In the 1950s, demolition crews approached homes and businesses on the block bounded by West Water and South streets, South First Street and Second Street Southwest. Sixty years later, a developer seemingly has pulled the plug on a building that would convert the longtime parking lots into a permanent home for the Charlottesville City Market, offices and luxury condominiums.
Nearly a month after Market Plaza LLC made that announcement, the future of the $85 million West2nd project still is unclear.
When developer Keith Woodard, of Woodard Properties, declared the cancellation of his involvement in West2nd, it was one week after a routine design review turned into an Architectural Review Board vote against the scale of the project. The Aug. 21 review was “the last straw,” according to the developer’s news release.
“I hope that someone else can move this project forward,” Woodard said in the Aug. 28 release. “In early 2014, when we responded to the city [request for proposals] to develop this project, it was a different City Council and different circumstances.”
West2nd had been embattled for months, with particularly intense opposition coalescing in City Hall in February.
Originally known as Market Plaza, the then-$50 million building was to include more than 60 one- and two-bedroom condominiums and rise above a three-level underground parking garage. The least expensive unit was to cost about $400,000, and the most expensive was pegged at more than $1 million.
A plaza outside the L-shaped building would have accommodated 115 vendors during the City Market, which has been housed on the parking lot for years.
“Anger people had over the direction of development across the city flared, and this project just happened to become a symbol of it,” said Michael Payne, an affordable housing advocate who opposed the project at the time.
The city initially sought developers for the property in 2013 to create a permanent home for the city’s farmers market.
“There was a lot of work that went into thinking about what might happen with that site, specifically focused on the question of how we create a permanent home for the City Market,” said Dave Norris, who was Charlottesville’s mayor during many of the early stages of planning for what would become West2nd.
The City Market moved temporarily to the Water Street parking lot in 1993. By 2005, the city became more concerned about finding a permanent solution.
From 2005 to 2013, the city heard from a citizens committee, a design competition, a city-appointed task force, a consultant and a market advocacy group about what the Charlottesville City Market needed to grow.
“The vendor experience is not what it should be and could be because of the transient nature of the market,” Norris said. “You [could] have a market that has electricity, bathrooms, tables for people [who want] to sit and eat ...”
Woodard’s proposal became a favorite for envisioning two symmetrical blocks borderer by South First Street, which would allow the City Market to expand to a second plaza in a later phase of development. In 2014, several months after Norris stepped down as a councilor, the City Council awarded the project to Woodard in a unanimous vote.
In fall 2017, the building changed. Woodard requested an increase in the height of West2nd from nine stories to 10 to increase the number of condominium units from 68 to 85. Woodard said that the addition beyond what was allowed by-right would make the project financially practical in the face of rising construction costs.
“They had a plan, got a special use permit for a building, got a site plan approved, along with BAR approval, and then in 2017 approached the city and said basically they couldn’t build the plan as they had approved,” Brian Haluska, one of the city’s neighborhood planners, said in late August.
Rents in Charlottesville have increased over 18 percent in the last six years, according to a recent study of city housing needs. Rent increases in 2017 accounted for 9.4 percent of that climb.
Developers have followed zoning changes from 2007 that created a mixed-use corridor between Belmont and West Main Street.
“You have a lot of developers coming in and building very expensive, luxury developments,” Payne said. “You see it happening with Dairy Central, Dewberry Hotel, West2nd and what's happened on West Main Street.”
For some activists, West2nd confirmed the feeling that Charlottesville is not for them.
“They've been doing gentrification for 20-30 years or more,” activist Mary Carey said. “It's just that now it's more visible to white people.”
Carey was a teenager in the 1960s when Charlottesville bulldozed Vinegar Hill, a predominately African-American neighborhood and business district. A similar urban renewal project occurred on Garrett Street, where Friendship Court and Crescent Halls are now.
“Once you get across the tracks, where you've got restaurants — those were black peoples' houses,” Carey said. “My uncle lived where they've got the Glass Building. ... It was a neighborhood.”
During urban renewal, the West2nd site already was a parking lot.
In February, the City Council denied the permit for the changes after a discussion that included questions on whether the plaza would be able to accommodate the City Market adequately and negotiations on including affordable housing units in the building. In the talks that led to the council’s reconsideration of its vote, Woodard agreed to the creation of 16 affordable housing units on Harris Street that the city would subsidize.
“What was left on the table was something that, for many people, felt like a subsidy for luxury housing with mere crumbs being thrown at affordable housing,” Norris said.
When priorities changed to focus on affordable housing, Norris said that tying West2nd’s property taxes explicitly to low-income housing projects could have created a “win-win outcome.”
“The city could have shown how it would leverage this project to not only get us finally a permanent home for the City Market and one that could eventually expand to the adjoining block, but it could also generate financing for hundreds of new units of affordable housing,” Norris said. “That was sort of talked around but not really presented as a package.”
The staff report for the February City Council meeting estimated that the residential, office, retail, and parking components of the project would bring $945,000 of annual revenue to the city.
Prior to the City Council vote in April, the Public Housing Association of Residents emailed a statement to Councilor Kathy Galvin. PHAR supported using city revenue from high-income housing for the redevelopment of public housing.
“My hope is that the tax aside will not be used as a selling point for Woodard’s SUP. I think the strategy can happen with whatever gets built. PHAR does not have a position on the SUP,” wrote Brandon Collins, who works for PHAR.
The project returned to the BAR in the summer to review the changes made. Once the BAR reviewed West2nd again, it was “a different building,” Haluska said.
The BAR voted against recommending the plan to the City Council, saying the proposed design did not meet its criteria and concerns about the building’s mass and height, as well as the functionality of the market space.
“[The BAR] kinda fired a warning shot, for lack of a better term, at this project by saying this height is not consistent with our guidelines,” Haluska said.
“There was the option to appeal to council, and for whatever reason, we got the press release we got,” he said.
Woodard has declined to comment beyond the news release but has said he is considering speaking in the future.
On Aug. 31, Market Plaza filed an appeal of the BAR denial. Susan Payne, of the Blue Ridge Group and a spokeswoman for Woodard, said the appeal was a placeholder. He had 10 days to appeal the BAR’s decision.
“I think the reason [Woodard] did it is because there is a limited time to appeal — it is not something that you can do next year,” Susan Payne said. “The appeal is for the next person in. Keith Woodard is not going to move it forward.”
Additionally, Susan Payne said, Woodard conceivably could sell Market Plaza LLC. Among its assets would be the approvals for the original iteration of West2nd.
“[The purchaser] would have to abide by the existing entity — all the plans that are in place,” Payne said. “They would not be allowed to make changes that have not been approved without going back. But if they stuck with the plan, that would go with the property.”
If no one purchases the project, Michael Payne said he would like to see a development geared towards lower-income residents.
“We now have a really exciting opportunity, because this is city-owned land,” Michael Payne said. “In my mind, the best-case scenario is you have a more modest redevelopment project that incorporates affordable housing and that redesigns the city market in a way that ... the entire community finds welcoming.”
Michael Payne pointed to The Crossings at Fourth and Preston, which includes 30 units for the chronically homeless, as an example of what could be done on the site. Payne said, however, that the city should start a community engagement process first.
Haluska said the initially approved plan is valid for five years.
“If Keith is to be believed, that building that was originally approved in early 2017 is not financially feasible in this market and cannot be built. It had three levels of underground parking, and underground parking is extremely expensive, so it wasn’t terribly surprising,” Haluska said. “But theoretically, somebody could jump in.”
At the Sept. 18 BAR meeting, city officials said there was no set time frame for the City Council to hear the appeal.