NEWS- Persistence pays: Woolen Mills to get historic survey

If there were a city award for neighborhood activism, the residents of Woolen Mills would win it hands down. From stinky sewers to leash laws, trail paving, trail painting, dam removal, road paving, U-Haul lots, truck traffic, bulb-outs, long grass, and erosion control, not to mention Coran Capshaw's original idea for a concert pavilion and other planned developments, Woolenites have never shied away from... well, making a stink.

For example, photographer Bill Emory, Victoria Dunham and their fellow Woolen Mills residents have long wanted the city to officially recognize the special historic, cultural, and architectural value of their neighborhood. Now, that persistence just might pay off.

On January 4, the city announced that an architectural survey of 50 properties in the Woolen Mills will take place next week in an effort to have the neighborhood listed in the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register.

According to a news release, neighborhood residents are spearheading the project with the help of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. VDHR staffers and UVA student volunteers will take three to five days to map, document, and photograph the properties. In addition to a possible historic designation, the survey information might also be used to guide development in the area and allow property owners to get historic tax credits for any improvements they make.

"Folks in the neighborhood have been very welcoming to the surveyors," say Dunham, " most notably 95-year old Gladys Gatlin on Chesapeake Street who "never thought she'd see the day" this would happen. She was one of the last employees of the old mill.  The people of the Woolen Mills  village have contributed a treasure trove of photos, correspondence, and oral histories– all of which go a long way towards creating the archival materials that make the DHR's job much easier. This is a collaborative effort in every way."

Indeed, the push by residents for a historic designation has always been motived by a desire to protect the "rural character" and history of the neighborhood from random development. As Emory wrote in an online photo essay to the city in 2005, "The Woolen Mills is a place to cultivate with sensitivity toward the environment and toward historical and sociological treasures. It is not a neighborhood in want of more 'steel buildings.'"

Of course, not everyone agrees that the Woolen Mills is worthy of historic designation, or that such a designation is a priority. In a June 2006 Hook article, city planning commissioner Bill Lucy recalled listening to a group Woolen Mills residents concerned about a proposed new high-density housing project on Franklin Street. 

"The Woolen Mills isn't as historic as the residents think it is," said Lucy, pointing out that the majority of buildings in the area were built after World War II. In fact, according to Lucy, nearly 50 percent of Charlottesville's houses were built between 1945 and 1970. "The residents felt the development didn't reflect the ‘historic' character of the Woolen Mills, but I told them it didn't reflect it enough."

From Lucy's historical perspective, the planned houses needed to be even larger, just like most of the post-war houses around them. Instead of focusing on the Woolen Mills distant past, Lucy was focusing on its most recent, readily visible past, and hoping to solve a practical problem.

"So many people with families are looking for reasonably priced, quality houses that are just a little bit bigger," he said, "but there are so few of those in the city.

 As a result, Lucy worried that the city was losing the diverse population it needed to help the community thrive. "To have a balanced school system, you need a balanced housing market," said Lucy. "Of course, the Woolen Mills residents really had no awareness of these larger issues."

"We've taken our guidance on what is and isn't historic from the people that actually know the difference," says Dunham in response to Lucy's past comments. " These experts include the DHR, the Historical Society, architectural historians, preservationists, and experts from UVA and beyond. In addition, we've listened to multitudes of people who have visited over the years and said 'This  neighborhood is obviously historic.  Why isn't it protected?  Well, that's about to change."

Lucy also questioned what neighbors referred to as the "rural character" of their neighborhood, something that irked the feisty residents.

"I found Mr. Lucy to be condecending to our plight and insulting," says Woolen Mills resident Greg Gelburd, who believes the neighborhood's quiet, rural feel is being threatened by proposed high-density development.  "He said the neighborhood lacked rural character because we have no gardens. In fact, we are loaded with gardens, certainly the majority of houses have some form of gardens. A few, maybe 5, have ones that are a quarter acre.

"It's almost like country living down here and we want to keep it this way," says Gelburd. "There's also some very affordable housing here. We are a diverse group, we have people who write books and some people who have never read one. We all get along. I've never lived in a neighborhood with people so supportive of each other."