Fry’s Spring is a mostly residential neighborhood that once had an electric streetcar and an amusement park
Every time a rumor circulates around the Fry’s Spring neighborhood, Lorie Craddock hears about it.
Her customers at Atlas Coffee Shop on Fontaine Avenue asked for black coffees, oat milk lattes and slices of banana bread — and also for information about the neighborhood: “Is UVA really buying the beach club?” (no); “When will the Jefferson Park Avenue bridge be done?” (2012); or “Is the city bringing back the streetcar?” (unlikely).
Craddock has lived in the neighborhood since 1993 and owned Atlas Coffee for 11 years before selling it in 2021. But people still stop her while she’s walking one of her family’s dogs or feeding one of their many foster cats, to talk about the latest — a longtime neighbor who recently passed away, or their sticker shock over the sale prices of a house on their block.
Fry’s Spring is a mostly residential neighborhood in the southwest corner of the city. Its borders touch the Jefferson Park Avenue, Fifeville and Ridge Street neighborhoods, as well as Albemarle County. Parts of the neighborhood are very close to the University of Virginia campus.
The neighborhood takes its name from two sources: James Francis Fry and, yes, two actual, still flowing springs.
Fry built a sprawling plantation estate, Azalea Hall, in the area in the early- to mid-19th century. Azalea Hall featured a large mansion, fruit orchards, vegetable gardens, tobacco fields and two cemeteries: one for Fry family members and another for the people the family enslaved.
By the 1890s, the two mineral springs near the estate had become a tourist attraction. The water reportedly had healing properties so people from Central Virginia traveled to the springs to drink from them. A copy of a handbill from the era hangs in the lobby of the Fry’s Spring Beach Club, reading, “If you are suffering from Gall Stones, Rheumatism, Kidney or Bladder trouble, or general disability, try drinking the water from Fry’s Spring for a week or ten days and note improvement. It has helped others; it will help you, it being the third strongest of its nature in the world.”
S. Price Maury, a Texan with family in the area, bought more than 100 acres of property near the springs. He opened a hotel there in 1892, one year after installing an electric streetcar that linked his hotel to Downtown Charlottesville, according to a Virginia Department of Historic Resources historical survey of the neighborhood.
The streetcar ran along what is now Jefferson Park Avenue Extended (called Fry’s Spring Road at the time), parallel to a road for horses and buggies. The road is still divided, its wide, grassy median now an arboretum lined with trees.
Around the same time, at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century, Fry’s plantation was divided up and parcels were sold piece by piece. Some wealthy white families built vacation homes in the mostly wooded area so that they could relax close to the springs. This was yet another area of the city that used racial covenants to legally prohibit the sale of property to Black people.
An amusement park, Wonderland, opened in the area in 1907, according to the VDHR report and other sources. Wonderland boasted balloon ascensions, a merry-go-round, skating rink, live menagerie and theatrical performances. It was also short-lived.
In the archives: The back and forth of zoning in Fry’s Spring
The majority of that development happened between the 1890s and the 1960s, and in 1963 Charlottesville city annexed a big chunk of the neighborhood from Albemarle County. They took up land around the hotel and the Fry’s Spring Beach Club, a private pool near the springs. The hotel burned down in 1910, according to the VDHR survey, but the club is still active today. Annual membership fees range from $460 for an individual to $1,128 for a family, and there’s an additional fee to join the waitlist.
By the time Craddock moved to the neighborhood in 1993, UVA students were living in many of the small mid-century ranch-style homes, or in some of the older houses that had been divided up into apartments.
Fry’s Spring used to have more students, said Matt Alfele, a planner with Charlottesville’s Neighborhood Development Services. “There were a lot of duplexes, triplexes, in Fry’s Spring, and that’s what people were complaining about: that there weren’t families living here, there were students.”
But in the 2000s, the city amended its zoning code to allow more large apartment buildings on West Main Street, an attempt “to draw students out of the low-density residential neighborhoods,” said Alfele. It worked. As more and more students moved into the apartment buildings on West Main and on Jefferson Park Ave., many of the houses in Fry’s Spring that had been converted into apartments, were turned back into single-family homes.
Over the past decade, the portion of homeowners in the neighborhood has increased slightly. About 3,100 people live in Fry’s Spring. More than 57% of the neighborhood’s households were occupied by owners rather than renters in 2021, up from about 53% in 2013. (This is higher than the city overall, which in 2021 was 41% owner-occupied.)
Still, the neighborhood is quite young. For the past decade, about half of the overall population has been between ages 20 and 39. Children and adolescents (up to19 years old) make up about a fifth of the residents. Overall, 61% of Fry’s Spring residents are under 40 in 2021, according to census data. (As a whole, the 63% of Charlottesville — including students — is under 40 years old).
One of the most striking changes in the neighborhood, according to census data, is how much money people in Fry’s Spring are making. Median household income in the neighborhood rose from $56,000 (about $66,000 adjusted for inflation) in 2013 to $83,000 in 2021.
Median household income isn’t the only indicator of Fry’s Spring’s growing wealth. In 2013, about 10% of the neighborhood’s households had an income of $100,000 or more, but by 2021, 42% were in that income bracket.
On the other end of the scale, over the past decade, the percentage of households earning less than $40,000 annually fell from 32% to 13%. (Whether this is tied to students or other lower-income residents leaving the area, or the building of the half-million dollar homes in the Huntley development, is hard to say.)
Many of the shifts in Fry’s Spring — like population by race, median property sale price, home vacancy rates and more — track with overall city trends.
Most of the changes in Fry’s Spring in the last decade have been visually subtle. This is, said Alfele, in part because Fry’s Spring is a mostly residential neighborhood — the Willoughby Square Shopping Center, which includes a CVS Pharmacy and a Food Lion supermarket, is the exception. Many of the large, old single-family houses were converted into apartments and then back again with nary a change to the exterior.
But a lot has changed around Fry’s Spring, particularly where the neighborhood meets Albemarle County. Apartment complexes like Jefferson Ridge, Cavalier Crossing and Eagles Landing were built just outside the city limits, as have the Redfields community and other planned developments, in the last few decades.
As for newer builds in the neighborhood, the Huntley development, with its colorful, spacious single-family homes, opened just a few years ago but had been in the works since 2007. They’re nice homes, said Craddock, but they’re expensive. The same can be said for the new builds on and around Porter Avenue.
The neighborhood is more desirable than it was 30 years ago, said Craddock, perhaps because of its proximity to UVA, the city’s largest employer. Or maybe it’s because word has spread about the neighborhood’s abundant old trees, or the overall walkability. Maybe it’s because Fry’s Spring is a very neighborly place, where families stay for many years and get to know one another, she said.
Between pulling espresso shots and baking muffins at Atlas Coffee, Craddock heard a lot of anxiety among people who understand the need for more housing, and cheaper housing. Yet, many of the same people worry about the possibility of apartment buildings that might attract students back into the neighborhood.
“What most residents want is for new residents to have a similar experience to their own,” said Craddock. “They move into a neighborhood, they like it, they stay, they want to become part of the neighborhood. I don’t think anyone is saying, ‘No change, no development ever,’ but the threat of cookie-cutter townhouses and condos puts everyone in a bad mood.”
It’s true that there are some large parcels of land in Fry’s Spring that seem attractive to developers upon first glance, said Alfele. But most of them present major hurdles — like hills and slopes — to building housing. For instance, a ravine off of Azalea Drive was platted in the early 20th century, and though developers keep looking to build on it, they never do. (That’s not what happened in hilly Belmont, though, Alfele noted.)
A few decades ago, changes to the city’s zoning ordinance made it difficult for anything but single-family detached homes to go up in Fry’s Spring. But with rezoning in the wings, and the changing needs of a growing city, that could change. It’s already starting to shift; a new apartment building with more than 150 units is slated for Stribling Avenue, close to the university side of the neighborhood.
“Now the pendulum has swung back,” said Alfele. “We’re seeing policy and decision-makers wanting to see more of a mixed type of housing.”