On Roosevelt Brown Boulevard, between West Main Street and Cherry Avenue, sits a vacant trapezoid of land with a sign that says, “For Lease – SoHo Technology Center.”
The sign advertises a luxury office building with a five-story lobby, restaurant space and indoor parking. The sign has stood in the empty lot for several years; the city of Charlottesville approved the site plan for the project in 2016.
Developer Katurah Roell, of Town Properties, is waiting for an anchor tenant before he starts building. He said that investors want to see that someone will lease the property and that these kinds of challenges are why developing takes patience.
“It’s one of the hardest businesses to accomplish because it takes years of planning, lots of staying power,” Roell said.
Roell saw the spot in Charlottesville’s Fifeville neighborhood as ideal for biotech companies and startups. It’s close to the University of Virginia, but the community has little other office space available nearby. Interest from other developers in the street – including UVa itself – have confirmed Roell’s suspicions.
“It’s an up-and-coming area,” he said. “Even though it was on, quote, the south side of the tracks, … it seemed to me to be a natural location.”
Developer Katurah Roell is waiting for an anchor tenant to commit to leasing space in the SoHo Technology Center before he starts building.
Credit: Powe Studio Architects
Many Fifeville residents want to see more investment and activity along Cherry Avenue, but they also worry that new developments will not be for them, will drive up prices in the area and will displace the diverse population living in the neighborhood now.
Fifeville is the only neighborhood in Charlottesville where the percentage of African American residents approximates the levels in Albemarle County at the end of slavery, when 54% of the population was black.
As African Americans lost their voting rights in Virginia and were subjected to racial violence, they began to leave Charlottesville and Albemarle. By 1940, more than 77% of the people living in the region were white.
Now, the only other Charlottesville neighborhood where more than 40% of the population is black is the Ridge Street neighborhood, which also is south of the CSX Railroad tracks.
As cities across the country have reinvested in their downtowns, one in six predominantly black census tracts have found themselves with new, white neighbors with much higher incomes than the neighborhood average. At the same time, real estate in these neighborhoods has become much more valuable.
Fifeville neighborhood leaders hope to guide the development that seems inevitable so it will serve the current community. In 2016, they asked the city to invest in a small area plan for Fifeville. Now in draft form, the Cherry Avenue Small Area Plan was the third such document commissioned by the city.
The draft offers the city a sense of Fifeville’s priorities as it considers where to build sidewalks or how to spend federal housing dollars. And it offers the neighborhood a sense of what tools are available to shape its own future.
“They wanted a plan to get things done. It wasn’t something that needed to be really pie-in-the-sky with a 40-year horizon. It was, ‘What are things that we can get done now?'” said Nick Morrison, a program manager at the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission who helped draft the plan.
With its limited scope, the plan does not entirely resolve the question of whether it is possible to invest in historically black neighborhoods without displacing low-income residents.
Fifeville has relatively low real estate values per square foot compared to West Main Street and the University of Virginia on its northern border. View the live image at https://observablehq.com/@meekohi/charlottesville-city-assessment-data/3?collection=@meekohi/charlottesville-tomorrow
Credit: Michael Holroyd/Charlottesville Tomorrow
Much of the draft Cherry Avenue Small Area Plan has been said before.
Ten plans and studies, including several transportation plans that were citywide or bordered the neighborhood, have preceded it.
The draft plan provides a checklist of 21 recommendations from four plans spanning five decades. Five recommendations had been completed or were ongoing, 10 had not been completed and six were marked “unsure.”
Since 1989, the city has completed the recommendation to plant trees along Cherry Avenue and rezone land next to the tracks to encourage residential rather than industrial uses. The recurring recommendation to balance gentrification and affordability, however, has not been completed.
The incomplete checklists have affected the neighborhood in intangible ways, contributing to a feeling among many residents that the city is not advocating for their interests and a fear that they have no control over the neighborhood’s future.
The TJPDC found that many residents did not see the point of developing the plan and believed that the city had neglected the neighborhood.
The draft Cherry Avenue Small Area Plan provides a checklist of 21 recommendations from four plans spanning five decades.
Credit: Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission
Carmelita Wood, president of the Fifeville Neighborhood Association, said that she hopes that the Cherry Avenue Small Area Plan will manage displacement of neighborhood residents, although, she said, much of it has happened already.
“I feel like African Americans struggle enough just to be able to have a nice place to live, a nice place to raise our kids,” Wood said. “I mean, everybody wants that, but not being able to stay in their homes because they can’t afford it. …”
Wood shook her head and then, for the first time in several meetings, mentioned that she was born in Vinegar Hill, one of Charlottesville’s black neighborhoods and business districts that was demolished as an urban renewal project in 1965.
When Wood first heard that her family was moving into Westhaven, Charlottesville’s first public housing site, she said she initially was excited about the move.
“We were running through the house. There was running water, flushing toilets … we didn’t have those things inside [before],” Wood said.
Wood’s grandfather was able to buy a house on 10½ Street, Wood said. Her mother talked about owning a house but was unable to afford one.
When Wood’s mother died, Wood resolved that she would make her mother’s dream come true. In 1997, she purchased a house on Orangedale Avenue.
More than a decade later, the City Council officially apologized for demolishing Vinegar Hill without adequate inclusion of its residents, who were largely excluded at the time from voting on the referendum to raze the neighborhood.
“When the city was talking about apologizing to the residents, I was like, most of those people are dead and gone, so why wait so late? But, you know, I’m glad they decided to do something,” Wood said.
Carmelita Wood grew up in this house in the Vinegar Hill neighborhood, which was demolished in the 1960s.
Credit: Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society
Charlottesville finds itself at another political crossroads.
There is new energy in City Hall to prioritize affordable housing and address racial inequity, but the three city councilors whose seats are up for election are not running for another term, including small area plan advocate Kathy Galvin.
Charlottesville paid the TJPDC roughly $127,000 to create the Cherry Avenue Small Area Plan. Matching funds from the Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization brought the total budget to almost $135,000.
The TJPDC delivered a draft of the plan to the city in late 2018. Now gathering city and community feedback for a third draft, the TJPDC is approximately $30,000 over budget and paying for the difference.
Once the final draft is complete, responsibility for implementing the plan’s solutions will fall on the city and the neighborhood association.
Morrison said that the TJPDC hopes they are giving the city and the community a framework – with timelines of who is responsible and explanations of where the recommendations came from – to finally implement the small solutions the community has been asking for.
“We really don’t want this plan to be another document with things that don’t get done,” Morrison said.
Are these the right solutions?
View of Orangedale Avenue, facing northeast towards Cherry Avenue
Credit: Skyclad Aerial/Charlottesville Tomorrow
In its draft form, the Cherry Avenue Small Area Plan provides more detail on the investments required to build a beautiful community than how to ensure that current residents will be able to live in the neighborhood long enough to enjoy that beauty.
Recent national studies of gentrification by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota and the New York Times have not found signs of displacement in Fifeville.
However, Fifeville has more cost-burdened renters than any other neighborhood in the city, excluding student neighborhoods.
More than half of renters in Fifeville spend more than they can afford on housing, sinking 30% or more of their monthly income into rent, utilities, and other costs, according to the 2018 housing needs assessment commissioned by the city.
The percentage of renters experiencing these cost burdens is the second highest of any neighborhood in the city, outstripped only by the neighboring Ridge Street census tract.
Fifeville residents conveyed their concerns about affordability to the TJPDC.
In the first public engagement event for the small area plan, residents were most concerned about development encroaching on the neighborhood, followed by traffic, racism and the loss of affordable housing.
Throughout the TJPDC’s extensive engagement process, which involved small meetings on front porches and in homes throughout the neighborhood, residents described similar concerns.
But solutions for structural racism and affordable housing have not gotten as much attention in the draft plan as the first two concerns.
The draft provides 21 pages on development potential in the land use chapter and 17 pages on traffic, transit and trail solutions in the transportation chapter. The housing chapter is only four pages long.
Willow Gale drives the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library Bookmobile around Albemarle County. She said that when she decided to buy a house, she was struggling to find anything within her budget until she found this house in Fifeville three years ago. She joined the Cherry Avenue Small Area Plan Think Tank to get to know her new neighbors.
Credit: Ézé Amos/Charlottesville Tomorrow
TJPDC planners said they were hoping the city would provide more direction on its housing goals and strategies before they finished the draft.
“It’s certainly something we heard a lot about in the community, but it’s hard to start nailing and drilling down for specific affordable housing strategies for a neighborhood,” Morrison said.
The city was on track to update its housing and land use goals last year. The Planning Commission offered the City Council a nearly complete update of its vision document, the Charlottesville Comprehensive Plan, in December.
Then, the city decided in February to hire a consultant to complete the Comprehensive Plan update, write a comprehensive housing strategy and update its zoning ordinances to match the plan and housing strategy.
The city has not issued its request for proposals from potential consultants yet, but officials said that they are close.
In the meantime, the TJPDC is finalizing the small area plan.
In the next few weeks, the TJPDC is holding meetings with representatives from various city departments, Fifeville neighborhood leaders, a Fifeville business owner and a representative from UVa to create the final plan’s list of prioritized recommendations.
After creating a third draft with the prioritized recommendations, the TJPDC plans to go back out into Fifeville with the draft.
Over the course of one to two weeks, the TJPDC would host a satellite office in Fifeville, talk with small groups in their houses and hold open forums. In March, the TJPDC estimated that this phase of engagement would cost roughly $14,000.
Then, the TJPDC plans to revise the plan one final time and hand it to the city’s Neighborhood Development Services department.
The second of three meetings of the small area plan technical committee is scheduled for Tuesday morning and is open to the public.
View of Cherry Avenue, looking west towards the University of Virginia Health System
Credit: Skyclad Aerial/Charlottesville Tomorrow
The Cherry Avenue commercial corridor
The Cherry Avenue Small Area Plan began as plans to build a Marriott hotel on Cherry Avenue became public.
The Fifeville Neighborhood Association meetings are usually small, but news of the hotel swelled attendance. Neighbors asked what would happen to the commercial corridor along Cherry Avenue, who would get jobs at the new hotel and whether they would be able to continue to afford to live in the neighborhood.
“With the hotel, the question in people’s minds was, ‘Is this a harbinger of Cherry Avenue looking like West Main in 10 years?’” neighborhood association secretary Sarah Malpass said.
New buildings on West Main Street tower over Fifeville, the result of city decisions after an agreement with Albemarle and the state’s moratorium made annexing county land no longer an option.
Fifeville residents worried that the Marriott Fairfield Inn and Suites meant Cherry Avenue would start redeveloping to match the scale and target consumers of West Main and existing residents would start getting squeezed out.
“I think it’s very clear if you walk around the businesses that are now on Main Street, most of the new ones are targeting [UVa] students. They’re not affordable or accessible,” Malpass said.
In response to neighborhood concerns, Malpass helped draft a community visioning document that convinced the city to commission a small area plan for the neighborhood.
The Cherry Avenue Corridor Community Visioning report says that a vibrant commercial corridor is important to the neighborhood’s long-term health but it must be diverse, bring together new and long-term neighbors, respect the history of the neighborhood and be affordable to its most low-income residents.
The report identifies the small area plan as a possible next step that would help the neighborhood find the tools that could make that vision happen.
One tool the TJPDC explored extensively in the draft plan is zoning, the local rules that determine what can and cannot be built on each piece of land.
The TJPDC studied 15 sites along the corridor that are likely to redevelop and found that the buildings there now are one-story on average but could be built up to five stories tall. The amount of commercial space could be quadrupled and the number of bedrooms on the sites could increase from 35 to almost 500. However, the number of parking spaces would only increase by 15.
The TJPDC found that many residents do not want such large buildings on their street and already are concerned about traffic and parking.
“There’s kind of a schizophrenic [thing] — we want affordability, but we don’t want density — so then how do you start grappling with that?” said Morrison, the TJPDC planner.
The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission studied 15 sites along the Cherry Avenue corridor that are likely to redevelop and found that the buildings there now are one-story on average but could be built up to five stories tall.
Credit: Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission
The draft plan recommends reconsidering zoning on the corridor, either by establishing a form-based code that ensures that building exteriors look like what neighbors want or by amending existing zoning.
Either process would require additional community engagement, the draft notes, because some residents wanted to decrease building heights and others wanted to increase the heights to increase affordable housing options.
Maurice Cox, a former Charlottesville mayor, advocated for rezoning West Main Street to allow the higher-density, mixed-use corridors now occurring there.
Cox, now the planning director for Detroit, largely is proud of how West Main has turned out.
“We have to remember what that street looked like 20 years ago. It was a derelict, sleepy, very sluggish street.”
However, Cox said that the height and design of buildings like The Flats at West Village have given developments on the street a bad reputation.
Cox said that it was the council’s responsibility to deny The Flats a special use permit in this case.
“I can assure you: It was in no drawing that the buildings would get taller as they moved toward the neighborhood. It’s nonsensical,” Cox said.
Cox, who is now leading a neighborhood revitalization process in Detroit, said that zoning alone would not ensure that redevelopment of Cherry Avenue matches the community’s vision. If the community wants small businesses along the corridor, Cox recommended that the city do a demonstration project with some initial businesses.
“If they just do the zoning, and they don’t do the small business development, they will not get the desired outcome. They have to have both marching simultaneously,” he said.
The Cherry Avenue Small Area Plan offers a list of entrepreneurship training programs and recommends that the city support small, local and minority owned businesses of the types needed on the corridor.
View of Sixth Street and the historic Benjamin Tonsler House, looking west towards the University of Virginia Health System
Credit: Skyclad Aerial/Charlottesville Tomorrow
The TJPDC planners faced a similar density versus affordability conundrum when they turned to the quiet, residential streets beyond Cherry Avenue.
Many long-term residents love the single-family houses on Dice Street and 6½ Street.
Wood, as both long-term resident and neighborhood president, reminded the TJPDC at the first technical committee meeting that preserving single-family houses is important to the neighborhood.
Yet, in urban planning discussions in Charlottesville and across the country, single-family zoning has emerged as a clear villain associated with more expensive and white-only neighborhoods.
“In cities that are landlocked such as Charlottesville, … if you don’t increase density, somebody has got to get the hell out of Dodge,” said William M. Harris Sr., a former city planning commissioner and retired professor of planning.
Harris said he has no faith in small area plans, but he does believe in allowing duplexes and other small multifamily buildings in single-family neighborhoods.
Harris said that he opposed a previous plan for Fifeville as a planning commissioner in 1989. He said that he saw revitalization as targeting the politically weak and that it was part of the same line of policies as urban renewal.
The 1989 Fifeville Neighborhood Three Year Action Plan projected that growth of the UVa Health System could increase development along West Main Street and add parking and housing pressures to Fifeville. It also described Fifeville as one of the last few affordable neighborhoods.
Drawing from a survey of residents, the 1989 plan aimed to avoid homes being turned into rental units, to increase the quality of housing in the neighborhood and to develop housing programs for low- and moderate-income homeowners. The plan included a variety of other goals like increasing off-street parking and establishing a youth program.
Harris did not think that a small area plan would be able to stop displacement even today.
He predicted that the effort to live in mixed-race, mixed-income housing would last five or 10 years. He said that cultural differences between black and white residents would create political pressure to get low-income residents out and that the city would not stand in the way.
Only well-paying jobs would give African Americans the ability to pay for market-level rents and home purchases where they are, Harris said. He did not expect racial wage gaps to close soon in Charlottesville, or perhaps ever.
“Racism is not going to go away in Charlottesville. It’s more than a trigger for public policy and behaviors. It’s the driving force,” Harris said.
The one planning tool Harris offered with some hope was upzoning.
Cities like Minneapolis and Seattle have decided to eliminate or decrease zoning that only allows single-family, detached houses. Charlottesville came close in December to similarly eliminating single-family zoning in its Comprehensive Plan.
Cyndi Richardson and her son, Kelly Richardson, stand in front of their house on Sixth Street Southwest. Cyndi Richardson remembers when the only time she saw white people on her street was when they were lost. Roughly half of the 19 properties on Sixth Street have been sold in the last decade, and almost all of the new owners are white.
Credit: Emily Hays/Charlottesville Tomorrow
The key to upzoning, according to the Charlottesville Low-Income Housing Coalition, is touching the largely white neighborhoods in the city.
“The Cherry Ave. area of Charlottesville stands as one of the last Black neighborhoods in the city. Will we continue to require Black residents of the Cherry Ave area to bear the burden of higher density to address the affordable housing crisis instead of those neighborhoods with a long history of racial exclusion?” Elaine Poon said in a statement on behalf of CLIHC.
“Although we have heard good things about the new approaches to engagement that the Planning Commission undertook in creating the draft small area plan, we have serious concerns about the city implementing anything before enacting a Comprehensive Plan explicitly acknowledging and creating concrete goals to make amends for historical racism in the city,” Poon wrote.
If the city did decide to upzone Fifeville to allow more residential units per building, recent research has shown that upzoning without other investments increases property values without necessarily creating affordable housing.
Malpass said that the neighborhood association knew there was a risk that they would invest time in drafting the plan and undesirable development would happen anyway.
“That’s the fear, right?” Malpass said. “Will the city be able to follow through and guide development proactively, or will it just draw more attention and accelerate the process without bringing any of the guidance that you’re hoping for from the city?”
Will the city be able to follow through and guide development proactively, or will it just draw more attention and accelerate the process without bringing any of the guidance that you're hoping for from the city?
On the other hand, without a small area plan, the city seemed unlikely to prioritize Fifeville’s funding requests.
“This is the challenge with community planning,” said Malpass, who has a master’s degree in urban planning from the UVa. “You need to have a public process that’s current and then you need to get some clear priorities out of that process and move them as quickly as you can into the city’s budget.”
In a recent interview, Mayor Nikuyah Walker said that the city may need to do more itself rather than relying on the private market to revitalize neighborhoods like Fifeville without sacrificing their affordability.
“That’s one of the points I was making during the budgeting process. For this to be truly equitable, the city may have to fund some of this, because the developers are thinking along the lines of development and profit,” Walker said.
Walker spent some of her childhood in a house on 7½ Street in Fifeville. She said that most of the properties were black owned but that few black families live there now.
Walker recalled that the arrival of Southern Development Homes on Cherry Avenue, coupled with the expansion of the UVa Health System, prompted additional fears of displacement.
Walker said that she would like the city to invest in high-quality rehabilitation and homeownership programs and buy property through land banks or land trusts.
“People were fearful that, on top of the UVa expansion on the other end, that just signified that our time here is short lived. People shouldn’t feel like that,” Walker said.
The opposite of displacement is upward mobility, according to Shekinah Mitchell, of the Virginia office of Local Initiatives Support Corp.
As a neighborhood becomes safer and attracts a grocery store where there had been a food desert, the higher prices and economic revitalization could attract higher-income residents and displace long-time, lower-income residents, Mitchell said.
Or, the neighborhood could proactively preserve affordability. In that case, Mitchell said, long-time residents both stay and get to participate in the economic opportunities in their neighborhood.
Mitchell said that there are plenty of examples of individuals achieving economic mobility but few neighborhood success stories.
“I do think we are in the middle of that story being written about gentrification and revitalization in certain Richmond neighborhoods … that are not completely gentrified but are still in that process,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell said that she is hoping Charlottesville will have stories like that, too. Mitchell is involved in the recently-formed New Hill Development Corp. as a LISC representative.
LISC is helping New Hill complete a small area plan for the Starr Hill neighborhood, which is across the CSX Railroad tracks from a portion of Fifeville.
The city decided in November 2018 to contribute $500,000 to New Hill’s planning effort, a financial literacy program and other expenses. Part of that funding goes towards paying community ambassadors to help with New Hill’s engagement effort.
Mitchell said that racial equity is a crucial component of successful revitalization efforts, starting with who outlines the engagement process.
“Sometimes, we assume that white culture is the norm and not something that is attached to a particular group of people,” Mitchell said. “We can organize in ways that we think are open for anybody but … we miss an opportunity to make sure, even with our engagement efforts, that it’s most accessible to people who are indigenous to the neighborhood.”
In Highland Park in Richmond, Mitchell said, nonprofits are handing decision-making power over to residents by hiring residents, creating resident advisory boards and building residents’ power to advocate for themselves.
Mitchell offered the Six Points Innovation Center as an example of this. Previously an empty space among many, 6PIC is now a youth center that focuses on advocacy, arts, career development and healing.
At the same time that young people are learning photography, they are also learning to advocate for policies that will preserve affordability in their neighborhood, Mitchell said.
LISC helped Storefront for Community Design and the other nonprofits involved secure a $125,000 grant to renovate the center.
“What I am excited about seeing in Richmond more and more is that there are black communities saying that we can participate in our own liberation. We do not have to wait for wealthy, white people to get it,” Mitchell said.
‘We want to see something happen’
Nakesha White describes her plans for Royalty Eats in April.
Credit: Ézé Amos/Charlottesville Tomorrow
Nakesha White chose to open her first restaurant, Royalty Eats, on Cherry Avenue because she wants her clients to feel like family.
A graduate of the city’s GO Cook program – also known as chef Antwon Brinson’s “culinary boot camp” – White grew up in Charlottesville on Garrett Street and Hardy Drive, she said. She frequented Fifeville as a child to eat at the Kentucky Fried Chicken by Tonsler Park.
“You just never knew who you was going to see at that KFC,” said White, the business representative on the Cherry Avenue Small Area Plan’s technical committee.
White said that she wants her restaurant to be a similar community hub. She has already planned theme nights at the restaurant, from karaoke to specialty menus like “Taco Tuesday” and “Fish Fry Friday.” She said she wants to keep the restaurant affordable and to provide Wi-Fi particularly for those without internet at home.
Royalty Eats opened at the Cherry Avenue Shopping Center in May. White said that she loved the diversity of ethnicities represented among the business owners and customers in the neighborhood.
In addition, White said that neighbors had already tasted her food through her catering company, Royalty Gourmet Cupcakery Catering and Events, and that she knew they would support her.
White’s love and vision for the neighborhood reflects what many residents expressed during the small area plan process and in interviews with Charlottesville Tomorrow.
Fifeville residents want to retain and develop a sense of community in the neighborhood, and food plays a major role in that process. “KFC” was the most frequently spoken word during the small area plan engagement sessions after “Fifeville.”
“I’m going to be serving the people in my community that I actually grew up with and that knows me,” White said. “The heart of Charlottesville is right here.”
In a city with a long history of racism and many nearly all-white neighborhoods, the Cherry Avenue Small Area Plan is a chance for the city to reinvest in its African American residents and business owners and to safeguard that sense that Fifeville is home.
“We’re still asking for [the improvements requested in earlier plans] now,” said Wood, the Fifeville neighborhood president. “We want to see something happen.”
The next Cherry Avenue Technical Committee meeting is set to run from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Tuesday at 407 E. Water St.
We're reimagining local news in Charlottesville
Reimagine with us
Our free, no-commitment newsletter delivers our latest local only headlines directly to your inbox, ad-free and paywall-free, giving you news on local topics you can use, share, and discuss. You'll also get invitations to Coffee Conversations and other in-person events on topics of local interest where you can interact directly with our journalists, local policy makers, and stakeholders. You care about local news - reimagine it with us.