Store-afront: Mall store demo done without approval
On Monday, November 9, Downtown Mall mavens, along with City development staff, were shocked to discover a gaping hole where the art-deco glass storefront of the old Victory Shoe Store, more recently known as the O’Suzannah and Elsie Garden boutiques, used to be. According to Charlottesville Neighborhood Development Chief Jim Tolbert, the demolition at 219 West Main Street, which he says was completed over the previous weekend, occurred without a permit or Board of Architectural Review approval.
“There’s no excuse for doing that,” says Tolbert, who cited the owner and issued a stop-work order on the exterior.
Indeed, the Downtown Mall has been in an Architectural Design Control District since 1985, which means that any alterations to the Mall’s buildings must first be reviewed and approved by the Board of Architectural Review. In fact, as Tolbert points out, there’s a hefty fine built into the city’s zoning regulations for not following the rules: up to two times the property's market value.
“The owner will now have to go before the BAR and ask for approval to demolish the storefront after the fact,” says Tolbert. “And obtain building permits for the exterior work.”
Property owner Joe Gieck, the renowned, retired UVA sports medicine doctor (who also owns 406, 410, 411 East Main, as well as 223, 221 West Main), says he "understands" why the city would be upset, but insists the glass storefront was "broken and unsafe."
"We would have liked to have kept it," he says, "but wanted to err on the side of safety."
BAR members may not be sympathetic to the loss of an art-deco design featuring black glass panels topped by curvy showcase windows above.
“It’s a big loss,” says BAR member Eryn Brennan, also the president of Preservation Piedmont.
"It’s very important, an original 1921 curved glass store front,” says City Preservation planner Mary Joy Scala. “There isn’t any other curved glass like that on mall. Once it’s gone, you can’t really replace it.”
Scala and Tolbert say they met with Gieck, as well property manager Bill Rice, to discuss what happened. Scala says they’ve also consulted with the City Attorney about enforcing a fine. Tolbert says the City would need to prove in court that the owner violated the zoning regulations before a fine could be levied.
Scala points out that the fines–- intended to create a clear “disincentive” for altering or demolishing buildings–- are rare because property owners are typically supportive of the protective zoning. In fact, Scala says she can recall only one fine. And that was twenty years ago, when a developer’s bulldozers leveled a protected 1850s building on the corner of 10th Street and West Main without BAR approval, resulting in a $50,000 fine and a public apology.
Now the city must decide if this latest infraction warrants such enforcement.
“We didn’t think we needed approval to remove this glass,” says Rice, a long-time Downtown real estate broker. “The glass contractor, who was hired by the new tenants, didn’t apply for a permit to change the glass because they didn’t think it was a problem. No one was trying to pull a fast one.”
As Rice claims, the glass fronts of four other Downtown properties owned by Gieck were replaced over the years, without BAR approval, including the fa§ade and window improvements to the hair salon next door. Indeed, Gieck confirms that he's "done this several time before" with no problems. "There's nothing in the code that prevents us from replacing the glass," he claims.
Rice also claims that the glass was cracked and “dangerous," and that plastic had been used to replace missing sections. The glass contractor, he said, told them it could not be repaired or replaced.
Rice expressed some frustration with the BAR review process, which he says was formerly more expedient, but can now take months and require considerable paper work.
“Delays can put people under in this economy,” says Rice. “The BAR has become a bureaucracy. Over time, they’ve added things and done things we’re not even aware of. It’s a delay. And time is so important.”
As Rice points out, the new tenants–- the owners of Vita Nova Pizza–- had no need for glass display cases and wanted to be able to utilize the space at the front of the building.
“Nothing was done in a hurtful manner,” says Rice of the decision to remove the glass. “It was done to help a tenant to help realize the possibilities of the space.”
Unfortunately for Rice and his new tenants, however, those delays could be even longer now.
“I expect that hole to be there for awhile as things get sorted out,” says Scala.
Indeed, Rice and Gieck will have their work cut out for them getting BAR approval, and then of course there is the legal action the city may take. As a result, they appear willing to be creative.
“We’re submitting a plan to the BAR to put the original front on the store,” says Rice, who claims that early photographs and clues revealed by the demolition will show that the demolished storefront was itself an alteration over the years.
“The storefront that was there was not original,” says Rice, adding that he still regrets what happened.
“We’re not making excuses; it was a mistake,” he says. "And we’re working with the City to correct it.”
–last updated November 16 at 10:47am