Pig's lipstick? Spy Center overhaul wins raves

The spy center has finally left the building!

When SNL Financial holds a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Thursday, July 24, for its new building at the east end of the Downtown Mall, jaws will likely hit the floor. Indeed, the hulking structure would be unrecognizable to the thousands who once toiled inside the former National Ground Intelligence Center.

The towering exterior has been stained charcoal gray, and all 378 windows– many of which had been shielded with metal grates– have been replaced and uncovered. Inside, musty linoleum and dark, narrow halls have given way to open spaces of sleek glass, steel, and enough natural light to turn Dracula to dust.

Jessica Nagle, special projects coordinator for SNL (and the wife of the founder), says the project initially seemed overwhelming.

"When I first came in here," she says, "I didn't want to take it on." But the opportunity to nearly double her company's current space the new building has 80,000 usable square feet while maintaining a convenient downtown location eventually won out, and SNL signed a 30-year lease with the building's owner, the City of Charlottesville.

In a Congressional action initiated three years ago, the City wrested the structure away from the feds, and in the summer of 2001, the Inteligence Center moved out to its $46.2 million digs on Route 29 North.

SNL snared the old location for a base rent of $10 per square foot. The lease allows increases for inflation and discounts for renovation– but the monthly total can't slip below $20,000. If it's a sweet deal, no critics have emerged to complain.

As for the cost of the renovation, Nagle raises her eyebrows: "A lot," she says.

Nine months after signing on, SNL's work is nearly complete. By August 7, Nagle says, all 260 SNL employees will be relocated.

SNL is a financial research company currently located in the former Miller & Rhoads department store building (later a Jefferson National Bank operations center) on the Downtown Mall

Train and Partners architects designed the new look, including a central courtyard between the main building wings. A brick annex, however, will be influenced by its future tenant, architect William McDonough, the man also known as the "Green Dean" for his environmentally friendly designs and UVA affiliation.

Nagle says knocking down the structure that once connected the two buildings and replacing it with brick and plantings gives a "New York feel" to the site.

And neighbor Cheri Lewis, owner of The Closing Company on Seventh Street, says she's pleased with the outcome, though she adds that nearly a year of dust and noise had her on edge.

"When I first saw construction begin," she says, "I thought, 'There is no way that putting lipstick on a pig can make this building look good.'"

She now admits she was wrong: "I think they've done a really good job with the makeover. It'll definitely contribute to downtown."

Demolition for this project was unusually complicated, Nagle says, because of the previous tenant's security concerns. Certain rooms had thick steel walls, and security cameras and motion detectors seemed ubiquitous.

Now that the renovation is nearly complete, Nagle says the next order of business is finding a few tenants to fill spaces that SNL won't be using. The first floor of the main building will house one business as well as a coffee shop, though subleases have not yet been signed. In a marriage of public and private sectors, the basement, Nagle says, will serve as a conference center to be used by both SNL and the City.

"What a success!" says City Councilor Blake Caravati. The whole project is a "sterling example," he says, "of the ability of the city government to find creative ways in which to enhance the quality of downtown and because of that the quality of life in the city."

Despite the new partnership and the stunning transformation, there is one thing about the building that hasn't changed.

"The basement is still a bomb shelter," says Nagle, "so if you ever need a safe place to go, this is still the place."


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