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Developer seeks new six-story building on West Main Street
Preliminary concept for 501 West Main, May 20, 2014
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Credit: Bill Atwood
Atwood's preliminary design for 501 West Main did not satisfy BAR or staff
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by Sean Tubbs | Wednesday, May 21, 2014 at 9:35 p.m.

While work continues on a planning study of West Main Street, one Charlottesville architect has begun the process of adding a new six-story building to the corridor.

Bill Atwood, whose projects include the multi-story Waterhouse building on Water Street, wants to construct an office building in the 500 block of West Main Street. The property is home to two historic structures on West Main and a barber shop that faces Commerce Street.

“Anything that’s built [on the property] according to the zoning regulations is allowed by-right, but it is subject to the Board of Architectural Review’s approval of a certificate of appropriateness,” said Mary Joy Scala, the city’s historic preservation planner.

Atwood is not proposing to demolish either of the historic buildings, but one member of the BAR took issue with a conceptual plan that showed the two houses being enveloped into a larger structure.

“The materials in front of us fail pretty profoundly on every imaginable level and there is nothing to like about this project as it stands,” board member Brian Hogg said. “It shows a callous disregard for our guidelines.”

Under the preliminary application, the two houses would be connected by an addition and have other extensions on either side. The front porch at 501 West Main would be filled in, and the bulk of the new building would rise 76 feet above West Main Street and 58 feet above Commerce Street.

Application materials state that the building would house the Atlantic Research Group, a firm that assists biotech companies with clinical trials. The company currently has offices on Ivy Road in Albemarle County.

Scala said her recommendation is that the new building should not incorporate the two houses, one of which was constructed in 1824.

“The side additions, if any, should be designed to respect the free-standing appearance of the two buildings and the new rear building that’s proposed is not appropriate as an addition,” Scala said. “It should be free-standing and should form a complementary backdrop for the two historic buildings.”

Atwood agreed that a new plan will be submitted.

“We see them as equal and they will be treated as historic pieces,” Atwood said. “We will drop back and keep the buildings as separate entities and have no issue with that.”

Members of the Starr Hill neighborhood had the chance to ask Atwood about his questions at a preliminary discussion Tuesday.

“One of the things that’s very striking about the Waterhouse project is how behemoth it is,” said resident Brad Worrell. “Is there any consideration for multiple buildings rather than a single monolith?”

Atwood said he had a track record of working with neighborhoods.

“I’m hoping that we can spend some time, walk the neighborhood, and gain an understanding of what would enhance the neighborhood,” Atwood said. One amenity for the public could be free parking on weekends.

“I think West Main is starving for parking,” he said.

Andrea Douglas, director of the African-American Heritage Center at the Jefferson School City Center, said she is concerned about how the project may put too much activity on Commerce Street.

“It’s a secondary street that is now being used to avoid what’s going on West Main Street, and now we’re bringing parking onto this very congested and limited street,” she said.

Atwood said there would be a traffic study, but did not specify when that might occur.

Alexandria-based urban design firm Rhodeside & Harwell has been paid $340,000 to develop a streetscape for West Main and study how redevelopment might affect traffic patterns. Among options that could arise from the study is a suggestion to rezone West Main to prevent large buildings between railroad overpass and downtown Charlottesville.

Starr Hill resident Pat Edwards said she wants the quality of life in her neighborhood to remain high.

“We love it because it is right here in the middle of the city and it is quiet,” Edwards said. “I am still afraid. This is so out of scale with what we were told would be on this side of the [Drewary Brown Bridge].”

Hogg also said he was concerned the application provided no information about how the project would fit into the context of West Main Street.

“If you’re going to have any hope of a large addition here you’ve got us show us some relationship between what you’re doing here and what’s adjacent,” he said.

Other BAR members were not as dismissive of the project.

“If you guys can get yourself organized and figure out what it is you need, and come forward in a partnership, I think this could be a win-win before it’s over with,” said Michael Osteen, a planning commissioner who also sits on the BAR. “We’ve got a long way to go and the preliminary discussion had to start somewhere.”

No date has been scheduled for when the project will return to the BAR.

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