig has never met a section of the city he didn't want to destroy.

Kurt Keesecker is tied in tight with developers and parrots their wishes from the dais during meetings. As an example, look at the way he faithfully represented Paul Beyers interests during the critical slopes debate. Rosenzweig and Keesecker have serious conflict of interest on development and planning matters, and have no business remaining on the PC. Neither of them have the altitude necessary to look after the public interest. One can only hope that the new commissioner, Lisa Green, has the spine to stand up to this pair.

Weary:

Given that City Councilors appointed both Dan Rosenzweig and Kurt Keesecker to Planning Commission instead of other applicants, one assumes that those appointees' agendas represent Councilors' agendas. As for the Charlie Armstrong appointment, that was also made by Councilors, who apparently can do as they like in such matters even when what they like violates all civic logic.

Re Mr. Rosenzweig's outlook: In a 21 June 2010 Daily Progress article on application of the critical-slope ordinance, he was quoted as saying, "Just because a slope is steep doesn't necessarily mean it's worthy of protection." If he did indeed say that, he has no place on PC. It is not in any respect part of a Planning Commissioner's brief to judge what is and is not "worthy." Rules developed by public process define what is "worthy." It is PC's job to apply the rules consistently and even-handedly.

And speaking of worthy: It should be worthy of considerable attention that the Ridge-Cherry site item scheduled for Joint Public Hearing by Planning Commission and City Council on 11 January 2011 involves notable changes to the "William Taylor Plaza" plan approved by PC on 11 August 2009.

It would appear that after dropping the asking price from $2.3 million to $1.8 million, Southern Development found a buyer for the property (including the two City-owned parcels on Ridge Street that SD seems never to have closed on). Documentation includes a Rezoning Petition submitted on 15 December by Bluestone Land LLC styled as "Contract Purchaser." The supporting owner's statement was signed by Charlie Armstrong on 21 December. The related plan made by Fugleberg Koch for Pinnacle Construction & Development Corporation (same address as Bluestone) was dated 20 December. And the letter notifying adjacent property owners was dated 21 December. As of now, the NDS staff report is not expected to be available until the end of the day on 4 January. All of which is to say that this is proceeding at warp speed under cover of holiday distraction.

Among other changes, the submitted plan calls for 20 percent more building area than the projected maximum approved in '09. Not surprisingly, it's also more intrusive on the property -- particularly in the creek and ravine-bottom area that is the site's most fragile zone. And it also presents a much modified facade to Ridge Street -- which, of course, lies in both local and national historic districts.

Nevertheless, it would appear that no concerned parties -- not individuals, not environmental groups, not historic preservation groups, not neighborhood or other community groups -- will have more than a very few days to find out what's afoot and to take a position before the one and only opportunity to be heard (11 January) comes and goes.

A deal is not a deal until it is signed. The city can withdraw that property from the market anytime it cooses. Even if Council votes to accept the proposal, it can vote to rescind it at the next meeting. In Charlottessville, it always depends upon who's asking. Interesting facts: Crafaik's son, Michael, was once the chairman of the city's Republican Party and Rick Jones has just finished a term of serving Council as a commissioner on the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority and has worked closely with Dave Norris on the current redevelopment policy.

Although I just posted most of this comment on the Biscuit Run thread, I offer it here, too, because it addresses City Councilors' behavior toward private people and public property -- in this case, toward their very, very, very good friends at Southern Development and the Ridge-Cherry property that incorportes City lots.

The latest on that subject arrived in neighbors' mail boxes yesterday evening -- i.e. Christmas Eve eve. A letter informed us that on January 12 next City Council and Planning Commission will hold a Joint Public Hearing on a request by SD to modify the PUD approved for that 2.87 site in the fall of 2009. The changes wanted include "modifications to the building site location" -- a critical matter in that the property is a steep-sloped, wooded ravine -- and a back-off from the much touted LEED certification that SD pledged.

Given that we're in full holiday mode and that business-as-usual will not resume for many until January 3, the letter effectively gives just eight days notice for what will be the only opportunity to comment before Councilors act at their next regular meeting. But considering that Councilors have undoutedly decided already to give their very, very, very good friends at SD what they want yet again, the scheduled hearing is simply more of the pretend-like process that has characterized this whole sorry saga.

This situation began with a Councilor's inappropriate promise to Dr. Charles Hurt (SD's creator) of two City-owned parcels on Ridge Street. Pursuant to that promise, Dr. Hurt bought five adjacent parcels. Despite neighborhood opposition, Councilors decided in mid 2007 behind closed doors to sell the City lots. To do the deed, they put a pretend-like public hearing on their December agenda. A petition drive pushed that schedule back. With 100 signatures, citizens asked Councilors to follow City policy for public property divestment (basically, do a cost-benefit analysis) and to conduct a traffic study before proceeding.

Councilors blew that request off. Instead, they issued a faux Request for Proposal describing the existing SD plan, then selected a secret committee of three to approve it. Another pretend-like hearing was set for August 2008. (Note that crucial steps in this matter are always scheduled for times when people concerned are most likely to be out-of-town or otherwise occupied.) When neighbors chose to boycott that bogus hearing, Councilors criticized us publically for being civic deadbeats.

Both sale and plan were subsequently approved, of course, despite more opposition. And as soon as that process was complete in the fall of 2009, SD put the cheaply-acquired package up for sale for $2.3 million. Obviously, no one has bought it. Hence, the latest onslaught. Meanwhile, if online property records can be believed, SD has never actually paid for the two City lots and, therefore, never even paid modest property tax on them.

GSOE, you are probably the exception re: Mr. Craifak. He has a reputation for being difficult, to put it mildly.

Public hearing, more public hearings, followed by more public hearings, followed by another public hearing, and then another and nothing gets done! That is why we have a 3/4 built parkway, an empty shell of a hotel, no 29 bypass ... and no leadership!

What the bidders must understand is that a deal is never a deal with this Council. For example, the 50 year water plan approved in 2006.

and that's not all bad!

Scott, I am sorry to hear you feel that way. The Crafaik family has been an assett to this community for at least the last 60 years that I am aware of. Probably longer than that. I've had nothing but positive interactions with both John and his father for many decades.

The reason there's an empty shell of a hotel has nothing whatsoever to do with public policy. All appropriate zoning and permits were granted. It fell apart on the private side, in the free market, and has now shifted over to the legal arena. Not government's fault, Rick. Can't argue with your other points though...

Um, almost none of Rick's list of greivances has to do with 'too many public hearings'. I thought that wooded parcel belonged to the old (rather decrepit) rental house that sits adjacent on the corner. I guess MSC/Woodrow bought that up too. Caroline is right though: the Landmark fiasco is totally a private business failure, for which the taxpayer will be left holding the bag - either to finish it or to tear it down. So, yeah, sure, let's just rush these deals through without a chance for public scrutiny.

How about the merits of the case at hand? I can't stand Craifak and seeing him get punked puts a smile on my face, BUT, if he is the one who put the best bid in by the deadline, then he deserves to get the deal. Changing the rules mid-way to save a few trees on one lot (in the name of some kind of faux preservation) is complete BS. The whole corridor is high-density apartments already...this is just ridiculous.

but
good to see that eye sore of minors get more bad press
otherwise it will fall back on the taxpayers
it will be 2011 soon
and after that?

thanks

js

I'll second that, dawg.

Antionette,

Thanks yet again for highlighting th very cronyist attitude of the so called liberal city of Charlottesville. Big developers hold sway and get special deals while the individual residents who are the real bill payers, get trampled on. Theya re bad as the County.

From the Omni, to the rat bag Pavilion, the YMCA in McIntyre, the rezoning on Hinton from residential to commerical for an additional restaurant, Jefferson High, Council can't wait to suck up some other cockamanee developer on another get rich scheme.

Much of this I lay right at Dave Norris' feet, in his desire to play cool, and I suspect go for higher office. Look at how he was so desperate to try and protect Baldi - a man wanted for serious criminal charges - over those of residents. Any one of those properties were worth more than Baldi's little road house. But I guess Norris wanted to appear cool to the local 'music scene' who never actual seem to contribute in any way to the actual development of the area.

The rezoning? Well, they were promised parking relief, and of course got none of that. Good luck if you live on those streets and leave your house, because patrons will make sure you can't get near your house.

On the Y? Well, Norris again. What's his real agenda?

I give him credit for the water fight, but beyond that, he seems more interested in giving taxpayer owned property away, than actually doing something for the City residents, who keep the city afloat in property taxes.