Down and out: Un-development to claim old sawmill
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.
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."