Dust and promises: Amtrak lot finally getting paved

Good-bye dust devils and potholes. More than six years after the owners of Charlottesville Union Station first promised to pave the property's dusty parking lot, construction crews have finally gone to work, ending the public feud between the owners and some West Main Street business owners, who had called the lot a health hazard and a “blight on the Midtown landscape," and who were on the verge of filing a lawsuit.

"It's about time," says Delegate David Toscano, who made paving the so-called Amtrak lot one of his top priorities for the new year. "Not only will this spruce up the area and make it more attractive to businesses, but it will increase our leverage on the State to make sure money is available for continued rail service."

Indeed, since expanded rail service came to the town–- thanks in large part to the efforts of Meredith Richards and her advocacy group, the Piedmont Rail Coalition– Union Station has gained new prominence as a transportation hub. According to Amtrak, the station served 91,707 passengers last year, over 40,000 more than predicted for 2010, making it the fifth busiest station in Virginia, albeit one with a parking lot that's seen as a disgrace.

Last November, Richards complained publicly that the condition of the lot could thwart plans to extend Cardinal service seven days a week, as both the State Rail Department and Amtrak were troubled by the lot's condition.

Citizens, city officials, and business owners alike have bemoaned the reluctance of property owners Gabe Silverman and Alan Cadgene to pave the lot. As chief planner Jim Tolbert told the Hook, they'd been appealing to them to pave it for years, "but to no avail."

Way back in June 2004, the dirt lot was featured in a Hook cover story entitled "Busted stuff: Some broken things in town."

"We're waiting on approval from the city," Silverman assured the Hook, saying that he and Cadgene planned to go ahead with a $200,000 paving job. "It's going to happen," he said.

Last January, Tolbert said Silverman and Cadgene told him that they would begin paving the lot "as soon as the weather is appropriate."

"It's good and it's bad," says an Amtrak employee watching the construction last week. "Good because it's finally getting done, bad because it shouldn't have taken so long."

Indeed, before the bulldozers began rolling, Maya Restaurant owner Peter Castiglione and his group had grown tired of the dust and promises. After the developers attempted to placate Castiglione and other West Main business owners last November with the application of an anti-dusting surface treatment called Durasoil, February's high winds revealed that the treatment had not worked, as dust spread throughout the heart of Midtown.

Castiglione says their lawyer gave the dust-producing duo until February 18 to get the paving process started, or else they would file the lawsuit the following week.

When construction began, Castiglione figured their efforts had finally paid off.

"A representative from the Amtrak station came by and thanked us on behalf of all the employees," says Castiglione.

The Amtrak employee, however, suspects it wasn't the threat of a lawsuit, pressure from the city or the public, or statements from politicians that prompted the developers to finally pave the lot.

"It was greed," the employee says. "It's their property, they can do whatever they want with it. What do they care what the city thinks or some business owners? Now maybe they can raise the parking fee again, or sell it because it looks nicer."

In 1997, the city helped facilitate Norfolk Southern's sale of the Amtrak Station, the current Wild Wing Café building, and the parking lot to Silverman and Cadgene for $707,838, hoping to encourage development along West Main with the creation of a city transit center. The city also secured a $763,000 federal grant for the owners to spruce up the property, which they used to install new infrastructure. However, after the city and the developers had difficulty coming to terms on a deal, the city changed course in 2001 and chose the east end of the Downtown Mall as the location for the Transit Center, appearing to leave Silverman and Cadgene in the lurch.

However, as the Amtrak employee points out, that dirt lot has hauled in a bundle in parking fees without ever getting paved–- with rates raised last year from $5 a day to $8 a day. In addition, the 3.44-acre property, currently zoned for mixed use, is on the market for $13.5 million.

In hindsight, Cadgene says they were "very, very lucky the [Transit Center] deal failed."

"The market we based our plan on wouldn't have been there when the project was completed," he says. "It would have turned out to be a painful experience. For example, it's only recently that we see large office users willing to come downtown. I'm hopeful that will continue."

Asked if the threat of a lawsuit or public pressure had motivated them to finally move forward with the paving job, Cadgene ignores the controversy.

"It made economic sense to undertake the paving," he says, citing a substantial increase in the use of the lot since the new prominence of rail service at the station. 

"We believe that the increase in parking revenue will pay for the improvements we're undertaking," he says. "We also believe that increased rail service makes it a more valuable development site."

Indeed, if Midtown is the "growingly popular destination" that city spokesperson Ric Barrick says it is, and if paving helps to "spur new business in that area," as Barrick predicts, Silverman and Cadgene's long feud with the city and the community just might pay off.


a trophy to "the worst lanloard in Charlottesville" should be for these two

Na, look around I am sure there worst landlords.

While the paving is ovedue, why can't the City move the main station back to downtown on Water street at the historic station? This would reunite the train service with the taxi and bus terminal service AND the downtown mall. Train day-trippers will love it! (Who wants to walk 10 blocks to then get to the downtown mall?) The parking garage has plenty of space for long-term parkers. These creeps who own the parking lot could then suck wind, instead of holding all of us hostage.

"The Amtrak employee, however, suspects it wasn't the threat of a lawsuit, pressure from the city or the public, or statements from politicians that prompted the developers to finally pave the lot."

It wasn't. Silverman bought the old auto service complex across from Blue Moon Diner last year (C&R?). He plans to extend his Main Street Market concept further west into those buildings, and the blowing dust was probably going to be a nuisance for him.

The good folks at Horse and Hound also deserve some creds for making this happen, as well as Peter does. Both their extensive patio spaces get regularly inundated with the dust bowl at times.

Donald, although I share your dismay for the current use of that great old train station across from that great old C&O restaurant, that was the station where Charlottesvillians caught the train to Richmond. The one that stopped running in the early 1980's. The northbound tracks from the X crossing here actually meet up again at Gordonsville. It also was near where the Belmont Railroad began heading South, later to be extended to Scottsville as the Piedmont Connector. The one lane underpass underneath the C&O tracks at Norcross Station was dug for that purpose.

The location of the currently operating train station - enclosed in what used to be simply the baggage area of where you used to catch the train to DC (and where the FDR funeral train stopped early one morning) is still more useful, as it can service both the very slow and in bad repair CSX tracks (formerly C&O) and the NS tracks that zip you to Boston or New Orleans at 90 miles an hour.

The location of the Downtown Transit Center was a second choice. They wanted to put it in the "dust bowl lot" originally, bit the owners asked a ridiculous price - as is their tradition. In order not to let federal funds expire, they moved the venue to the Pavillion - where they were able to spend something like $12 million building some decent (if too small) bathrooms for concert goers. The porta johns got pretty nasty during Fridays After Five the first few years..

If indeed a train to Richmond ever returns to town, maybe some imminent domain can get the older station back in public hands. But that would require outgrowing the capacity of the current station just 10 or so blocks away that can easily service both the CSX and the NS lines at once.

While the paving is ovedue, why can't the City move the main station back to downtown on Water street at the historic station?

Why can't I move the stuff in my attic into your house?

For the same reasons.

The city doesn't own the train station. They don't own the historic station. The historic station is in use—GreenBlue and some investment firms are located there, and I think they'd be a bit miffed to have passengers hanging out in their lobby. Also, the historic station was moved for a reason—it only served one line. The current train station is located where the north-south and the east-west tracks meet. Want to take the Cardinal west? That's on one track, on the back of the building. Want to take the Crescent north? That's on another, on the front.

So why can't the city move the station downtown? Because they don't own Amtrak, they don't own the current station, they don't own the old station, and it would be a really bad location. There's seriously not a single reason why that would be a good idea, other than that it would be kind of neat to have a train station right downtown.

A better question might be "Could the boondoggle of a "Transit Center" be moved to somewhere that it might do that job?"

Maybe it's because I'm from Europe where train stations are the gateway to a city, and therefore often designed to impress. Or maybe it's because people there really use public transportation, but I have always been affected by the shabby, depressing feel of train travel to and from Charlottesville. It is underwhelming, to say the least, to disembark in Charlottesville, world class city. Is it because the dust bowl parking lot that also accidentally functions as a 'welcome' is owned by a couple of developers who bought it cheap, and are looking to sell it at 20x the price they bought it for? And now say that paving the lot will 'spur business' in mid-town while raking in the parking fees? These same developers own a lot more buildings in the designated 'growth area' as Main Street is now called. So how will that work? To me, Main Street looks like a dumpy no-mans-land with empty lots and derelict real estate for rent. What I am missing is the vision and the willingness to try to make 'mid-town' a truly exciting part of the city, taking a few risks, allowing for some cool ventures, some new stuff that reflects what Charlottesville is (supposedly) about, has to offer as a city. We already have enough boring luxury condos and chain stores. We need more creative dialogue, different enterprise, and worry about the money later.

I think that this paving of the lot is one of the best things to happen in Charlottesville in years. I use this lot every time I take the train to my son's home in Northern VA -- and I love Amtrak. This is one of the greatest services we have here in town. Thanks for doing this work. I don't see the point in over-analyzing who, what or where -- just use and enjoy.

So if the current owners sell the parking lot for development, where are Amtrak users going to park?

um excuse me but didn't Silverman and others claim the soil was unsuitable to be paved?
Yeah I didn't buy that when I heard it the first time either.Silverman and his partner aren't very easy to deal with and I have a feeling we haven't heard the real reason why these lollygagging pavers finally got a move on.

St. Halsey, that's why it's a $200,000 paving job. They have to alter the foundation under the lot to support the asphalt.

Sometimes the easiest explanation is the right one. The lot finally got to a point where they figured they could make more money by paving it. They can charge more for parking, people are more likely to park there and they'll get a ton of publicity about the new and improved lot. It might also help them sell the whole thing.

At least now Maya can't blame the parking lot for their food tasting like dirt.

The generation raised to expect a gold star just for showing up, whose world is "me! me! it's all about me!" is getting a parking lot paved at no cost to them because, in their view, they're worth it.

And of course they think the ones paying for it are the worst people in the world because it didn't happen immediately.

"If indeed a train to Richmond ever returns to town, maybe some imminent domain can get the older station back in public hands." It has never been in public hands. Yes, the owners can be somewhat difficult to deal with, as I am when people are trying to spend my money. Perhpas they understand Vision's statement clearly. Perhpas if the ridiculous business owners on W. Main didn't throw a tantrum, the lot would have been paved by now.
@Marto, ther are reason why that area is as you have found it. It was a lot worse before Silverman and others bought a few buildings and moved businesses into them. The main reason there has been no Renaissance in the area is because of the zoning among other things. Although a lot of government money was spent in the area in the 70's, the "beautification" did not draw the kinds of businesses you are talking about, just restaurants for the most part. When the gentleman was killed when going into a restaurant by a rock to the head, and the city allowed the area to be populated by onstreet drug dealing and prostitution, the beautification efforts went to naught. As businesses moved out or closed, others did not want to move in. If Silverman and others did not invest what they did, it would be a lot worse. The city has zoned that stretch for mixed use and unfortunately there's not that much demand for it. So there is no investment. Investment and return on investment go hand in hand. Those property owners don't spend money just to provide niceties for other people. They're buisnessmen, not communists.