Urban blight: Group seeks fix for Main Street, Amtrak lot
Although there have been many big plans for the revitalization of West Main Street, including a streetcar, a multi-story mixed use building, and several ambitious UVA expansion projects, a new business group deplores the current state of West Main–- particularly the dust that rises daily from the pot-holed parking lot surrounding the Amtrak station.
Calling the lot a "blight on the Midtown landscape" as well as a "health hazard," and "an environmental travesty," the newly formed Midtown Association calls on the private owners of the Amtrak parking lot to pave it.
“The history of this situation between the City and the property owners borders on municipal negligence and professional irresponsibility,” reads an Association statement. “Something has to be done.”
In the 1990s, the City pushed Norfolk Southern Corporation to sell the parcel to Gabe Silverman and Allan Cadgene in hopes of fostering a public-private partnership whose centerpiece would have been a transit center built into the hillside with retail above. Those plans were scrapped in 2001, when the city and developers couldn't agree. But by then the developers owned the land.
Real estate broker Charlie Kabbash currently has the 3.44-acre parking lot listed for sale for $13.5 million (a nice turn on something that cost $707,838 in 1997), but neither he nor Silverman returned requests for comment.
Neighborhood Development Chief Jim Tolbert says he’s aware of the dust problem and has spoken with the lot owners as well as representatives of the new Association.
“I can’t get into details about the parking lot, but we are working on the legalities of this issue,” says Tolbert. “I have been concerned, as have many others, but there are legal reasons we haven’t been able to get the lot paved. We have appealed to the owners to no avail.”
That's a little ironic because it was the late 1990s City Council that, besides pressing the railroad to sell, won the owners a $763,000 federal "enhancement" grant to build a road to the train station. Drainage pipes were laid, lighting was added, but despite a claim as recently as 2004 from Silverman that the paving job "was going to happen," no asphalt ever appeared. Tolbert says that Silverman and Cadgene submitted a site plan to pave the property, but "let it expire."
Addressing other concerns, Tolbert points out that the first phase of a West Main streetscaping is underway at the intersection of JPA and West Main, which includes widening sidewalks, adding new trees, lighting, and underground utilities. The current project represents a $750,000 investment from Charlottesville matched by a $2.5 million UVA investment. However, the joint project will only extend to Roosevelt Brown Boulevard (9th and 10th Street), well short of the area vexing the Midtown Association.
Tolbert did say, however, that all sidewalks from Ridge Street to JPA have been repaired, a crosswalk was installed at 8th Street, and that light signals have been coordinated to smooth the flow of traffic and pedestrians along West Main.
"I think you can see they [the Midtown Association] have not been ignored, and we are very willing to work with them," says Tolbert.
In an effort to spur change, the Association is also discussing the idea of having a Midtown design charette, spearheaded by West Main property owner and architect Bill Atwood, who was instrumental in organizing a charette held for the Downtown Mall in the 1980s, a precursor to its successful revitalization.
"We really want to bring notice back to this great neighborhood," says Seasonal Cook co-owner and Midtown Association member Eleanor Porter.
“We do not want to get lost as the space between the Corner and the Mall," says fellow Association founder Mark Gresge, the owner of l'©toile restaurant.