ONARCHITECTURE- Turning the Corner? Student enclave gets a developer's attention

The Corner– same as it ever was. But for how long?PHOTO BY DAVE MCNAIR

While development on the Downtown Mall in the last decade has made it almost unrecognizable to those who remember it in the early 1990s or before, the Corner has managed to maintain its "antique, funky ambiance," as Corner property owner Anne Albright characterizes it. Indeed, while the Corner has added a Starbucks, a Qdoba, and a Jimmy Johns in recent years, many of the businesses there are homespun and old as the hills, places like Mincer's, Heartwood Books, the College Inn, Freeman-Victorius, and the White Spot, to name a few.  

According to Albright, Heartwood Books was there when she began buying property on Elliewood Avenue in the late 1970s. Today she owns six properties on the street: the home of the Biltmore Grill, the Buddhist Biker Bar, Coupe DeVille's, Mod, Heartwood Books, and other familiar places. Of course, go back far enough, and the Corner has seen its share of changes, but even during our recent real estate gold rush, the area has remained relatively unscathed. 

However, according to several sources, that may be about to change. 

Just last year, developer Hunter Craig bought the Eljo's and former Jaberwoke buildings, assessed at a little over $2.5 million, for $4.7 million. According to the City's development map, the Eljo's site is currently listed as a "potential" area for development. In addition, sources say that Craig has recently purchased the Chancellor Building and has made offers to College Inn and Corner Parking lot owner Terry Vassalos. However, neither Craig nor Vassalos could be reached to confirm this by press time. Vassalos also owns the 14,000-square-foot Anderson Brothers Building, now home to Plan 9 and the Satellite Ballroom. Those properties are currently assessed at a little over $4 million, which– if the premium Craig paid for those earlier acquisitions is any indicator– could place the price at $8 million or more. Considering Vassalos bought his properties in the early 1980s for mere thousands, such a big-money offer may be hard to resist.

Indeed, one reason the Corner has been able to maintain its charm is that it's owned by a handful of property owners like Albright and Vassalos, who all bought their properties at least a decade ago. That's true of the buildings that house Martha's Café, Michael's Bistro, the University Gift Shop, and Littlejohn's. But what happens when those long-time owners begin to sell? And when the new owners can no longer afford to offer reasonably priced leases?

Albright says she hasn't received any offers lately and isn't considering selling, despite the fact that doing so would make her a multi-millionaire.

"I like that the Corner has this antique, funky ambience," she says. "It's been that way since god made little green apples."

Still, she admits the Corner has suffered from the changes on the Downtown Mall.

"Having the free trolley hasn't helped us," she says. "The kids all hop on it and go drinking Downtown now."

In fact, Albright says the Corner really hasn't been the same since the drinking age changed and UVA shut down Easters and the Mad Bowl. "That's been one of the biggest changes here," she says. "That really shut down the party life on the Corner."

Pavilion envy?

It seems Roanoke has been courting Coran Capshaw's Red Light Management lately, trying to entice the music mogul and concert promoter to put his weight and experience behind a proposed amphitheater on the old Victory Stadium site with a capacity of 7,000, which is more than double the capacity of the Charlottesville Pavilion.

The "star city" put out a request for proposals earlier this year hoping to find someone to design, build, and manage the proposed $11.6 million project, but so far only Red Light and the Jefferson Center, a Roanoke-based non-profit arts organization, have shown interest.

"Yes, we have some interest in the project," says Pavilion Manager Kirby Hutto, "but not as a developer. We'd be interested in managing and operating another amphitheater, but not in building and owning one."

While Capshaw promotes and organizes events all over the world, Hutto says managing and operating another facility would be a first for Red Light.

"It's far enough away that it wouldn't be in direct competition with the Pavilion here," says Hutto. "And Roanoke is definitely an under-served market. But they still need to figure out what they want to do."

Indeed, Red Light's interest in the project seems to have thrown Roanoke's city government into a tizzy. According to reports in the Roanoke Times, the vice mayor has accused several city councilors who favor locating the amphitheater elsewhere of directly discouraging Red Light from making a proposal. In turn, that prompted one city councilor to publicly accuse the vice mayor of lying.

"We've had calls from councilors on both sides of the issue," says Hutto, sounding not unlike a rock star dealing with adoring fans, "but we're like, hey guys, figure out what you want to do, build it, and then we'll talk."

Until the project becomes a reality, says Hutto, whether Red Light will be a part of it is still under discussion internally.