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.
PHOTOS COURTESY LIMEHOUSE ARCHITECTS
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.