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Rose Hill neighborhood balks at rezoning, demolitions
Three story structure at 624 Booker Street
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Three story structure at 624 Booker Street
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Sean Tubbs | Monday, May 30, 2016 at 5:01 p.m.

A proposed rezoning on a small cul-de-sac near Rose Hill Drive is the latest in a series of changes that has some in the neighborhood concerned they will be squeezed out by Charlottesville’s housing boom.

“Most of the people in this neighborhood who are homeowners are my age or older,” said Evelyn Yancey Jones, 71, whose two-story home at 629 Rose Hill Drive has been in her family for nearly 100 years.

“The seniors are struggling, so they don’t have any means to put the brakes on,” she said.

Directly behind Jones’ home is an unfinished three-story structure at 624 Booker St. that will be the subject of a rezoning hearing before the city’s Planning Commission on June 14.

While the building’s size complies with zoning, the anticipated use as a three-unit apartment does not.

“The rezoning is not any more complicated than a way to get this building finished, which I thought would be in everybody’s interest,” said Richard Spurzem of Neighborhood Properties. “The prior builder and developer is the one that sort of skirted the rules and was trying to develop this thing as a multi-unit building in an R-1 district.”

The previous owners, Timothy Nissen and Sheldon Cohn, bought the property and a lot next door in October 2012 and subsequently demolished a two-story house built in 1920. The city issued a building permit for the new structure in August 2013.

“It’s clear that the original owner intended to build this and it only made financial sense if it was going to be divided into three separate apartments,” said Scott Wiley, one of Jones’ neighbors. “Each floor has 2,300 square feet, which is huge.”

However, construction on the project stalled last year and Neighborhood Investments, Spurzem’s limited liability company, purchased the property, as well as 626 Booker St., in November for $750,000.

The company also bought four other properties in the area, including two houses on Rose Hill Drive. Those structures were demolished earlier this year, leaving two vacant lots in a neighborhood that has no historic protections under city code.

“This first block of Rose Hill serves as a gateway to a century-old African-American community, to the Rose Hill neighborhood and consists of buildings with long and interesting histories,” said Jean Hiatt, president of Preservation Piedmont. “The loss of these two homes is very unfortunate and sad.”

Spurzem said he doesn’t have plans for the properties beyond the rezoning for 624 Booker, but said the demolitions were for public safety reasons.

“All of the houses were in very poor condition and could not be saved and were uninhabitable,” Spurzem said. “We had squatters living in one of the houses over the winter who easily could have set the thing on fire.”

Hiatt said the neighborhood was one of the only places in the early 20th century where African-Americans like Jones’ family were able to own their homes.

“The family has been here for over a hundred years and the same was true for the property next door,” Jones said. Her brother owned that house next door but sold it to Neighborhood Investments late last year for $150,000.

Jones said her brother should have gotten more money for the property because it is zoned for B-3 and is in a prominent business corridor. Her house is across the street from the MarieBette Café and Bakery.

“I have been pressured to sell and I sent a message back that the answer was no,” Jones said, adding that she would consider an offer for the commercial value of the land.

“At this point, I don’t have any intention of changing my mind,” she said.

Jones and Wiley are doing what they can to raise awareness of how their neighborhood is changing.

“Some of the people who are owners have lived here all their lives and they don’t want to sell,” Wiley said. “It destroys the community when that happens. The other thing that happens is that some of these are rental properties so you’d be taking away affordable rental property.”

Jones lived in Charlottesville during the time when houses on Vinegar Hill were torn down in the name of urban renewal.

“Some sections of the Vinegar Hill area had houses that were well-maintained and some of them were really in disrepair,” Jones said. “Most of them were owned by the people who lived there and they were working-class people who worked primarily for the [University of Virginia].”

Spurzem acknowledges the concerns of the neighborhood but said he is working within the city’s Comprehensive Plan, which supports construction of new homes that encourage walkability.

“The Comprehensive Plan was adopted by the City Council after consultation with the Planning Commission and gets looked at and reviewed every five years,” Spurzem said. “That’s supposed to be the roadmap for what a neighborhood is supposed to look like, so if the neighborhood wants to see something else happen, then they should be working with the city.”

Meanwhile, the public hearing for 624 Booker St. is coming up.

“On June 14, I’m going for what I think is a very simply proposal, which is to try to finish up this building that’s a towering eyesore over the community and have it turn it into something productive and something that adds to the city tax rolls,” Spurzem said.

Wiley said he is hoping the Planning Commission recommends denial and that the City Council follows suit.

“It sets a precedent that people can do things with the assumption that the city will either bail them out or one LLC can build it, sell it to another and then the city will bail the second out,” Wiley said.

If the rezoning is approved, Spurzem said he will charge market rate for the rental units.

“People want to be in town and closer,” Spurzem said. “I’m not an urban planner and I’m not one to say if that’s good or bad.”

Jones said she wants city officials to look at more than just economics when making decisions about the future.

“The city at some point needs to declare what they want this [place] to look like,” Jones said. “Is it a city for the people or a city for the university? If it’s a city for the people, then what do we do to provide for the people? We have people who work multiple jobs and the prospect of them ever owning a home is zero to none.”

Spurzem said he’s investing more than $1 million into finishing the project and he knows he’s taking a risk.

“If they don’t think my plan is good for the neighborhood or good for the city, I guess they won’t approve it and I’ll be stuck with whatever I can do by-right,” he said.
 

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