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Design review panel hears updates on two large projects
Sketch of 550 East Water Street, September 15, 2015
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Credit: Formwork Design LLC
Sketch of 550 East Water Street looking west
Sean Tubbs | Sunday, September 27, 2015 at 5:58 p.m.

As Charlottesville’s development boom continues, the city’s Board of Architectural Review often is the only public body that reviews projects whose developers are not seeking a special-use permit for additional height or density.

That was the case recently as the panel had preliminary discussions on new designs for a seven-story tower at 550 E. Water St. and a six-story building at 501 W. Main St.

Earlier this year, developer Andrew Baldwin sought a special-use permit to allow his Water Street project to be built to a total height of 101 feet.

However, the BAR decided in June that that height would have an adverse impact on the downtown architectural design control district. In July, the Planning Commission recommended that the City Council deny the permit.

Since then, Baldwin has submitted a new plan, which was discussed at the BAR’s Sept. 15 meeting.

“We hope that in looking at this building tonight and discussing it, you’ll find that the design really responds to a lot of the comments that came forth in the previous meetings,” said Ashley Davies, an urban planner who works for the Williams Mullen law firm.

Davies said the new design seeks to improve the pedestrian experience on Water Street by reducing the width of the parking garage entrance.

The height of the building would be concentrated on the western end of the property, with the eastern end being 40 feet tall.

“You have some height in there but there’s a variation to the façade and there’s an articulation,” Davies said.

BAR members said they appreciated the lower height of the tower, but echoed a neighbor’s concerns about how the project could accommodate seven stories with a maximum building height of 70 feet.

A resident of the Holsinger, a five-story building across from the property, questioned the applicant’s calculations about how the 70 feet would be measured.

“Seven stories on a quarter of an acre lot just seems to me to be out of context,” said Sam Hellman, a resident of the Holsinger. “It’s not going to look anything like the King building, like the Holsinger building or like C&O Restaurant across the street.”

Baldwin said that if staff does not agree with his calculations, he would reduce the number of stories in the tower to six.

“We knew this would come up tonight because we are exploring what the height is and what is allowed,” Baldwin said. “At the end of the day, if this is the calculation and we can get the additional floor, economically it improves the project for us.”

“I hear the concerns about the tall building on a small piece of land, but I think if we look in our downtown core, there are small lots with tall buildings on them,” said Kurt Keesecker, a BAR member and planning commissioner.

Earlier this year, the BAR approved developer Bill Atwood’s previous plan for 501 W. Main, but Atwood is now proposing something different because the property that contains the Atlantic Futon building is no longer under consideration.

Atwood said he could not make the arrangement work financially with the Atlantic property.

“We live in a land of appraisals that are not that good and banking that is very tough,” Atwood said.

As under the first plan, the historic buildings at 501 and 503 W. Main will be incorporated into the project. A barber shop at 425 W. Main will be razed as the BAR approved a demolition permit last October.

“The new building consists of five levels above Main Street, and six levels above Commerce Street, plus a 16-foot appurtenance level,” said Mary Joy Scala, the city’s historic-preservation planner. “The tallest part of the building rises 76 feet above West Main Street with a zero-foot setback from the street, and 88 feet above Commerce Street.”

A pedestrian walkway would be created between the new building and the Eloise building.

 “Three levels of structured parking are accessed from West Main Street and exit onto Commerce Street near Fifth Street Northwest and Jefferson School,” Scala said.

Parking in the garage has been reduced from 144 spaces to 86 spaces.

The original proposal was created with input from Commerce Street residents, some of whom have expressed concerns about the size of the project and additional traffic in their neighborhood.

That opposition continued at the recent meeting.

“The community is incredibly disheartened at what has happened,” said Brad Worrell, of Commerce Street. “We weren’t super happy with the whole thing but now to have everything mashed together on three lots, the community is very distressed.”

BAR members asked if there is a way the project could have its front completely on Commerce Street rather than have two faces.

Both projects will come before the BAR for a certificate of appropriateness later this year.


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