Danielson's digs: Hotel to light up downtown

Lee Danielson has broken his promise. In 1996, after several highly publicized run-ins with City officials, the California-based developer, widely credited with filling the Downtown Mall with buildings and people, vowed never again to build in Charlottesville.

Apparently, you can check out, but you can never leave.

Danielson recently announced plans to build a 100-room hotel across from the Central Place fountain.

"I'm not surprised that something like that is happening," says Michael Williams, who lives in that block. "I am surprised that he wants to do another project; I thought he was bailing out of Charlottesville."

Stretching along Second Street SE between the bricks of the pedestrian Mall and the steady hum of Water Street, the site is the former home of Central Fidelity Bank and later– during the dot-com era– Boxer Learning. The black granite-front structure stands empty except for a small visitor's center. It is the last Charlottesville property of the man who once appeared to own much of the Downtown Mall.

Danielson and his architects gave the public its first look at the planned structure on Tuesday, January 20, at a meeting of the Board of Architectural Review, or BAR. Danielson says the BAR comments he heard that night were "very thoughtful and insightful."

This was not always the way of Danielsonian relations. In the summer of 1996, the BAR demanded that he cover the facade of his Regal Cinema with brick. To sharpen the point, City planners issued a stop-work order, and the episode became an expensive public whipping that fueled Danielson's wrath.

By the end of that year, Danielson and the BAR were again at odds. The BAR ordered him to remove some of the Victorian-style lamp posts he had installed around the Charlottesville Ice Park in favor of the Mall's officially sanctioned "spider lights."

Threatening to quit was a tactic famously utilized by Robert Moses, the "master builder" whose 30-year dominance of New York City transportation was the subject of Robert Caro's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Power Broker. The tactic usually worked for power-hungry Moses. But for Danielson?

It's hard to say, as his various partnerships with former Keswick neighbor Colin Rolph– including one called Charlottesville 2000– began dissolving that year amid recriminations and acrimony. By 2002, the duo's various projects had fallen into the hands of a receiver, and Danielson and family moved back to California.

So what about the no-development vow?

"That," says Danielson, "was probably back when I was trying to get rid of Huja."

For his part, long-time city employee Satyendra Huja– still on the payroll after 31 years of guiding Charlottesville development– doubts that his late '90s transfer from planning director to strategic planning director (shortly after his run-ins with Danielson) was anything other than an opportunity provided by City Manager Gary O'Connell.

"That's history now," Huja says of that tempestuous time. "A lot of people have ideas on what I should be doing or not doing."

Danielson made his point clear eight years ago in an interview with the Charlottesville Business Journal: The Planning Department should "stay out of the way, period."

Huja, ironically, had supported Danielson's most controversial notion. In 1994, Danielson asked the City to allow traffic to cross the Downtown Mall on Second Street in front of the Regal. He got his way, built his theater and ice skating park– even a steakhouse– and the Mall boom soon followed. The once-moribund strip of storefronts now routinely offers no vacancies, and the apartments above the stores typically sport four-figure monthly rents.

(Danielson wasn't fully able to capitalize on his vision, as two large properties he once had under contract– now sites of The Terraces and York Place– slipped into the hands of competing developers.)

Danielson says his high-end "boutique" hotel will offer an American bistro in the former banking lobby, with the hotel entrance under a port cochere on Water Street. The architect is San Francisco-based Mark Hornberger, whom Danielson describes as an "old high school buddy" but whose 60-person firm, Hornberger + Worstell, has done many high-profile projects including the Hyatt at Beaver Creek, Colorado, and renovations to California's famed Hotel del Coronado. "He was always one of the smartest," says Danielson.

At 101 feet tall the proposed hotel would be about twice the height of the new LiveArts building and about the same height as the nearby Wachovia tower. Erected in 1920, the Wachovia building projects over the Mall. One way the City keeps newer tall buildings from making the Mall a dark cavern like many older corners in Manhattan is by requiring tall buildings to recede from Main Street as they climb. Danielson's mostly brick structure would be stepped back 16 feet from the Mall.

One stand-out feature is a massive expanse of sanded glass near the top, although it's not likely to rival the famed spotlight that pierced the skies from the top of the old Monticello Hotel on Court Square from 1927 to some point mid-century.

BAR chair Joan Fenton says the board likes what it has seen so far, but members want to get more assurance that the windows won't sport white strips like those on the West Main Hampton Inn or the McGuire Woods headquarters on Court Square.

Even Kevin Lynch, the critic whose fame fighting Danielson's plans propelled him onto City Council, isn't upset with what he's seen so far.

"I was never opposed to Danielson himself," says Lynch. "It was opposition to a Mall crossing and giving developers special favors and letting them dictate transportation policy."

Will Danielson make any new promises?

"I'm really not talking much right now," says Danielson. "I'm letting the project speak for itself."

Lee Danielson's proposed hotel would see eye to eye with the Wachovia tower at right.


Lee Danielson.