Fifeville needs a grocery store.
If there was one thing Planning Commission chair Lyle Solla-Yates learned from an official city plan for the neighborhood’s future, that was it.
It could happen in the next few years.
A proposal discussed during last week’s Charlottesville Planning Commission meeting puts a supermarket — and a new apartment building — at 501 Cherry Avenue on the table.
If it happens, it could give Fifeville residents some of the things they’ve long asked for: A grocery store and other amenities such as a thrift store and a community space for kids and teens.
However, city officials worry that the housing component of the proposal doesn’t address residents’ fears of continued gentrification and being priced out of their neighborhood.
The property at 501 Cherry Avenue, located in the heart of Fifeville and across from Tonsler Park, has been empty for about four years. Weeds pop through cracks in the parking lot’s asphalt, and the site’s one-story brick building, built in 1954, is starting to sag. It’s a husk of the vibrant community mainstay it once was.
For generations, Estes IGA Foodliner operated in the one-story brick building on the site. Fifeville residents not only shopped at the store, but worked there too. Lifelong resident Dorenda Johnson remembers the owner, Joe Hale, as “a jewel to this community. If you didn’t have enough money to pay for your groceries, Joe would let you get your groceries. He would hold your ticket for you and say, ‘You can just come back and pay on it when you can.’ People did that. I myself did that.”
Estes IGA closed in 2002, and Kim’s Market, which occupied the building after, shut down around four years ago. .Woodard Properties bought 501 Cherry Ave. for $3.5 million in August 2022. The company owns quite a bit of land in the neighborhood, including all of the land behind Tonsler Park, under the newly restored Fifeville Trail.
Woodard wants to add a second story to the old IGA building and construct a new building next to it with commercial space and 87 to 110 apartments.
A grocery store would go in that old IGA space, and The Music Resource Center, a nonprofit after school program that teaches music, dance, voice, and music production to local kids, would go above it. The Music Resource Center is running out of time on its current lease on Ridge Street and needs a new space soon. Twice is Nice, a thrift store where proceeds benefit local seniors in need, would go into the ground floor retail space in the new building. Both The Music Resource Center and Twice is Nice would buy their spaces from Woodard for a below market price.
Woodard doesn’t have anyone signed up for the grocery store yet. That worries City Councilor Michael Payne. “We should keep in mind that there are no guarantees of a grocery store there, and the economics of making a grocery store work are extremely difficult. It’s probably likely that in order to make the economics work, you’re going to get a much smaller, boutique grocery store,” he said during the meeting. And that kind of store could be unaffordable to many of the residents in the historically lower-income neighborhood.
Still, Planning Commissioners and City Councilors were excited to hear about the possibility of a grocery store and permanent space for two community-based nonprofits. “We’ve got to find a way to make it happen,” said Mayor Lloyd Snook.
But they also have reservations about the housing piece. Woodard would make five of the building’s units affordable to households earning 60% AMI or below for six years.
“That’s way over on the skim milk side,” said commissioner Phil D’Oronzio.
Especially because the city is currently rewriting its zoning code to require developers to offer more low-cost units in their new builds. If approved, this project would likely be one of the last allowed under the current zoning code.
We hope the city and the community understand that at this site, a developer could build a by-right project with 47 luxury residential units and market rate commercial space with no affordable housing, no affordable commercial space for nonprofits, no public input, no community engagement, no grocery store, no planning commission involvement and no approval needed from City Council.—Chris Virgilio, director of development for Woodard Properties
Commissioner Rory Stolzenberg said that under the draft zoning ordinance, this project would need to provide at least 12 units affordable at 60% AMI for 99 years.
“They’re very obviously not providing the affordable housing we want,” though they are offering desirable amenities, said Commissioner Carl Schwarz. “I think this is a trade we’re discussing,” he said.
“What the neighborhood was crying out for, even more than a second hand clothing store, was affordable housing,” said Payne. Under the current proposal, it seems likely that the neighborhood will get these great amenities just in time for people to be priced out, he said.
Woodard Properties is already talking with a local nonprofit affordable housing provider about how to increase the number of affordable units while still making the project economically viable for the business, Chris Virgilio, their director of development, wrote in an email to Charlottesville Tomorrow.
“However, if that does not materialize, we may need to move forward with the affordable housing offered,” Virgilio wrote.
“We hope the city and the community understand that at this site, a developer could build a by-right project with 47 luxury residential units and market rate commercial space with no affordable housing, no affordable commercial space for nonprofits, no public input, no community engagement, no grocery store, no planning commission involvement and no approval needed from City Council,” Virgilio wrote. “However, we are trying to be part of the solution to neighborhood goals and objectives.”
Woodard Properties’ proposal is before the Planning Commission and City Council because it is requesting a zoning change as well as a special use permit for its current design. A grocery store is not allowed under the current zoning.
During the meeting, Virgilio and Kelsey Schlein, project manager and land planner with Woodard’s project partner Shimp Engineering, said that they have been in touch with some neighborhood groups, including the Fifeville Neighborhood Association.
Councilor Brian Pinkston asked if there was a neighborhood association representative in the room who could speak to that. Sarah Malpass, Fifeville Neighborhood Association secretary, said yes, they had all been in touch.
The neighborhood association already has a relationship with Woodard Properties — the two groups collaborated on the Fifeville Trail revitalization with the neighborhood association leading the charge. Reopening the trail was a long-held goal for the neighborhood.
Residents are excited to see other goals come within reach, too, Malpass said during the meeting.
The proposal won’t come before the Planning Commission and Council again for at least a few months, said Matt Alfele, a planner with Charlottesville’s Neighborhood Development Services. Before that, Woodard will consider the commissioners’ and councilors’ comments. It will also be taking meetings with Fifeville residents and the neighborhood association.
“We are looking forward to seeing what comes out of the conversations moving forward on the affordable housing piece and others,” said Malpass.