Hotel homeless? Police investigate Landmark squatting
City officials had once hoped the Landmark Hotel would attract wealthy and sophisticated visitors to the Downtown Mall with luxurious accommodations and spectacular views of the City, but since the project was unceremoniously halted over a year ago, the unfinished structure appears to have attracted a different clientele.
Already dealing with nine months of construction on an $800,000 streetscaping project, Chas Webster, owner of The Box on Second Street SE, says that homeless people squatting in the Landmark have created another headache for his restaurant.
“They shout at people and throw beer bottles down in the street at night,” says Webster. “We’ve called the police about it a number of times.”
Webster has heard reports of flashlights and the light of a cook stove as high as the sixth floor of the 11-story structure and that construction workers on a streetscaping project have told him they’ve found bedding and camping equipment in the mornings.
“I don't doubt his word,” says Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo. “But they don't appear to be leaving debris behind. The only discernable debris I saw was on the first level, where I only saw a few beer bottles."
“They’re up there all the time,” says Downtown Mall resident Steven Martin, whose top floor apartment in the Jefferson Theater affords him a clear view of the Landmark’s upper floors. “I can’t make out their faces, but I’ve seen people up there with flashlights late at night.”
“It was just inspected, and nothing like what you describe was noted,” says Landmark Hotel owner Halsey Minor in an email, after being told about Martin's observations.
"I had heard that people were going up to the upper levels of the building,” says Longo, who investigated the hotel structure Wednesday. “I had to see for myself.”
However, Longo says that continuing a police presence there presents a challenge.
“There is no way to readily patrol the interior of that building without compromising officer safety,” says Longo. “This is particularly the case at night.”
As for better securing the hotel, neighborhood development chief Jim Tolbert says the City has no immediate plans to do so, “since we don’t own the building we can’t do so unless we have a valid property maintenance issue.
"If the Chief reports evidence of a problem, then we will look into it,” he says.
After looking into it himself, Minor was told by city officials that police have gone to the building three times in the last few weeks and have found no evidence of people occupying the building.
“Based on the police reports, I think we have the makings of an urban myth,” he says.
Urban myth or not, might the answer to the nagging question of what to do with the Landmark Hotel be staring the City in the face? With the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority examining proposals to create more high-density public housing, and costs rising in the City’s effort to care for the homeless, the Hook asked Minor if he would consider a joint venture with the City to turn the hotel structure into housing for the homeless.
“I would love to discuss making it low income housing with the City,” says Minor. “Never hurts to discuss an idea. Maybe the mayor wants to talk.”
Responding to Minor’s invite, Mayor Dave Norris said he thought the Landmark hotel wouldn't make a good candidate for low-income housing.
“I have to assume he was speaking tongue-in-cheek,” says Norris. "The Landmark Hotel site was approved for a hotel and in that capacity will help boost the downtown economy with visitor dollars. We hope to see the litigation brought to a quick conclusion so the project can be completed. As it is now it's a major eyesore."
Updated 6/22/2010 3:16pm