Down and out: Un-development to claim old sawmill

onarch-310avonThis building adjacent to the Belmont Bridge, once home to Charlottesville Lumber at the turn of the century, is scheduled for demolition.

After over a hundred years, a familiar sight from the Belmont Bridge, and directly across from Spudnuts, is being demolished. It’s a whopper, too; one of the largest building demos in recent Downtown history. Until the early 1980s, the nearly 40,000 square-foot warehouse and retail space at 310 Avon Street was home to Better Living Building Supply and Better Living Furniture, which moved to locations on Route 29, and until spring of this year it was home to and a Rent-A-Center and the Better Living Mill Shop, which moved to a new location in Zion Crossroads.

While not designated historic, the building certainly has some history. It was originally the Charlottesville Lumber Company, which began business in 1893, and didn’t become Better Living until 1969, when Dick Nunley, a son-in-law of one of the original owners, took over the business. In 1997, Nunley’s son, John, took over as president of Better Living.

Other buildings at Avon Court fronting Garrett Street, which share the same address and are actually attached in the building complex, will remain, making demo contractor Parham Construction’s job a delicate one. The entire Avon Court complex, including the building about to be demolished, was bought for $500,000 in 1984 and is now assessed at $3.3 million.

However, according to developer and property manager Caroline Satira, formerly Caroline Nunley, daughter of Better Living owner Nunley, the assessment figure is largely the result of the land value and the newer part of the complex, which fronts Garrett Street, which was built in the 1980s and will not be demolished.

So why is the old building coming down? Will one of those condo towers be going up in its place?

According to Satira, the sluggish economy appears to have made un-development more attractive than development. Indeed, even Dave Matthews Band manager Coran Capshaw is feeling the pinch, as a recent site plan submitted for his once ambitious mixed-use Coal Tower project on a 10-acre tract east of the Mall, has recently been downscaled from nine-story condo towers, restaurants, and retail stores to residential-only buildings no taller than 50 feet.

“Given these difficult economic times, even if we had a possible tenant, it is virtually impossible to obtain bank financing to construct a new building,” says Satira, who was a practicing attorney for 18 years before she became a developer by putting up three office buildings at the Old Ivy Offices complex a decade ago.

onarch-charlottesvillelumberA 1917 photo of the Charlottesville Lumber building by Rufus Holsinger.

Satira says the Avon building’s material composition, design, and layout make it energy inefficient. While Better Living occupied the building, she says, the company expanded or modified so many times and for such specific purposes that it's inaccessible for handicapped persons, grossly inefficient, and hazardous.

“It’s important that the building come down now because we uncovered numerous structural issues when the Better Living Mill Shop moved out that make the building unsafe,” she says.

So can you take down such a big building without having a plan for its replacement?

“Any property owner can choose to demolish a building on their property at any time, provided they have the proper permit and that the building is vacant,” says Neighborhood planner Brian Haluska. “The only restriction on demolition is for historic properties.”

As Haluska points out, since the building hasn’t been designated historic, having it demolished is as simple as filling out the permit form.

“The main purpose of requiring a demolition permit is to verify that all of the utilities have been disconnected prior to the work,” says Haluska.

Satira hopes that someday the building can be replaced with a more energy efficient and environmentally friendly one, but she isn’t making predictions.

“Given this economic situation, its duration and potential long term effects,” she says, "we don’t know how the site would be developed in the future."


CC-- because the city didn't have the foresight to designate this building, there's nothing that can be done. Didn't we all just have to put up with the bile-spewing libertarians screeching about property rights issues regarding Victory Shoes? It's not that people don't care in this instance-- it's that they can't do a damned thing about it.

If it were up to me, I'd bring in some of our local creative preservation architects and do an adaptive re-use on that building as has been done elsewhere in that immediate area. It's a humdinger and has loads of potential. I shudder to think what soul-sucking "architecture" will replace it eventually.

Jim, to quote you above:

"The building isn’t particularly attractive (it’s beige!?..."

You stated that the building should be demolished partly because you don't like the paint color, and then you accuse Caesonia of making, in your words, a ridiculous argument? Oh boy...

It seems as though all of Charlottesville and Albemarle County is in the self-destruct mode when it comes to the preservation of anything historical. I brought this up at a meeting several years back, and was reminded that if it didn't have any connection to Thomas Jefferson, then it wasn't historical. It was said in jest, but then .. a lot of truth is spoken in jest!

Sure hope this building doesn't end up in a landfill, and that the Nunley's will suppot Van der Linde Recycling.

I'd also like to point out the above statement by Ms Satira:

"Satira says the Avon building’s material composition, design, and layout make it energy inefficient. While Better Living occupied the building, she says, the company expanded or modified so many times and for such specific purposes that it’s inaccessible for handicapped persons, grossly inefficient, and hazardous."

This is unfortunately all too common. Owners do things to ruin a building via structural changes, then cite that ruination as reason #1 for the building to come down. I call that the "Oops Factor" or "Comptonitis." This town is filled with green-preservationists that know how to make these buildings far more energy efficient. There's no excuse.

CC_ Because its Belmont and on th wrong side of the tracks still. Belmont is supposed to be the dumping grounds for anything undesriable, even though the residents of the area have poured millions into the homes regentrifying it. They also had all their community money taken away and given to the Downtown Mall.

It's funny that there are all these commercial places like this building that somehow must be torn down because they can' t be used commercially, but Belmont is supposed to have its neighborhood flattened for ' necessary' commercial growth, like one more ratbag loser food place. As if there weren't plenty of spaces available a few blocks away on the Mall.

Has anyone looked across the street from this building? The Levy Avenue parking lot, once a residential block. Better Living bought 4 of the 10 parcels in 1960s as collaterol for bonds, only to have the lots seized after a court battle for $28,500 in 1972. How long has the city been trying to sell this lot? The Better Living building is one of only 5 buildings that survive Garrett redevelopment. The others are Gleason, Ix, Standard Produce and Matacia Fruit. (Did I miss one?) So we'll be down to 4 historical markers from many decades in the past, when this mixed-use neighborhood was the city's industrial engine.

Don't get me wrong. I support owners tearing down their property if it becomes a liability, but not third parties tearing down their property.

"What kind of idiots do we have running things if that building isn’t protected already?" Green--Preservationist, wow this city is a mess--

Who is running this City ?

What a ridiculous argument. You are aware that there were two businesses in that building in 2006? Were you clamoring for the city to force the owners to redevelop it then so a few restaurants could go in then? And why are you bringing the Belmont restaurants into this in the first place? I mean aside from it being your normal axe to grind.

Oh, and while I'm at it, drive down Monticello Ave and look at the back of the Ix complex. Not much of that building being used at all, is there?

CC, I don't know that it's necessarily that "idiots" didn't do something. Don't forget, you have to get the permission of all the owners in order for a property to be designated as individually protected. Look at what happened with the Frys Spring gas station. One of the owners wanted it protected, but the other didn't. It was on a list of threatened historic buildings. Admittedly, it's taken the city forever to get around to deeming these buildings worth saving, but that's because this stuff wasn't important to previous Councils.

It would be great to see downtown continue to redevelop existing buildings like Norcross Station and the Gleason complex, rather than tearing them down. People love working and living in places like these. It's often a more environmentally responsible decision, too.

This goes triple for the West Main corridor, which is about to get a serious hurting put on it by bad architects, UVA, greedy developers, and dumb city planners who decided that it was a bright idea to completely alter the character of that area via half-witted zoning decisions.

It wasn't long ago that developers built a FAKE industrial building across the tracks from the coal tower. D.C. has loads of "loft style" apartment buildings that again are in FAKE industrial buildings. Here we've go the real thing and no use for it?

Amazing how this village is becoming the new Flint. Large empty chunks of cement-covered landscapes, and partial buildings that are oozing metal beams towards the sky.

If you review the list of designated historic properties, you'll find some things that are far more questionable and unworthy than this property. It's a shame it can't be saved.

It's important the building come down now before it gets protected think is more to the point. What kind of idiots do we have running things if that building isn't protected already?

Are you guys all talking about the same building? The one pictured at the top of the article?

I can understand where the owners are coming from. It's an extraordinary challenge to convert a building of that type to be used for anything else. In 2006, when values were "booming" you could have possibly justified (and received financing) turning it into a shopping district or condos. Those days are over. The building isn't particularly attractive (it's beige!) it will be an absolute albatross for the owners to pay the taxes on, keep secure, etc. And there's no thriving business that could move in there.

Fair enough. I was kidding, but I humbly retract that argument.

Raman, do you think that the case is any different in any other town in America? I mean, you know, given the nation-wide economic slowdown and all.

A window comes down on the Mall and there's a huge outcry. A great building is going to be taken down so we have a vacant lot and hardly a word? What's up with people?

Caesonia, amen to that. This is especially true for the Lower/Carlton portion of Belmont which is slated for much higher density. The city ignored its needs for decades, now they want to come in and tear it all down. Nice. The guys behind Glenmore are developing there now.

Then there's the Woolen Mills and its city-sanctioned junkyard and brownfield. That could be redeveloped responsibly and sensitively, but probably won't. The New Urbanists drool just thinking about that parcel, so expect inappropriately high density and fugly buildings to go in there.

JIM- Yeah, we are talkng about the same building. In 2006, when the financing and economy was there to turn that building into something, the city instead started forcing through their restaurant phase in Belmont pushing out other businesses, instead of encouraging it to happen on the space we are talking about. If they had to tear it down and start over, so be it. The point is, instead of using a commercial space in a segment already zoned for heavier commericial use, with immediate access to larger roads, the lower parking garage, and the Pavilion, they ignored zoming guidelines to create a nightmare for other business owners and residents alike.

Do you really think that the amount of money thrown into the Belmont/Carlton business center, and adapting those buildings for Restaurants is substantially less than it would take to remove the building and start over? Listen to some of the owners complain about the renovations they had to do on those buildings. They whine all the time about how they just can't make it now.

Look at what was done with the IX space. If they could turn THAT into something, something could have certainly been done with this building a few years ago, instead of destroying a neighborhood.

Sorry, Jim, all I read from your post is the typical poor helpless small business owner who is the victim of circumstances. They simply can't see beyond their own limited needs and their front doorstep.

That's why I so admire REAL business people - they think outside the box and get it done.