Lofty plans: Condos offer in-town option

With undeveloped land in Charlottesville virtually nonexistent, prices on single-family city homes still through the roof, and a soft rental market, builders– and buyers– are looking increasingly to condos as a solution.

"It's typical of hot housing markets," says developer Richard Spurzem, who has dozens of stand-alone rental properties in town as well as Jefferson Ridge, a 280-unit apartment development completed last year.

In the past three years, nearly 1,500 rental units have been constructed (including Jefferson Ridge) and later this fall another 500 will become available at Coran Capshaw's Walker Square project in Fifeville.

That glut of available rentals, Spurzem says, has softened the market; Jefferson Ridge, for example, nearly a year after opening, stands at only 65 percent occupancy. And while some other rental units show better numbers, Spurzem says it makes sense that developers would turn toward condominium housing– both in new construction and in the renovation of older apartment units, which then become owner-occupied.

The Belmont Lofts, at the end of Druid Avenue in Belmont, may offer the best proof of the strong appeal of condo living. In less than a year, all 64 units have been sold, for prices ranging from the upper $100s to more than $400,000.

A former Locust Avenue resident, artist Judy McLeod fell for the two-story penthouse unit she purchased after seeing only the floor plan.

The soaring 12-foot ceilings, wide open space, and concrete and hardwood floors offer an appealing industrial aesthetic, she says, and the downtown location is a big selling point.

Plus, she says, "I wanted to downsize."

Other developers took the hint– at 820 E. Market St., Bushman Dreyfus architects and Summit Realty have teamed up to create office space for themselves on the first floor and 14 mid-priced condo units on the second and third floors.

Ranging in price from $130,000 to $390,000, the condos are suitable for anyone from students to professionals looking for a downtown home, says Summit Realty's Charlie Kabbash, who says the units are 75 percent sold. Kabbash is also helping to market the 60 to 80 condo units planned for the Frank Ix building off Elliot Avenue that will be available starting in spring 2006.

"People want home ownership," he says.

Developer Hunter Craig also spotted the trend. He's currently at work converting the 184 apartment units at the aging Hessian Hills on Georgetown Road into condominiums. Craig did not return the Hook's calls by press time.

But condos are not just for those who can't afford a "real" house– Bill Nitchman's 16-unit condo development, The Holsinger, going up in the lot next to the C&O is proof of that.

Lower level units will start at $250,000, and the penthouse units may go for more than a million, says Kabbash, who's marketing the project. So what does a million-dollar condo get you? Ultra-swank kitchens, multiple baths, and "spectacular views," says Kabbash, spread out over 3,000 square feet– larger than most downtown houses.

Nitchman says four units are already sold at the Holsinger, and he gets calls every day.

His customers– some of them current Farmington residents– are "looking for less maintenance, looking for a way of life," he says. The proximity to dining, entertainment, and businesses– combined with the luxurious quarters– makes the Holsinger city living similar to what one might find in New York or Los Angeles.

Kabbash believes the trend toward condo construction will continue as long there's demand.

"These are all good developers," he says. "They respond to market conditions, which is what's going on."

The Belmont Lofts appeal to downsizers and downtowners.