The Charlottesville Board of Architectural Review, charged with maintaining the city’s vision for historic corridors such as West Main Street, recently sent one proposal back to the drawing board.
“This is an office park kind of building,” said Corey Clayborne, the Planning Commission’s representative to the BAR. “As you look at the future of our city, West Main Street is already pedestrian-heavy. I think cars will become heavily discouraged.”
The owner of 843 W. Main asked for more time to submit a new design.
“This is a prominent site on West Main Street and one of the last large parcels that is left,” said architect James Grigg, hired by Kim Tran Dabney to work on the plans.
Charlottesville officials have bet heavily on West Main Street as a key component of the city’s future. The street connects the University of Virginia with the Downtown Mall, a fact not lost on the firm Torti Gallas when they were hired by the city to assist with the creation of the 2001 Comprehensive Plan.
“West Main is poised for change,” reads the urban design chapter of the 2001 plan.
“The growth of the university’s research activities at one end of the corridor, and the resurgence of downtown at the other, sparks this optimism, which is further fueled by the development of high-tech and bio-tech businesses within the region.”
The City Council embedded that vision into Charlottesville’s code of development with a rezoning in 2003 that allowed for much taller buildings on the street as of means of increasing the city’s tax base.
Since then, several large buildings have been completed and several more are either under construction or in the planning stages. Among the first was the Flats at West Village, an apartment complex completed in 2014 that fulfills a requirement in the zoning code that the ground floor be reserved for retail and commercial uses.
In 2003, the property had an assessed value of $1.245 million. By 2018, that had increased more than 5,000 percent to $65.6 million.
Last week, Grigg took a proposal for a three-story office building to the BAR for its input.
“The owner is interested in developing what is, in today’s world, a small office building in that location,” he said.
The design shown to the BAR is of a white box with green-tinted glass. The project building does not need a special-use permit or a rezoning but the BAR would need to issue a certificate of appropriateness.
“The BAR should discuss the overall design of this project and whether or not the proposed building fits into the surrounding context,” said Jeff Werner, the city’s historic-preservation planner.
The building would be constructed up to the road and employees initially would park on a surface lot behind the structure. Grigg said that under this phase, about 75 percent of the property would be vacant and used for surface parking.
The front of the building would be blocked by planters. A single staircase would provide entry to the front of the structure.
“The owner is not interested and does not want any retail uses,” Grigg said. “We don’t want to have restaurants or anything like that. We want this to be an office building.”
Grigg said the BAR’s decision had to be made in the context of what has been built on West Main Street in recent years.
“I would submit that it’s pretty doggone eclectic,” Grigg said. “The Flats is a monolith. The Standard looks like to me it’s trying to be multiple colored boxes. The Uncommon (since rebranded as Lark on Main) is a collage building clearly. The Draftsman, I call it orange and glass. And the Battle Building is a glass box sitting on top of a brick base.”
Grigg said his conclusion was that his proposed drawing represents a kind of building that exists all across the country and the world.
“You can do anything you want to do on West Main Street,” Grigg said. “If the goal on West Main Street was to have a unified aesthetic, you would have had a bunch of rules in place that would mandate that.”
One member of the BAR took issue with Grigg’s interpretation.
“I think it’s a bit more than just ‘anything goes,’” said Breck Gastinger. “To me, there is really not any one contributing element of this building that says anything about it being relative to Charlottesville or on West Main Street. It very much feels like it could be from Northern Virginia or just about anywhere.”
Another BAR member said the green glass used in the proposed design was against the board’s guideline, but he did not oppose the design outright.
“In terms of scale, it’s a quiet building that’s certainly better than a couple of the big buildings down the street,” said Tim Mohr. “I think it hearkens back to what West Main was in the 1950s with more of an automotive zone with car dealerships.”
BAR member Carl Schwarz said one of the city’s objectives on West Main is to promote pedestrian engagement.
“You made it clear you don’t want to put retail there but I might be inclined to tell you to fake it,” Schwarz said. “Any other development that goes on West Main is going to force into a rhythm that is pedestrian-scale and this is more automotive scale.”
Gastinger said the BAR is charged with being the caretakers of public space. As such, he said he could not support the project.
“It contributes absolutely nothing to the street character,” Gastinger said. “These are the kinds of street facades that really kind of kill our public streets. There’s no place for the public to sit.”
When it appeared that the BAR was not going to approve the project, Grigg turned to Dabney to get direction.
“They think it looks like a suburban office building,” Grigg said to Dabney. “They don’t want this style of building on West Main Street.”
“So what do they want?” Dabney asked.
“They want it to look more like a city building,” Grigg said. “An urban building.”