Construction debris: C&O braces for 'war zone'

Giving birth to a world-class city is painful. Ask the owners of businesses who have endured months and months of construction around downtown landmarks like the new Live Arts and Paramount theaters.

Years before the Downtown Mall became a dining mecca, the C&O Restaurant was about the only reason for gourmands to hit the otherwise deserted downtown after 5.

Now the Charlottesville institution is about to be sandwiched between two major construction projects: a five-story luxury condominium tower– the Holsinger– in the soon-to-be-extinct Fifth Street SE parking lot to the west, and the new transit center and amphitheater to the east.

Owner Dave Simpson is concerned. "Only a fool wouldn't be," he says.

"We got really crestfallen how projects around Live Arts and the Paramount were so developer-friendly," he says. "I think the city is genuinely embarrassed about its reckless abandonment of the businesses there."

Certainly business owners on Third Street NE were howling last fall about the closed street, ugly chain link fence, backed up sewers and flooding from work at the Paramount– which is still ongoing.

And some blame the failure of a juice bar called Liquid on the closure of Second Street SE during the Live Arts construction.

"We're not going to give any more than half a street," says planning chief Jim Tolbert. "We learned our lesson with the Paramount and Live Arts." And if a developer requests a street closure permit, they've got to put up a painted plywood fence.

Bill Nitchman, the Holsinger's developer, says he's sensitive to his neighbors' concerns. "I think we'll do a considerably better job than they did at the Paramount," says Nitchman. "I'm on the Mall everyday. It's going to be a very clean site."

Still, he acknowledges that the one-third acre lot is going to be a tight site.

Simpson, braced for the inevitable mess that will surround him, says city officials seem "genuinely concerned about my wellbeing."

For instance, the fence that goes up outside his door will be plywood painted green. "How the fence looks is of paramount importance– no pun intended," he says. If the area looks like a "war zone," obviously that isn't good for business.

The city is putting in a pedestrian crosswalk in front of the restaurant. Seventh Street will be closed, and Simpson has requested a stop sign on Water Street in front of the former train station. And the city is prettying-up the restaurant sidewalk on the transit center-fence side with a large black planter like the others that adorn the mall with flowers.

One lane of Water Street will be blocked off for staging, but a drop-off zone will remain in front of the restaurant.

For years, the free Fifth Street parking lot was the first place C&O customers– and many other Mall visitors– headed to look for a space. "We weren't so naive to think a vacant lot in the city wouldn't be developed," says Simpson.

Simpson has taken care of the looming parking problem by offering customers free parking in city garages and across the street at the C&O station lot. At 5:30pm, a C&O-only sign goes up in the lot. "This has been a huge comfort pad for us," he says.

Post cards are printed and ready to mail to customers to advise of the parking changes. And he plans to have staff on hand to get diners safely across Water Street.

Other property owners on that end of the Mall are girding their loins in anticipation of the inconvenience.

The architectural firm Stoneking Von Storch, which designed the Norcross apartments, co-owns the recently renovated former Grand Piano building on Fifth Street SE, and the building's windows, which stare into the future Holsinger, are plastered with "for lease" signs.

Those signs are deceptive. Apparently the upcoming construction hasn't deterred renters. In the 12,000-square-foot building, only 1,000 square feet are available, says Steve Von Storch, who adds, "All the tenants knew about the construction going in."

Perhaps because he's in the building biz, Von Storch is resigned to the inevitable inconvenience. "It's part of living in a city," he says.

And once the commotion is over, he thinks Fifth Street, with retail shops on both sides, "is going to be one of the better side streets" and urban entries to the Downtown Mall.

"We're trying to hunker down, and we're hoping," says Simpson.

Look for more hunkering down on Water Street– and Second Street SE, which is still recovering from the building of Live Arts. Construction of Lee Danielson's Landmark Hotel could start as soon as September.

C&O faces its greatest challenge yet as it's about to be besieged by construction on both sides.<