Before and After: 400 Preston gets extreme make-over




"The before and after picture will tell the story," says architect Gate Pratt, responding to some early criticism about the new look.

For years, the so-called Virginia Employment Commission building at 400 Preston Avenue sat there like some Soviet-style office bloc dressed in Virginia brick. It was so nondescript as to be virtually unnoticeable, unless, of course, you ever had to file for unemployment assistance, and then it was quite noticeable.


Seriously, though, as some have noticed, the building has recently been dressed up with new red windows, a pediment over the entrance, and an enormous new cornice. The formerly bland box is turning heads. 

"That building was certainly a sow's ear before this latest renovation got underway," says architect and Preservation Piedmont president Brian Broadus, speculating that some are now criticizing it not because the renovation makes the building less beautiful, but because it now draws attention.

"Its lack of greatness," says Broadus, "is now more noticeable."

What's not so apparent is the the precedent for such a cornice, which was an adaptation of classical Tuscan styling, according to the architect, but which, on a large and horizontally-oriented commercial structure, looks to some like an oversized stretch of interior trimwork.

"Another example of the Steroidal-Commercial Jeffersonianism in which Charlottesville has come to specialize," says architectural historian and preservation activist Aaron Wunsch. " Still, I'm glad to see they reused the building.  It was pretty banal to begin with and I'd just as soon see its materials kept out of a landfill."  

 The building was purchased by local developer Keith Woodward from the State of Virginia earlier this year after the local office of the Employment Commission moved to news digs on Hydraulic Road. Woodard paid a little over $3 million for the 18,000-square-foot office building, which was assessed at just $1.6 million.

Though Woodard did not respond to requests for comment, his architect says he plans to keep it an office building but with room for shops and a possible bookstore and café. And in a press release over the summer, Woodard called the purchase "an opportunity to contribute to and be part of the continuing revitalization of the Downtown Mall" by making improvements to a site that "anchors two important gateways to downtown."

It was also an opportunity for Woodard to actually get something developed downtown. 

In 2006, Woodard asked City Council to overturn a Board of Architectural Review recommendation that he not be allowed to demolish some of his buildings at the corner of First and Main on the Mall, a move he claimed necessary to make a planned nine-story condo/parking structure economically feasible.

Council deferred that decision, calling for, you guessed it, further discussion, which effectively killed Woodard's plans to build his high-rise.

As for 400 Preston, it may leap from purchase to renovation to occupancy in under a year. And some find that a little troubling.

"I have no particular remarks about the design of 400 Preston," says North Downtown Neighborhood Association president Collette Hall, "but am quite concerned about no oversight in entrance corridors."

Since the building is on an entrance corridor but not in an architectural design control district, the design plan required only an administrative review by the Planning Commission and city staff. Unlike folks in a historic district planning to change, say, the color of an awning, for which discussions about the appropriateness and merits of, say, the color blue, can go on ad nauseam before the BAR, Woodard only had to get past the more practical-minded City Planning Commission.

"Every time the City staff is given more decision-making responsibility," says Hall, "the citizens lose."

However, according to city preservation planner Mary Joy Scala, who handled 400 Preston's design review, there is oversight on building projects and renovations in entrance corridors in the form of detailed design guidelines.

"Beyond the fact that the changes meet the entrance corridor design guidelines," says Scala, "I think the scale of the changes are consistent with the corner location."

She also lauds the "nice replacement windows" chosen by architect Gate Pratt. "And he plans to plant new shade trees along the street and make the front entrance area into a more attractive and usable patio."

As one can see from Pratt's rendering, the patio area is attractive. In addition, this could be viewed as a step toward making car-centric Preston Avenue more pedestrian-friendly.

Pratt says he was simply adhering to the City's design guidelines and making a bland building more attractive than it was. Plus, he points out, the work on 400 Preston isn't over.

 "The before and after picture will tell the story," Pratt says.  

But Broadus wonders why projects in Entrance Corridors, especially with a building so close to downtown, should be reviewed any differently than ones in historic districts.

"It doesn't make any sense to have a lower standard for projects in an entrance corridor," he says.

However, Scala says that Entrance Corridor reviews serve a different purpose. 

"Entrance corridors often have more new construction, especially franchise type development, where design issues are a lot different than, say, rehabilitation of a historic building," says Scala. "Compared to the city's historic districts, the scale of E[ntrance] C[orridor] districts is often more vehicular than pedestrian."

Scala points out that Albemarle County uses its Architectural Review Board to review Entrance Corridor projects. In the city, however, that responsibility seems to have been passed around over the years. In fact, Scala says that such reviews were once done by one staff person. Later, they were done by neighborhood planners, and then finally passed off to the Planning Commission. 

"The Planning Commission has been discussing whether to hand off E[ntrance] C[orridor] review to staff entirely, or possibly to a new design review committee, comprised of a few Planning Commission and BAR members," she says, "in order to reduce work load and focus on larger planning issues."

However, for those who think 400 Preston just got a Jeffersonian sombrero, the Planning Commission's allegedly heavy work load might not be the only reason to form a new design committee.


Read more on: 400 Preston building


It has been my experience for most people in this area, the most beautiful building is always the one that goes un-built. There have been few buildings that everyone loves and critics always have the ones they hate at the ready. I think if you get to talk about a building you think is ugly, you should have to name a newer building you love.

If you hate all new buildings you're not a critic but a NIMBY.

I'm amazed at some of these complaints. So the building isn't perfectly exactly what you would have wanted. Find me one that is. Its a huge leap over what used to be there. When i first moved here, I kind of thought that building was just empty because it looked so unkempt.

I also get a kick out of Hall saying that it should have gotten further review, but then saying "Every time the City staff is given more decision-making responsibility, the citizens lose." Hrm...

I think its ridiculous that people complain about buildings like this, when we have the whole set of 3 buildings next to Wachovia downtown that look like they're about to fall over... and the block of Main Street from the L&C statue to 5th street looks primarily like dillapidated structures...

I just wish that the ogee-ish cornice was a little less pronounced. It's all a bit over the top for my liking.

Looks like one of the soon to be vacant new malls on 29 North near Gainsville. That's not steroidal Jeffersonianism, it's more like a cancerous form. Fortunately most of it will be falling down soon enough. The rest will be refaced in a few years to match the current trends. That is if the depression doesn't halt it all.

fair dinkum, what you wrote is just ridiculous. Whether a building is awful or not has nothing to do with whether other attractive buildings have been built within some arbitrary time frame. The last ten or so years have given us a great many bad new buildings. That true not only for Charlottesville, but across the state. Just because badness runs rampant doesn't mean we have to like it or stop trying to keep it from taking over.

Collette Hall's criticism of the City, and other organizations has gotten completely out of hand. I'm sure glad she doesn't speak for me, and I would bet there are some ND residents that would take issue with her perspective.

Colette is a great defender of the citizen's in our town and I for one am extremely grateful to her for her careful observation of city government, and the courage to speak out.

Colette Hall is awesome indeed. She is an excellent advocate for high standards in the neighborhood and she expects the city government to carry out the wishes of the people. The city government has a tendency to ignore the wishes of the people. In fact, the council bends to county and Chamber Of Commerce pressures for the most part. Thank goodness folks are catching on to council's scheme, thanks to Colette and a few others. Colette is a winner. She is a smart and strong woman. Colette is a master at catching those city fathers and others making foolish decisions. Sam, you're wasting your breath. You won't scare her off. She is too powerful and she gets results!

While the rendering makes the building look more pleasant than it did originally, it's still a Faux Jefferson. Is it too much to ask an architect to come up with an original idea? Or at the very least--a riff on something from the last CENTURY?

I disagree. Ms. Hall is certainly outspoken and probably means well by her statements. However, blanket criticism of city staff, in this case, is not warranted and not productive.

Furthermore, when she speaks for "her" neighborhood, i know for a fact that there are many who disagree with her. Whether on this issue or others, getting the five people who show up for a neighborhood association meeting to agree with you, doesn't then mean you can run around speaking on behalf of the neighborhood.

Jim, Yes she is outspoken. Most residents in downtown are appreciative she has the guts to point out the many stupid errors the city makes. I'm also sure Ms. Hall must be frustrated as the City Council votes "their way" even though the council room is full of people who ask them to vote another way. The city staff is often directed toward tasks most in Chville don't want them doing too. By the way Jim, as you or others have disagreements with the decisions the neighborhood group makes, perhaps you should also have the guts to attend the regular meetings and speak up. My guess is you are only complaining to your own mirror. The city government is really out of whack, and Colette makes them jump!:--) In other words, they need a "bee in their bonnet". Go Colette!

I agree with Mona. Just look at what staff has done with the water plan. People keep showing up and asking for better information and until Council finally put their feet down they were being ignored by staff and even misled. We need more people like Colette Hall.

There is a very concerning pattern in regard to ignoring the will of the people, and especially with City Council. Another example, look at the Parkway issue. The last vote (Parkway) and by the Planning Commission last week, held back funding for the road. Good for them. The problem, I look for city council to try and overturn that significant vote made by their own advisors on the planning commission. I say shame to those on council who have aligned with the county, Meadowcreek Parkway. Several on council are listening, but the others are determined to ruin the Parkland and center city. Colette's group opposes the destruction of McIntire Park. It looks to me the council is standing on shaky legal ground, if they vote toward tearing up the Park with this road. I wouldn't be surprised if the city is finally sued big time. Who will fork up the money for the city defense team? People will certainly cast blame on councilors who ignore common sense. Make the county build their own roads. The traffic is mostly their own.

I also must wonder about those councilors who support the Parkway through the city's most historic corridor. Who or what do they truly represent? Their lame reasoning just doesn't cut it. City people are shaking their heads in disbelief as they make fools of themselves in public.

I've heard that the county is much tougher in negotiations of all kinds than the city. Council can't do it all, but they need to replace the staff that is not listening or misleading them and making their job more difficult

Isn't it wonderful that Charlottesville has so many architects? "Its lack of greatness," says Broadus, "is now more noticeable." Take a laxative.
Would somebody name a building that was designed by Jefferson that remotely resembles this building?

Jim, you kill me. Seriously, you need to ask yourself "Am I part of the solution, or part of the problem?" My guess is that you're either 1) on city staff and don't like being accountable to the taxpayers, or 2) sit around in the evenings watching meetings on public access and mocking the people who actually have the stones to try to make positive changes. People who, unlike yourself, aren't afraid to go out on a limb publically to find solutions, or correct harmful mistakes and injustices.

Sometimes you have to be critical in order to create positive change. (If you're an adult you might already know this, though.) Colette isn't afraid to stand up for people. She carries the water for that neighborhood (perhaps even for you too, hm?).

C'mon Cville Eye, Broadus and Wunsch are two seriously smart and funny guys. (Wish the Hook would give them a column once a month deconstructing a Cville building. It would be hilarious!) They are proof that not everyone in the local architectural field is a self-absorbed douchebag.

Unless McIntire Road is narrowed to one lane, I don't understand how the patio thing will work. Nice idea, but the building is too close to the sidewalk.

Comrades, the time has come to force the issue of design control. Let us put this to referendum in the city, coupled with a requirement to fund it. If we,the citizens of Charlottesville, demand control over another citizen's private property, then, to be fair, should we not take the responsibility of paying for the additional expenses incurred for the extra design services and time required for approval? Let us Levy taxes on all citizens for this purpose. Who will be the first to contribute?

Additionally, to avoid accusations of hypocrisy, those of us advocating design control should lead by example and legally impose design review of our own private residences. Who will be the first to sign up?

Furthermore, why stop with architecture? Let us impose strict standards dictating appropriate codes of conduct for dress, manners and other aspects of life. Freedom of choice shall be deemed a subversive act, detrimental to the cohesion of our society. No one's outlandish choice of clothes, speech or manners should be allowed to offend anyone else's fragile and delicate sensibility. Who will be the first to submit?

A wise council of style elite will determine these proper modes of fashion, The truth will be magically revealed by holy edicts. Placid calm will reign in our style perfect utopia, not a hair out of place, not a building imperfectly conceived. The strict imposition of the revealed style will provide an antidote to the ruin of democratic choice. Who will be the first to lay down the law?

Classical architecture will not be tolerated. Modern architecture is now the new classical. Blind adherence and unquestioning loyalty to modern architecture is required. It shall be unoriginal to design in any other fashion than modern. Rote criticism of classical architecture is required, and must be memorized verbatim from officially sanctioned texts. Only Modern,none other will be tolerated. Who will dare question this?

Onward Comrades, a glorious future awaits the People's Republic of Charlottesville!

Uh oh, run everybody! It's the Design Control Equals Totalitarianism Troll!!!

Gate, some people like the changes to the building, some don't. There's nothing more to it than that. If you have an issue with entrance corridors being under design review, then say so.

Cville has room for all sorts of architecture, both classical and modern. Unfortunately though, it's crammed full of really bad examples of every type.

Look out everybody! It's an anonymous Uh-Oh Nanny!!!

My comments were directed towards the notion that we need MORE design control. I accept that the current system works and is reasonable enough. All the teeth-gnashing and hair-pulling about more design control seems un-neccessary.

I'm not necessarily opposed to design review. My main complaint about the BAR process has to do with the extensive amount of time that it adds to the approvals and permitting process. It often takes at least two visits to the BAR. With the submittal lead time, and then turnaround, this often means 4 or more months of time spent waiting for approvals. This adds cost to the process, and translates into higher rent or sales costs for all of us.

I would suggest that if the city (the citizens) wants the design control, then a position should be funded to facilitate the process. A design professional, with no stylistic agenda, should be available full-time to review and guide project design, in order to streamline the BAR process.

Gate, although your first post was sarcastic and satirical, it made me nervous because of its realism and accurate description of status convincing you needed a 2nd post to clarify your sarcasm. People have a right to criticize public property and public projects. Oh wait, the State of Virginia sold it to the private sector. Who sold this piece of Vinegar Hill to Virginia and for how much? Nobody sold it? How long has Virginia owned it? Forever? C'mon comrades, how can that be? All these historians and nobody knows any history? If they knew, they would tell us, right? C'mon comrades. Let's take a vote and tear down buildings which 50% + 1 deem to be ugly. For the common good, of course. Oh wait, that's the law of the land already? C'mon comrades, it's the right thing to do if you care about the community.

Gate, I'm sympathetic to your comment regarding the amount of time it takes to go through the design review process. However, once these projects are removed from the public eye, and are allowed to be vetted solely by staff, then we have a huge transparency problem.

NDS staff has had a very bad record of greenlighting projects that should have had more public input, probably because NDS is oriented towards developers, and not neighborhoods and their residents. They also frequently appear before the CPC and Council advocating for projects that large groups of neighbors are vehemently opposed to, and that are then overturned by the CPC and Council based on that opposition. If this extra very public layer was removed from the process, god only knows what our city would look like in a few years. It's already starting to get a homogenized Rockville Pike look to it, while other places like Staunton retain at least some sense of their individuality and charm (probably because they haven't been discovered by developers yet.

Personally, I like the changes you've made to the building and find it an improvement. But I also think that design control is a very good thing and is worth the extra trouble. Primarily because once a building is built, it will be there for decades. There's also a good chance that it will probably spawn more ugly buildings/developments around it. Once the first one is allowed to go up, staff then uses that as a justification to okay more. It's happened time and time again.