A proposed apartment building in Scottsville could put a shuttered factory building to use — and nearly double the town’s population.
Echelon Resources, a real estate development firm with buildings in Richmond, South Boston, Vint Hill and Cape Charles, wants to convert Scottsville’s old tire factory at 800 Bird Street into roughly 200 apartments.
Echelon has applied for a rezoning and a special use permit for the project, which it’s calling the Scottsville Lofts. If approved by the Town Council on Monday, the project could grow the small town’s population from fewer than 600 to around 1,000 residents over the next five to seven years.
Some say that the Scottsville Lofts project could secure a bright future for the town through additional people, activity, and revenue.
Others want the town to address existing infrastructure problems before welcoming so many more people.
Still others oppose the idea entirely.
The factory Echelon wants to repurpose once invigorated Scottsville’s economy. Its tax revenue made up 10% of the town’s entire budget, and brought employees from all over the area to the town’s businesses. The building now sits empty, “with increasing blight,” according to a town staff report. Indeed, some of the building’s metal components are rusting and breaking down. Vines rope around the chain link fence and weeds pop through the parking lot asphalt.
The factory was built in 1944 — during World War II — to produce tire cord, the white synthetic textile inside of rubber tires. The Scottsville Lions Club raised money to buy the land, and a federal authority for defense plants built the factory itself. Over the next decades, a few different companies operated the plant: first Uniroyal, then Michelin, and, finally, Hyosung.
The factory employed people from Scottsville and Albemarle, Buckingham, and Fluvanna counties, and sometimes produced in three shifts. It made more than tire cord, though: Factory jobs provided livelihoods for many families in an area without many manufacturing job opportunities. Its social and economic contributions to Scottsville still resonate.
The factory closed in 2009, the result of “a major recession” that “bankrupted several automotive companies and impacted the industry’s supply chain,” according to a town staff report about the proposed apartment building.
Its production had already been in decline. When it closed, it employed just 100 people, down from the 300 it employed at its height. All of them lost their jobs.
Their fates weren’t unique. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, thousands of small towns and cities developed around manufacturing plants across the United States. The factories offered decent-paying jobs, and job security, to people without college degrees, as well as jobs for manufacturing suppliers, merchants, and others who supported day to day life within these communities. In the 1980s, things started to change as American corporations began to outsource production to other countries and the industries began to globalize.
At the turn of the 21st century, two major changes “led to the devastation of many smaller cities and towns,” according to IndustryWeek magazine: China was admitted to the World Trade Organization, and the NAFTA Agreement went into effect. After that, more and more U.S. corporations shut down operations at home and moved them overseas.
Between 2000 and 2018, Virginia lost nearly 136,000 manufacturing jobs, a 36% decrease in the industry, according to the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.
When the factory closed, the Town of Scottsville lost $40,000 in annual revenue from what the factory had paid in utility taxes, which are collected by the utilities and paid out to the town. “That was a major hit,” said Nancy Gill, who served on Scottsville Town Council from 2006 until 2020. “We had to scramble to make the $40,000 up.”
Scottsville’s total budget at the time was $400,000. It’s now about $600,000.
In a financial impact report, Scottsville Town Administrator Matthew Lawless found that Echelon’s lofts project could generate an additional $60,000 in annual revenue for the town. All of that would come from residents going out to eat, shopping at local businesses, and depositing money in local banks. Currently, the biggest revenue sources for the town are restaurants and tourism, said Lawless. Meals tax generates the most revenue, followed by business licenses, bank franchise tax, cigarette tax, sales tax and utility taxes.
The town of Scottsville does not collect real estate tax from property owners, but it could, said Lawless — residents of towns like Blacksburg, Gordonsville and Newmarket pay both town and county real estate taxes. Currently, Scottsville residents pay real estate taxes to Albemarle County, which is used for schools (Scottsville children attend county schools), social and emergency services, county parks, water and sewer and other resources. If Scottsville were to institute a real estate tax, the factory property would be the most valuable one in town: Lawless found that a tax of 10 cents per dollar of property value would increase possible revenue from the lofts project from $60,000 to $110,000.
On a recent afternoon, every resident and business owner Charlottesville Tomorrow asked about the project either groaned, sighed, laughed, or some combination of the three.
Not all Scottsville residents and business owners see eye to eye on the proposed development.
Kimberly Shifflett, a lifelong Scottsville resident who owns Scottsville Supply, a beekeeping supply and gift shop on Valley Street (Route 20), said that she’s neither for nor against the project. What she is for is the town fixing existing problems with its infrastructure before potentially doubling the town’s population, or inviting industry back to the building.
“No matter what happens there, the maintenance in the town needs to be done, and it’s not,” she said, citing full trash and recycling bins on Valley Street that haven’t been emptied.
Shifflett also wants to see various traffic safety issues resolved, including poor visibility for drivers turning out of Bird Street and onto Valley (it’s fine going the opposite way, she said), and a lack of adequate parking signage that often results in people parking in loading zones or blocking fire hydrants. The town needs to fix these things, and the police department needs to enforce the rules, she said.
Sure, it would be great if people who moved into the apartments became patrons of her business and of the others on Valley Street. and throughout the town, but that’s not a guarantee, Shifflett said.
She worries, too, about what such an influx of people would mean for the town’s already-strained emergency response resources, and therefore how well cared for those people would be.
I think we have the coolest little town in America. That said, I think we need to plan for the future. We’ve only seen two decades worth of decline.—Scottsville Town Councilor Dan Gritsko
Other small business owners on Valley Street declined to comment on the record for various reasons, most having to do with not wanting to put their livelihood at risk. One supports the project personally, but is afraid of losing the business of people with the opposite perspective.
“I’m staying out of it,” said another.
A shop employee noted that Scottsville is one of the last places in the greater Charlottesville area that hasn’t yet been touched by big developments, but it’s coming. For sale signs on Route 20 in Albemarle County, just outside of Scottsville, advertise how many lots of a certain acreage could be built on that plot.
One of the few things people seem to be able to agree on is that something is going to happen at the property, and thus within the town, whether the factory becomes housing, industry, or something else.
Someone is going to buy the property from Lower Bird Street LLC (the building’s current owner), and they’re going to want to do something with it, said Town Councilor Dan Gritsko.
About two dozen companies have looked at the site since the factory closed, but the town has had just four serious inquiries.
First, an apple jack distiller looked at it for a production facility, but chose a spot in New Jersey instead.
Next, a local government coalition considered it for an indoor gun firing range and police training facility, but ultimately went with a property at Milton Field, a former airfield east of Charlottesville, owned by the University of Virginia since the 1930s.
A medical cannabis company also looked at the old factory building to grow cannabis indoors, but ultimately did not obtain the required cultivation license from the state.
Echelon’s Scottsville Lofts proposal is the most recent, and the company is requesting a rezoning of the factory grounds from heavy industrial and light industrial to commercial, with a special-use permit for multi-family residential. The factory facade would remain, and state and federal tax credits for historic properties “are intended to help finance the project,” according to a town press release about the proposal.
Town staff recommended the project to the Planning Commission, citing more favorable than unfavorable factors. The favorable factors include a history of intensive use on the site; compatibility with both the town’s existing infrastructure and comprehensive plan; the need for different types, and more affordable, workforce housing in the region; and its walkability to Scottsville’s downtown area. Unfavorable factors were possible traffic congestion at the Bird Street-Valley Street intersection, which staff say would be mitigated by traffic studies and sidewalk improvements; and that it would be residential-only instead of mixed use.
Staff also recommended some conditions and proffers for the project that would address the building of sidewalks along Bird Street, affordability of the apartments, and using only native plants in the landscaping, among others.
During its Nov. 7 meeting, the Planning Commission voted to recommend the project to the Town Council, and Town Council held its first reading on the project during its Nov. 21 meeting. A public hearing will be held during the Monday, Dec. 12 Council meeting (register to attend and see the agenda).
After the public hearing, Council could vote on the project that night, or defer the vote for more discussion or study.
There are still a number of unknown factors to the project, including whether construction would be completed all at once or in phases, how much the apartments will rent for, and how quickly the apartments would fill.
There’s also no way of telling how it could affect Scottsville’s culture, said Gill. In her opinion, Scottsville’s most endearing quality is that it’s a friendly and close-knit place where people look out for one another. She wants that to continue.
But fear of the unknown is no reason not to open Scottsville to more residents, people who might really like living there, who might get involved with town government or volunteer organizations, she said.
Gill wants the town that she loves to be there for future generations, and for that, she thinks Scottsville needs to evolve in a youthful direction. The town also needs people, she said.
Years ago, a comprehensive plan called for a population growth up to 1,000 people by 2016 to help keep the town going. But by 2020, Scottsville’s population was 559, according to the U.S. Census. Not even close.
Councilor Gritsko has his gaze cast a couple decades ahead, too. “I think we have the coolest little town in America,” he said. “That said, I think we need to plan for the future. We’ve only seen two decades worth of decline.”
The Scottsville Lofts could be part of that, said Gill.
Shifflett, the beekeeping shop owner, agrees that the town needs to grow, but it’s hard to know at what pace. She pointed out that the Town Council recently approved construction of 36 homes, not far from the factory on Bird Street, and she doesn’t want that growth to go unacknowledged.
“Change does not come easily for many of us,” said Barbara Wilkinson, who worked in the factory in 1970 to pay for her education. “However, the benefit of having watched Scottsville transform many of its historic buildings over time — once they have cycled out of relevance — proves that the town can, in fact, preserve its historic character while enhancing its offerings.”
The former Scottsville School is now home to a few dozen seniors living in one-bedroom apartments managed by Piedmont Housing Alliance. The old drugstore is now a bakery, and the old telephone switching station is now an Airbnb rental. A 19th century tobacco warehouse is now occupied by James River Brewery, and so on.
“Preserving a building that represented economic livelihood for so many, to now provide housing for new Scottsville residents is, actually, a very ‘Scottsville’ thing to do,” Wilkinson said.