SPECIAL GREEN- Green sells: How Stonehaus got <i>really</i> eco-friendly

Belvedere's green "town center" design was the result of a design competition sponsored by the Charlottesville Community Design Center.

At first glance, Belvedere, a new development on Rio Road, appears to be yet another example of suburban sprawl, of developers cashing in on Charlottesville's popularity, building expensive houses in exclusive communities, and adding yet more cars to already clogged roadways. Do we really need another Dunlora right next to Dunlora?

Look closer, however, and you see a story about a developer slowly embracing a green philosophy, even a green marketing strategy. 

"Belvedere started out as a dream about building a community the right way," reads a pitch on the website for a 700+ unit development off Rio Road being built by Stonehaus Inc. "Not a developer's dream, but a dream shared with the community about how they wanted to live. Together we breathed life into that dream, and Belvedere was born." 

Stonehaus' vision statement mentions roof-top rainwater collectors, Energy Star-certified construction, wind-powered electricity, and site orientations that take advantage of the sun, among many other green amenities. But why stop there?

Belvedere's developers hope to encourage positive living by "developing physical opportunities to promote healthy living through exercise, nutrition, and spirituality." Add a concern for child safety, the handicapped, and middle-class folks on a tight budget– not to mention recycling and the history and ecology of the Belvedere site– and you have a vision to make a new urbanist jump for joy. Not to mention one sweet sales pitch.

To put its philosophy into action, Stonehaus teamed up with the Charlottesville Community Design Center to sponsor a design competition for Belvedere's civic core. Earlier this year, a panel of judges selected Hays + Ewing Design Studio / Siteworks as the design team for the neighborhood center. In addition, Stonehaus announced in July that its Belvedere development had been accepted into a Neighborhood Development Pilot Program being conducted by the U.S. Green Building Council, which will monitor Belvedere's progress as an environmentally responsible and sustainable development.

In May, Stonehaus finally broke ground on Belvedere, a place they are now calling Charlottesville's first "Inter-Active" neighborhood. The first homes should be available in the spring of 2008, and the rest should be completed by late 2009. 

While Stonehaus may deserve praise for embracing such progressive ideas, the company's moves toward stewardship of land and history appear to have needed considerable prodding.

For example, after Belvedere was first proposed in 2003, the Albemarle County Planning Commission repeatedly turned down its rezoning requests, citing a host of design and engineering problems. By June 2005, 11 problems still remained, including the lack of affordable housing, conflicts between the development plan and graphic representations, right-of-way issues with other land owners, and concerns about land preservation.

Stonehaus appeared exasperated with the hurdles. At a June 2005 meeting, then-project manager Don Skelly told Planning Commissioners that "his wife could have had two children in the time it has taken to approve this project, assuming it gets approved," according to the minutes.

In addition, a former planning commissioner remembers that at the time, the Commission was pushing for a more commercial, walkable center for the development– an idea that Stonehaus resisted.

Project manager Chris Schooley– who was not working for Stonehaus at the time– admits that the company's approach has evolved. While the company initially sought a "clubhouse" model similar to gated communities like Glenmore or Dunlora, it eventually saw the merits of the "village" model. 

But one village failed to survive.

Preservationists and archeologists raised concerns about the old Free State community– one of the earliest free black communities in the state– located on the Dunlora and Belvedere site. In fact, according to Jillian Galle, an archaeologist at Monticello, Sally Hemings' sister Critta lived in Free State, and has a road named after her on the Belvedere site.

Unfortunately, as first reported a year ago in the Hook ["Critta's corner: Design, history, sway development," OnArchitecture, July 20, 2006], much of the remains of Free State were demolished when Stonehaus completed its last addition to Dunlora, according to Aaron Wunsch, an officer with Preservation Piedmont. Wunsch and Galle, who are married, happened to be house-sitting for a friend at Dunlora when they took a walk and discovered the remains of Free State, which included a stone-lined cellar hole, cellar impressions, standing stone chimney stacks, and several turn-of-the-(19th)-century houses, some of which had been occupied well into the 1940s.

"It's amazing– just four years ago, the Free State settlement was still standing," Wunsch said at the time.

 After the remnants of the community were discovered, the Planning Commission asked developer Frank Stoner of Stonehaus to conduct an archaeological study on the site, which Stoner agreed to fund. Still, plans for the addition to Dunlora went forward, and the site was covered over. After that, Wunsch and Galle say that preservationists started making some noise about Stonehaus' plans for Belvedere, noise they believe contributed to the initial rezoning denial.

"The cultural landscape of the Free State community," Galle says, "was largely destroyed by the Dunlora development, and would have been completely obliterated by the Belvedere development." 

"It was an interesting site," Wunsch says of the lost Free State remnants on the Dunlora site. "Stoner eventually did the right thing, but it was a disappointment to see it go." Still, Galle and Wunsch don't blame the loss as much on Stonehaus as on Albemarle County.

"Unfortunately, there's no mechanism in the County to red-flag this stuff," says Wunsch. "Eighteenth-century buildings have been taken down around the County in the last year, and nobody has noticed. You're largely depending on the goodwill of developers to save such places, because the County has no preservation code."

The folks at Stonehaus seem to have had pangs of conscience, as the new development plans for Belvedere call for further archaeological studies and the preservation of a recently discovered cemetery, as well as the installation of an "interpretive historic kiosk" that will detail the Free State history. 

That's all good news for UVA professor Scot French, interim director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies, which  recently created a historical archive for the Proffit community, a recently recognized historic district along Proffit Road described as "a rare survivor of the black communities established in Albemarle County after the Civil War, but which have largely disappeared or been rebuilt."

"Acquisitions of property by those who were once property," says French, "that's a significant moment in history. At the very least, we need to document these buildings before we tear them down." 

According to UVA library's historical census collection, there were more than 12,000 free slaves living in Albemarle County in 1860, which means there are still many of these sites scattered around. "We need to map these places before they're destroyed," French says.

"You see, not all developers are bad, evil people," Schooley jokes, proud of his company's new emphasis on both history and new urbanism. "We're spending a lot of time thinking about the social aspects of this development."

Of course, they're also thinking about the bottom line. According to a 2006 article in Business 2.0 Magazine, these new "village" developments are being touted as the next boom in real estate for an emerging new generation of homeowners. The article cites a study by the nonprofit Congress for New Urbanism that noted, "While less than 25 percent of middle-aged Americans are interested in living in dense areas, 53 percent of 24-34 year olds would choose to live in transit-rich, walkable neighborhoods if they had the choice."

In the end, it appears that Stonehaus Inc.'s present commitment to "green urbanism" and historic preservation may be due as much to the noisemakers as to its own good will.