ONARCHITECTURE- Shadyac almighty: Director to buy church for shelter

Last June, when the Hook reported that the First Christian Church on Market Street was listed for sale, agent Lane Bonner said that a few other churches were interested in the property, as well as some developers who wanted to turn the 110-year-old Gothic Revival-style building into a school or a music venue. But he also presented another scenario.

"There's also the possibility that someone altruistic might buy it and give it back to the community," he said.

In a case of life imitating art, the director Tom Shadyac, whose film Evan Almighty, sequel to the blockbuster Bruce Almighty, was shot in Crozet last year, appears to have been commanded by a Higher Power to buy a church and build a homeless shelter.

Shadyac has a contract on the 9,340-square-foot brick sanctuary, which had been on the market for $2.8 million. And as was recently reported, the Charlottesville Planning Commission unanimously approved a plan to turn the structure into a homeless shelter.

According to a Neighborhood Development staff report, Shadyac's Shady Acres LLC sought a special use permit at the January 9 commission hearing to allow for a "shelter care facility" at the church. And on February 5, City Council will decide whether to approve the project.

The shelter will be managed by Compass Day Haven, a non-profit daytime shelter program, and will include a dining area, kitchen, shower, laundry room, computer lab, and lounge. However, the daytime-only shelter will be located in the basement, which already functions as a soup kitchen, and take up only 25 percent of the total area of the building. Other uses for the remainder of the space, according to Compass, will include offices for other organizations, an affordable community performance area in the sanctuary, and possibly a small-scale daycare facility on the ground floor.

Jim Barns, a reference librarian at the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library who founded Compass Day Haven in 2001, says it began as a way to help shelter the homeless people who have used the library as a refuge for years. Last July, his organization received a $25,000 grant from the City, and he had hopes of someday finding a small house to use as a shelter.

"My whole purpose when I founded Compass was to find someone to get it going," he says. When Shadyac approached him last fall, it was almost too good to be true.

According Barns, while Shadyac was living at the Omni Hotel during filming, he noticed the number of homeless people on the Downtown Mall. In fact, says Barns, the director befriended several of them and was putting them up at the hotel. "He's a religious guy, but he doesn't wear it on his sleeve," says Barns. "Stories of his generosity while he was filming here are legendary."

Indeed, not only is Shadyac purchasing the church, but he is also funding renovation of the building, which will be overseen by architect and BAR chair Fred Wolf, and built by contractor Rob Jones. Eventually, says Barns, Shadyac hopes the City and other private donors and organizations will take over responsibility, but for now he's willing to bankroll the project.

According to City Councilor Dave Norris, whom Shadyac first approached about the idea, the director had tried to start a community kitchen/drop-in center for the homeless and hungry in Los Angeles, but kept running into bureaucratic roadblocks. 

"Tom is a guy with a huge heart for the disadvantaged and the dispossessed in our society," says Norris, who has made the problem of homelessness such a personal issue that he says he will abstain from the upcoming Council vote, because of his close relationship with Compass. (Norris is also executive director of Pacem, a collaboration of churches that provide temporary shelter for the homeless.) "He reached out to a number of people who are involved locally with issues of poverty and homelessness," Norris says, "to find out what he could do, and I was one of them."  

New planning commissioner Michael Osteen calls Shadyac's plans a "great proposal" and a "win/win" situation.

"I think the opportunity to reuse the existing historic structure with only modest change to the exterior of the building... is very positive for the character of the downtown," says Osteen.

Indeed, commissioners at the January 9 hearing were gushing.

"It really makes it an honor to be a citizen of Charlottesville to know that my neighbors are working on projects like this," said new Planning Commissioner Jason Pearson.

Only commissioner Mike Farruggio, a Charlottesville police sergeant, hinted at a possible problem with the proposal, suggesting it might increase the number of homeless people in the area. However, he voted to approve the plan.

In a Hook cover story in December, reporter Courteney Stuart spoke with a homeless man who said that the homeless in Virginia consider Charlottesville a "mecca" because of available services and facilities like the Salvation Army, Region Ten, and churches. Given this reality, is it possible that once the word gets out that Charlottesville is opening a new homeless shelter, even more homeless people might migrate to the area?

Barns says that's unlikely, given the fact that the homeless aren't particularly mobile, and that the number of homeless folks in Charlottesville has rermained the same for years– between 200 and 250, he estimates. 

For Norris, the question of whether the new shelter will attract more homeless is a non-issue. 

"The idea behind Compass is that homeless people are already congregating in the downtown area," he says, "and having a day shelter would offer them a more appropriate place to spend time during the day, and access to the resources and services they need to get back on their feet." 

"This isn't a new issue," says former city councilor Blake Caravati, who supported the Mohr Center on East Market Street, a Region Ten facility for homeless alcoholics and addicts. "Shelters and services have always been located in Charlottesville, but the people come from everywhere."

For Caravati, it's not so much a question of creating the shelter, which he supports, but about operating it properly. 

"I wouldn't support anything until there's a viable business plan," he says, reflecting on the Mohr Center, which he says ended up being very costly for the City. "Even when a project is run by private sources, long term operational financing is a very important factor that must be scrutinized and confirmed," he says. 

Caravati also worries about the imbalance of support for affordable housing and similar services in the area. "We need to have some help from our friends in Albemarle," he says. "The County is not doing anything to help provide these services. I wouldn't put my support behind this shelter idea until Albemarle County supports it."

According to Barns, community support for the project has been inspiring, even before Shadyac signed on. In fact, one of the first people to endorse Compass, he says, was Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo, who mentioned to Barns in a letter of support that a family member of his had been homeless for a time. 

"Far too often," writes Longo. " I encounter persons in our public parks or on our public streets that are without food and shelter. Sometimes these persons are substance impaired, but more often than not they are simply hungry and in need of human interaction and care."

In addition, Barns says R.E. Lee & Son Construction may volunteer to help with the project, and that several people in City government were instrumental in helping him get his grant in July. 

Of course, Barns also expects more support from Shadyac, who may bring Hollywood's red carpet to town.

"He hopes to have the premiere of Evan Almighty at the Paramount," says Barns, "and maybe raise some more money for Compass."    

The First Christian Church on Market Street is poised to become a homeless shelter and community center.



1 comment

Let's just hope that this type of genuine concern and generosity on the part of so many is contagious.Hopefully there is some type of link between the shelter and programs to help the folks become independent and employable again. The church is architecturaly inspiring - what a generous contribution to the community. Best of luck with the project.