Chilly blasts: Winds of change shake Fifeville

ADDRESS: 217 Fifth Street SW

ASKING: $375,000

SIZE: 5000 fin. sq. ft., 400 unfin. sq. ft.



CURB APPEAL: 6 out of a possible 10

LISTED BY: Joan Esposito of Roy Wheeler Realty Co. 760-1028

When we knocked on the door of the first of the four rental units (in three buildings) that this week's offering comprises, the tenants took a long time to answer. And while there was undoubtedly some good reason they were busy, they didn't hear the knock, they had to turn off the stove it may be that they didn't answer right away because they knew that the knock they heard was probably signaling the end of life as they have known it in these houses in this neighborhood.

There's a cold wind blowing through Fifeville these days, and it's not the one brought in by the Canadian air mass so graphically explained on the Weather Channel. It's the cold wind of "positive urban renewal," more commonly known as gentrification, and nowhere is it more evident than in the two-square-block area around this collection of four buildings on a .17 acre lot where Dice Street meets Fifth.

The buildings offered in this parcel consist of an 1870s structure that's been divided into two apartments in the most rudimentary way. The old stairway is in tact, flimsily blocked at the bottom and top. The conversion was effected by construction of an exterior staircase to a new front door, addition of a basic kitchen and perhaps some partitioning to create a "living room" and two bedrooms from whatever was originally there.

Although we didn't go in, apparently the downstairs apartment is exactly the same (minus the stairwell).

Behind this original building stand a garage and two independent apartments, all built, according to the agent, in the '50s and redone in the '80s. The outbuilding units are also identical: two bedrooms, one bath, living room, and kitchen. These two units have gas heat, composite shingle roofs, more spacious kitchens, and good-size rooms, and they appear to be in better repair than the ones in the original house.

But it's what surrounds this property that really matters, because apparently the ground these places are built on is more valuable than they are: The empty lot next door, of identical size, is available for $300,000.

You read that right: $300,000 for a 0.12-acre lot one block off Main Street in Fifeville. Now it's true that the peculiar zoning of that lot allows for much more than the four apartments permitted at 217 Fifth. In fact, with the inclusion of one commercial enterprise such as a dry-cleaners or florist, that lot can become home to 16 units.

On the next lot up, six "Oak Grove Cottages" are nearing completion, and every one is spoken for at prices ranging from $139,900 to $209,900.

There are some old-timers in Charlottesville who claim that back in the '60s, North First Street, site today of several houses assessed at more than $500,000, was exactly the same sort of neighborhood as Dice and Fifth is now great old houses in bad repair, cut up into rental properties, of questionable safety after dark.

That's the reason it's easy to understand why the residents of the apartment were slow to respond to our knock. Investors with vision are flocking to Fifeville with their checkbooks in hand and their contractors' numbers on speed dial. City fathers say it's a good thing good for the tax base, good for the future of West Main and downtown.

The current residents can be forgiven when they don't answer right away. The sad thing is that whether they like it or not, they finally will have to open the door and let the future in.