As Charlottesville’s West Main Street continues to attract investment in new buildings, the recently completed Uncommon is the latest contribution to the corridor’s architectural identity.
“I don’t believe in the town of Thomas Jefferson that everything needs to mimic Jefferson,” said Melanie Miller, chairwoman of the city’s Board of Architectural Review. “In the spirit of Jefferson, we should be inspired by old things but also try new things.”
The L-shaped Uncommon, built by Chicago-based CA Student Living, is a departure from the neo-classical style that Jefferson favored. It’s also the fourth building to be completed on West Main in just over two years.
University of Virginia officials cut the ribbon for the six-story Battle Building in June 2014. Two months later, the first residents of the nine-story Flats at West Village began to move in.
The Marriott Residence Inn welcomed its first guests this spring and residents are now living in the Uncommon even though crews still have to finish such aspects as landscaping.
The City Council approved a special-use permit in January 2014 for the Uncommon that would have allowed the building to rise nine stories above West Main. However, the developer returned to the city with a smaller project later that year.
Miller said she initially supported the project, but was the lone vote against the design that eventually was built.
“It got value-engineered,” Miller said, referring to a process that reduces the cost of construction, and in her opinion, the aesthetics. “The building materials that skin the building are problematic.”
Those materials include a terra cotta-like brick, a dark metallic brick and light-blue siding. A yellow trim surrounds several of the windows.
One woman who works nearby is not a fan. She likens the terra cotta to a building block in a popular computer game.
“The tile on the West Main side reminds me of something out of Minecraft,” said Liz Cerami Taylor. “That aspect seems unfinished to me.”
Stephen Balut was appointed to the BAR after the Uncommon was approved.
“I generally like the building but I’m just a bit disappointed with the execution of the design compared to the way it was presented,” Balut said. “The finished product has a strong architectural concept and identity; it’s proudly modern, uniquely textured and its facade interestingly nods to the technocratic.”
However, Balut said the finished product is “slightly busier” than he thought it would be.
“On the relatively small West Main façade, for example, there are six different materials and as many colors,” he said.
BAR member Justin Sarafin said he is “more or less” satisfied with how the building has turned out, though he said the finished product does not quite match what was originally presented to city officials.
“The curved, metallic-finished upper section, to me, works really well, nodding to the more techy-look of the hospital complex and looking for all intents and purposes like a real urban building,” Sarafin said.
Councilor Kathy Galvin said she likes that the building is visually transparent.
“We humans love watching other humans more than anything else,” she said. “I like sitting there now on my bike waiting for the light to change.”
However, Galvin also has a few critiques about the execution.
“The mash of materials on the one hand breaks up the scale to some extent, but on the other hand it makes it looks like it was dressed up with whatever salvaged materials the developer could find and/or afford,” Galvin said. “Sometimes it looks fun and playful, other times it looks cheap and chaotic, depending on the light.”
Councilor Bob Fenwick said the Uncommon gives him hope that developers are seeking to add to the city’s character.
“The architecture is much better than The Flats and the Marriott and gives hope that developers and architects are beginning to realize the benefits of a well-designed building,” he said. “The location so close to the university should respect and reflect the care that UVa takes with their construction, particularly the Battle Building.”
A new era
West Main is part of the original Three Notch’d Road between Richmond and the Shenandoah Valley.
Sarafin said he believes recent construction makes it even more important to preserve the historic buildings that remain in order to preserve the city’s authenticity.
“What makes the corridor interesting is that you have early brick at the Dinsmore Inn, plus railroad-era shops and lodging remnants and the historic First Baptist Church,” he said.
In the last decade, the late Gabe Silverman and his partner, Allan Cadgene, adapted several former garages into buildings that now house restaurants and shops. Sarafin supports such projects.
“The opposite of this is to demolish everything and build new, and you end up with places that feel like Stonefield,” Sarafin said, referring to a mixed-use development in neighboring Albemarle County. “That’s a self-referential development that has nothing to do with the way this place has evolved over time.”
Balut said that both the Uncommon and the Battle Building are examples of the direction he would like to see for development west of the Drewary Brown Bridge. He supports the City Council’s decision in March to reduce building heights east of the bridge.
“The east side of the bridge requires a more modest scale and careful consideration of neighbors,” Balut said. “Both require activation at street level, coordination with the planned West Main Street improvements and an extremely delicate consideration of the historic quality and character that all of us in Charlottesville appreciate and admire.”
Miller said the L-shaped lot helps reduce the building’s presence on West Main.
“The majority of the building is behind the Patton Mansion and the way it runs down Roosevelt Brown Boulevard works, whereas projects like The Flats at West Village or the proposed Standard are all along West Main Street,” Miller said.
Activating the street
Sarafin said he understands many people have issues with the size and massing of The Flats. But he said its presence has “activated” West Main.
“The open empty spaces that made the trek from The Corner to downtown so uncomfortable have given way to a level of activity and pedestrian traffic that feels and looks like a real city,” Sarafin said.
The Uncommon will not be the last new building on West Main. The developers of the six-story Standard apartment complex hope to break ground this fall, as do the developers of a 10-story Marriott Autograph boutique hotel one block to the west.
The construction of so many building and the prospect of more on the way alarms the president of the Fifeville Neighborhood Association.
“Traffic is already at its worst,” said Carmelita Wood. “More building means more cars in our neighborhoods looking for places to park.”
The city currently is looking for additional funding for new streetscape improvements such as wider sidewalks, bike lanes, undergrounding utilities and additional street trees. The preliminary cost estimate to implement a conceptual plan created by the firm Rhodeside & Harwell is $30 million.