Amtrak employees are happy the lot is finally getting paid, but some think its shouldn't have taken this long.
Photo by Dave McNair
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.