Demo days: UVA remakes West Main

There goes the Neighborhood: UVA's campaign for Main


Published June 3, 2004, in issue 0322 of The Hook

What do you feed a 500-pound gorilla? Some Papa John's pizza for starters.

After decades of talk, UVA is finally remaking West Main Street. First move: buying the property currently housing SunTrust bank and Papa John's. UVA plans to save the 1907 neo-classical bank building but rip away the later additions, including the pizza place.

For the buyer, the UVA Foundation (formerly known as the Real Estate Foundation), Papa John's is just a small slice. UVA, after all, wants the whole neighborhood pie.


What UVA wants

 Unlike Martha Jefferson Hospital, which is fleeing the City for wider county spaces, the UVA Health System isn't leaving town, but it is unbuckling its belt and expanding. And opening its wallet.

"You hear about motivated sellers," says commercial real estate broker Stu Rifkin. "They're motivated buyers."

City tax records show that the Foundation recently paid $3.4 million to Robert D. Brugh for the pizza/banking property, a parcel that had been assessed by the City for $1.65 million.

In recent days, owners of several nearby properties tell the Hook they've been approached in UVA's effort to expand the Health System from its current edge along Jefferson Park Avenue as far east as 10th Street. That's not quite as far as the Amtrak station, but it's close. Informed sources indicate that UVA's ultimate plans for the swath of land between Main and the CSX train tracks include constructing a massive children's medical facility or a cancer center– or both.

Already the Foundation has purchased the building housing the Piedmont Health Care Center and has contracted to buy the Blake Center. When they were built in the 1970s, those twin six-story structures at JPA and Main– totaling around 114,000 sq. ft.– were among the largest private buildings in Charlottesville. Many old-timers still call them "The Towers." People who have seen UVA's plans say they're slated for demolition.

"They want mine too," says Gordon Latter, whose family has been operating Kane Furniture in the 1200 block of West Main since 1964. The family, says Latter, also owns the adjacent building housing Northern Exposure restaurant. But "I'm content staying where I am," says Latter.

Northern Exposure may not have a choice. A tenant of the Latter family, the restaurant's owner, Bob Weitzner, says his lease runs through the end of the decade. "So it's not an issue for me," says Weitzner, "unless they condemn the building."

Condemnation is the often-controversial process of taking private property for public purposes under the legal concept know as eminent domain. Under eminent domain laws, land-holders are typically compensated for their land at fair-market value. Leases, however, can simply be erased with no compensation.

"You can do it," says UVA spokesperson Carol Wood of eminent domain, "but we have chosen not to. The university is careful not to use muscle."

Wood says her research has turned up no records of UVA engaging in condemnation to get land it wants, and Foundation head Rose says he hasn't used it either. But he does try to buy.

"I facilitate transactions as they are requested," Rose clarifies, " but I'm not in charge of the vision."


In the path

 In recent months, the owner of the Studio Art shop, John Bartelt, has had doctors ask him when his shop is moving, but he says he hasn't yet heard any formal offers– just a recent winter visit from a UVA official who wanted to broach the subject.

"A fella came in," says Bartelt of the UVA land man's visit. "He just came for an information-sharing."

Bartelt says his family bought the building in 1980 about five years after they started running their business there. The main floor offers fine art supplies, while the basement, operating as the Craft House, is the portion of his business offering supplies for less formal projects.

Is there anything to the cross-town chatter that he and the Latter family have joined their fates in some sort of I-won't-sell-if-you-won't-sell agreement? Bartelt says no. "There's always some neighborly chat, but there's no agreement of any kind."

The rumors get better. UVA Foundation boss Tim Rose volunteers this one: UVA will buy and demolish Republic Plaza, a 55,000 sq.-ft. office complex on the north side of West Main. False on both counts, says Rose.


Banking on new buildings

 While negotiations with other land-owners drag on, UVA has announced plans for the Papa John's site. To help the Hospital during its renovation and expansion, the Foundation plans to build a 21,000-sq.-ft. hospital laboratory building behind the SunTrust bank.

Designed by noted local architect Bill Daggett, the new lab has been approved by the Charlottesville Board of Architectural Review. To be constructed of brick and steel, at a cost of several million dollars, it's an apparent example of planned obsolescence.

"It's not something they're building for a 50-year presence," says Foundation boss Rose. "More like a 10-year presence."

To be called the Core Laboratory, the new building, Rose says, will include an underground pneumatic tube to transfer blood and urine samples.

"So you give your sample at the hospital, and it's shot over to this building," he explains.

Convenient fluid deliveries, however, may signal the end of convenient pizza deliveries– at least from that block. While the Papa John's lease has over two years left to run, a search is on for a new location.

"We're looking at it as a positive thing," says Papa John's manager John Flick. He says that while the to-be-demolished store, home to the take-out and delivery pie purveyor since February 1995, offers easy access to Downtown and UVA, the business could benefit from additional parking.


That's a big hospital

 UVA's interest in that part of town has been sustained for at least two decades. In the 1980s, UVA gobbled up blocks of houses in the then crumbly Fifeville neighborhood for the project initially called the Replacement Hospital.

But the big white building encompassing 875,000 sq. ft. wasn't enough. UVA is about halfway through building an expansion on the rear of the big white structure. The addition adds 130,000 sq. ft. and renovates 150,000 more, at a cost of $65.6 million.

Research at UVA's Medical School seems to grow faster than its ability to find formal names for buildings. Two years ago, MR5– which stands for Medical Research Building Five– opened with 156,000 sq. ft. of space for medical researchers. The construction price of about $30 million was funded by grants and gifts to the Medical School.

"This year and the next few years represent the busiest time of construction at the Medical Center in terms of square footage since 1989, when the new University Hospital was being built," R. Edward Howell, chief officer of the hospital, says in a recent release.

Other major building projects include the under-construction MR6, (yep, "Medical Research Building Six"), which is 183,000 sq. ft. for $61 million– with about half the money coming from the general obligation bonds voters approved in 2002. Simultaneously under way is a $13 million expansion to add 419 spaces to the Health System Parking Garage, known as the South Garage.

(Whatever happened to MR1, MR2, and MR3? Immunologist Martin Chapman worked in MR3, demolished in the 1980s to make way for the replacement hospital. And he recalls MR2 standing on the site of Phase Two of the hospital's parking deck on Lee Street. He refers to both structures as Quonset huts.

"We have fond memories of those days," says Chapman, "but these were pretty basic structures– nothing special.")



Slow train with lots of $$$

 While UVA developed two off-Grounds "research parks" in the 1990s– Fontaine and North Fork– the Health System continues its creep south and east, and even the hallowed Central Grounds are dipping south over JPA. If the architects have their way, New Cabell Hall will be demolished and replaced with a pedestrian terrace over JPA leading to new buildings for the College of Arts and Sciences.

What does this mean for West Main? For one thing, seven-figure land deals.

On April 1, when the Foundation paid Brugh $3.4 million for the .91-acre banking/pie-making site, it marked more than a quadrupling of its previous price tag. The last time the property changed hands, in 1984, Brugh bought it for $750,000.

Although the recent price dwarfs the earlier one in digits, the gain represents an annual "rate of return" of eight percent– far less than the 10-20 percent annual gains seen recently in some local neighborhoods. Still, the new price may be a City record on a per-acre basis, and that has some locals grumbling– privately at least– that UVA's candor about land it covets may be causing taxpayers and donors to spend too much.

Rose says playing sneaky doesn't pay off. He cites the example of Harvard University that used "surreptitious" buyers to snap up peripheral land. "That has ended up being a public relations problem," says Rose, "so we've always been up-front."

Moreover, he adds, "You can only pull it off about once. Pretty much everyone who's in the real estate development business knows that a university is interested in expanding its boundaries, so it's not unusual to pay more than they'd like to."

Commercial broker Rifkin agrees.

"You may think they overpaid for that piece of land, but down the road, you'll find that they've added so much value that it'll appraise that high."

But will it assess?


William Rawn's plan

 Charlottesville has spent a lot of time trying to figure out what to do with West Main Street. The 1980s saw federally funded streetscape improvements– new trees, wide sidewalks, and roadside planters.

In 1991, UVA President John Casteen proposed building residential colleges and a sports arena amid the vacant land and decaying buildings of West Main. The outcry was deafening. Neighborhoods feared destruction; City officials feared the disappearance of tax base into the tax-exempt maw of UVA. So Casteen proposed a task force and a plan.

The product of months of work overseen by Boston architect William Rawn, the West Main Street Urban Design Study called for infill buildings and construction of three undergraduate residential "colleges."

The plan was completed in 1993 and won a major award from American Institute of Architects two years later. Somehow, however, the idea of colleges on West Main evaporated. But one aspect of the Rawn plan lives on.

Rawn proposed chopping a little sliver off the UVA-owned park containing the George Rogers Clark monument and bringing JPA into line with 13th Street– reconfiguing its current connection to Main Street at a 45-degree pedestrian-unfriendly angle. UVA still wants to implement that change, one source told the Hook.

The landmark 1986 document governing relations between UVA, Albemarle, and Charlottesville showed the Grounds reaching almost all the way to the Amtrak station. Any Starr Hill/Fifeville neighbors worried about change can't say they haven't been warned.

"Of course I'm worried because of matters of scale," says longtime Fifeville resident Antoinette W. Roads. "When UVA builds, it builds big. But I do not see other forces stepping forward."

Despite the trees, the bike lanes, and recent investments by Dave Matthews Band manager Coran Capshaw, Roads has been underwhelmed by changes on West Main.

"We're number one, we're a 'world class' city," she says, "but we've had vacant storefronts and gaps on Main for as long as I can remember. UVA may, in some measure, be a saving grace."

Roads likens UVA on Main to the alleged salvation of Richmond's Broad Street by Virginia Commonwealth University, which knows something about gaps on major streets. The Richmond behemoth– known for one of the finest arts programs in the country– spent the early 1980s leveling a business district along Richmond's Cary Street only to replace commerce with... tennis courts.

Here in Charlottesville, the tennis courts seem safely ensconced within UVA's existing boundaries. And at $3.4 million an acre, West Main land is surely too valuable for tennis courts– even for a university which saw its endowment climb over the $2 billion mark in April.

Because state institutions are exempt from paying property taxes, many folks wonder if Charlottesville could lose its tax base as UVA creeps along Main Street. "It is a concern," says City Manager Gary O'Connell. "For every dollar they take off the tax base, we have to cut services or tax someone else."

But O'Connell is optimistic. For starters, he believes UVA envisions "true mixed-use developments" along West Main consistent with the City's new zoning ordinance.

The 1986 Three Party Agreement stipulated that commercial properties– even when they're owned by UVA– will pay property taxes. Furthermore, O'Connell notes, office, retail, and restaurant developments feed city coffers with other revenue such as sales, gross receipts, and meals taxes.

"Everything that we've seen," O'Connell says, "is that that's exactly what they have in mind."

Mayor Maurice Cox, who often extols the virtues of "new urbanism," seems encouraged by UVA's plan to build mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly, high-density developments.

"They understand the vision," says Cox. "We have talked to them about our vision for West Main with street-level taxable businesses with tax-exempt uses above."

If UVA follows through with the City's dream of lining West Main with vibrant businesses, says Cox, "that really would constitute a win-win for the University and the City."

But Cox doesn't stop there. He hopes for the day when frequent transit runs between Downtown and the Corner are the norm and cites as the first step the transit center slated for "President's Plaza" at the east end of the Downtown Mall. And while a "trunk line" connecting town and gown would probably begin as buses, he yearns for a return of steel wheels on rails: streetcars.

"We know," says Cox, "that the volume of square-footage under the new zoning ordinance will absolutely require a state-of-the-art transit system."

If it all sounds too utopian for a town of 45,000 residents, Cox says UVA planners don't see it as fantasy. "The University, at each step of the way, has expressed interest in being part of this vision.

"Will we be there two years from now? No. Will we be there 10 years from now? The answer," Cox says, "is probably yes."


Transit improvements

 New urbanism isn't the only term causing a buzz. Charlottesville Transit Service officials are a-twitter about recent work at the Greyhound bus station on West Main where the City used a $218,000 federal grant to renovate the station and essentially take over its operation.

"It's certainly a much more attractive space," crows Charles Petty, the interim director of Charlottesville Transit. "There was sort of an atmosphere of decrepitude."

Now, travelers buy their tickets from City employees, some of whom used to be Greyhound employees. The grant paid for sparkling new bathrooms, and unused station space has been turned into offices. Soon, three video screens will come alive with tourist info, and a contractor has recently agreed to supply pay-for-use public Internet booths.

"In a college town like this, it's a pretty good location," says Petty. "The college is getting closer every year."


The Parham demo

 It was a sunny fall Saturday nearly 15 years ago when crews from Parham Construction made West Main Street history. Or unmade it. Near the south side of the corner of 10th Street, as dumbfounded locals looked on, bulldozers flattened two 1850s structures protected under the City's historic ordinance.

After weeks of wrangling, company owner Ronnie Parham settled the 32 charges facing him by pleading guilty to two counts of demolishing a historic building without BAR approval, and issuing a public apology and agreeing to pay a $50,000 fine.

The developer, S.W. Heischman, told one local paper that the buildings weren't historic. Local architect Thomas R. Wyant called that notion "sickening" in a letter to the City. "If this developer is allowed to ignore the requirements for demolition," wrote Wyant, "it will signal 'open season'... for wanton destruction."

Of course, if the recent sale of the Papa John's property is any indication, some developers can handle a $50,000 fine.

Heischman and Wyant have both since died, but Heischman's son, Kim, and Hunter Craig are reportedly involved in sprouting something other than weeds on that empty property.

Heischman referred the Hook to architect John Matthews. About four years ago, Matthews circulated images of a mixed-use project called "Holsinger Square" slated for that parcel. Now, however, Matthews says the developers have recently acquired the old University Station post office property on 11th Street. That creates a T-shaped lot on which they'd like to situate their latest proposal and call it "University Station."

"We're working on it diligently," says Matthews. "Thanks to the new zoning ordinance, it can be a much larger development– potentially hundreds of thousands of square feet with multiple levels of below-grade parking."

City land records indicate the post office property was purchased by University Station LLC, whose registered agent is Deborah D. Coyner, for $1.18 million in August 2002. The Heischman property at 10th and Main, now assessed for $590,000, cost about $200,000 when the Heischman group acquired its pieces in 1983 and 1996. It's a safe bet there's someone willing to pay millions.


The Patton mansion

 "It was a great old building," says Robert D. Brugh, who sold UVA the SunTrust bank building. "But I feel like it'll be in good hands– they'll look after it."

According to City planner Mary Joy Scala, the earliest part of the structure was built in 1907 as the residence of John S. Patton, who served as the UVA librarian. Designed in the Jefferson Revival style, it became an antique shop in the early 1940s and a bank in the late 1950s, Scala says.

The design was based on UVA's Pavilion I, says Bill Daggett, the designer of the new Core Laboratory building. (Its tiny balcony over the front door employs the same novel rods that failed on that Pavilion during the 1997 graduation ceremony, killing one visitor and injuring about a dozen others.)

UVA's landscape architect, Mary Hughes, hails the design for bringing out the best in the Patton Mansion by subordinating the new structure via darker colors, a lower elevation, and greater distance from Main Street.

"The visual clutter will be gone," says Hughes, "and you'll see the mansion in a landscape setting. It will be more visible as a free-standing historic building."


Labs need land

 Back at the Health System, UVA has MR4, MR5, and MR6, plus its nursing and medical schools. With its hospital and ancillary offices, UVA has gobbled up all the land between the Central Grounds and the Norfolk Southern train tracks.

Since there's probably little danger that UVA– with its 175+ years of Jefferson-inspired history– would pull a Martha Jefferson-style move, the University finds itself with a medical faculty that, according to a recent "Report to the Community," garners huge research funds: $155.3 million in the year 2001-2002 alone.

If they want to spend that money, they need labs. Ergo, they need land, and they're willing to jump north of the CSX tracks to get it.

"They've got to have it," says broker Rifkin. "They are so many departments that have to be in close proximity– they can't put them in Blacksburg."

Area in grey under UVA control

Areas in black are major buildings

Doomed: The Blake Center

Uncertain: 10th and W. Main

Saved: SunTrust

Doomed: Papa John's

Eyed: The Studio Art building

"We're looking at it as a positive thing."– Papa John's manager John Flick

"They want mine too."–Kane Furniture boss Gordon Latter

Uncertain: Northern Exposure

Eyed: Kane Furniture

Doomed: The Towers

The new Core Lab will let the 1907 Patton mansion shine.


Stacey Hall

UVA bought this former formerly Sears and Roebuck store in 1982. Home for patient billing, it's UVA's biggest holding on the north side of Main Street.

Demo day: These photos in the City Attorney's office show what happened on October 21, 1989 near the corner of 10th and Main streets.

Trax nightclub, famous for giving a lift to the then-fledgling Dave Matthews Band from 1991 to 1993, was demolished in January 2003. The site was purchased by UVA for $1.2 million in July 2002.


[A date in one of these captions appeared with the wrong date in our print edition. It has been corrected here.–editor.]