White Elephant: Massive house squeezes neighbor

When she bought her home last summer, Gertrude Fraser knew a house would eventually be built next door. What she didn't realize, she says, was just how close and how big it would be.

In her despair over the new looming structure, she's hung a sign on her front porch asking, "What would you do with the white elephant?" The controversy has the Robinson Woods neighborhood, formerly known as Kellytown, roiling.

"I don't have any privacy," says Fraser. "One side of the house is getting darker. No one gave me a hint this house would be on top of me like this."

Fraser, vice provost for faculty advancement at UVA, returned to Charlottesville in January 2004 after a stint at the Ford Foundation in New York and bought the house at 113 Robinson Woods for $365,000 in June.

She estimates a mere six to seven feet between her 2,100-square-foot house and the new one. But it's the porch on the 6,000-square-foot upstart that sent her over the edge. "The porch seemed so massive jutting out over my house," she moans.

The neighborhood off Preston Avenue, started by Tom Hickman in 1997, was Charlottesville's first planned urban development, or PUD in dev-speak.

That means that normal city setbacks don't apply. In PUDs, density is encouraged, and houses can be built as close as three feet to the property line and up to 35 feet– three stories– high.

The new house is well within the zoning rules for PUDs, says neighborhood development boss Jim Tolbert. As for the size of the "white elephant"– 6,000 square feet in a neighborhood of houses averaging around 3,000– "The developer controls that," says Tolbert. "He chose to allow a house that big."

Hickman, who also lives in Robinson Woods (in an approximately 5,400-square-foot house), is taken aback by Fraser's reaction. "I'm not used to this," he says. "All my neighborhoods are like this." Hickman also built the rainbow-colored, white-front-porched neighborhood on Madison off Rose Hill Drive.

The actual distance between the two houses is "just short of eight feet," Hickman says, and there's a reason the new house seems so much closer to Fraser's than that. Most houses are pushed to one side of the property line so a driveway can be added, which puts around 11 or 12 feet between each house. That didn't happen in the case of Fraser and her new neighbor.

Hiickman says the plans were reviewed by the neighborhood's architectural review board, and he wonders how much due diligence was done before Fraser purchased 113 Robinson Woods. "If I were buying a house, I would wonder what's going on with this builder in this housing market," he says.

"He's a neighbor," says Fraser. "I wish he'd had a discussion with me. I would have said, 'Could you move it over?'"

"I feel like it's a mistake it was allowed to be that close," says Margi Vaughn, outgoing president of the Robinson Woods Neighborhood Association.

She and her husband bought the first house in Robinson Woods, and she's gone through the growing pains of living in a PUD and creating a homeowners association.

"Gertrude knew there was a house coming," she says. "We all know it. Still, it's sad to lose our sledding hill and see trees cut down. When you're talking about your home and neighborhood, it's very different. You're emotionally attached."

Despite the problems of being the first owners in a new type of subdivision, "We love this neighborhood," Vaughn says.

"I think Tom is very courageous to live in a neighborhood he built," she adds.

Hickman has offered to buy Fraser's house for the $365,000 she paid nearly a year ago, according to Fraser.

"Given that he said he'd buy, there's some recognition there was some harm done," she says.

However, the single mother, facing a real estate market in which city assessments climbed 12 percent last year, doubts she's going to be able to find something comparable at that price. And she worries about the disruption of having to move her daughter for the third time in three years.

Fraser grew up in New York, so she's used to an urban context. That's what she originally found so appealing about Robinson Woods: the closeness to work and the intensely developed neighborhood with a "cushion" between the houses. "It was wonderful," she recalls.

Now, out on her porch, "I feel like I'm living in another person's space," says Fraser.

"I'm mourning right now," she says.

But ultimately, she thinks she'll move.

UVA anthropology prof and vice provost Gertrude Fraser displays her dismay in a sign.


By most accounts, Robinson Woods is a great neighborhood– but Fraser is considering moving.