Martha Jefferson’s Steve Bowers

The Martha Jefferson Hospital expects to move to a new location on Route 250 in Albemarle County by the year 2012. Before then, the hospital hopes to work with the City and surrounding neighborhoods to find a single business partner to redevelop the current nine-acre downtown campus.

“This is a once in a generation opportunity,” says Steve Bowers, the hospital’s spokesman and the man coordinating the hospital’s efforts to shepherd the site of its soon-to-be-former home.

Bowers gave an update to the Martha Jefferson Neighborhood Association at its meeting on January 31, 2008.  About three dozen people took seats in the hospital’s Education Center to hear Bowers share information about Martha Jefferson’s plans. At the moment, the only thing that is certain is that the hospital is moving.  Issues up in the air include determining the future uses at the site, the amount of demolition needed to support redevelopment, and the hospital’s role in a development deal.

Bowers began his presentation by saying the main goal for the site is to “optimize” redevelopment, and pledged to the neighborhood that the site will not go to the highest bidder. Bowers said there will be no rush to find a new tenant, and that a patient approach will benefit the whole community. Bowers said the meeting presented an opportunity for the hospital to rekindle a spirit of collaboration with the neighborhood. He told the crowd that their needs would come first.

However, Bowers said the hospital needs the site to be “in transition” by 2012, when all hospital operations are scheduled to be transferred to the Pantops campus.  Bowers told the crowd the process will be affected by the possibility of recession, the credit crunch, and a declining housing market. On the other hand, he said national trends are towards infill redevelopment, and that downtown living has become more popular.
The next step in the process will be the release of a market and demand report from the firm Economic Research Associates . They’ve spent the past nine months evaluating various redevelopment scenarios and their report is due in mid-February.

Bowers gave a few hints at what is in the report. He said one early indication is that an aging national population has created a high demand for “walkable” communities. With the downtown mall only a few blocks away, the current campus could satisfy that demand. With retail elements such as a grocery store, Bowers said a new community built on the footprint of Martha Jefferson could help the City compete with similar mixed used developments such as Biscuit Run or North Pointe .

Bowers said the report will also evaluate the site’s potential use for a hotel/condominium complex geared towards UVa alumni. In these facilities, owners purchase a room they can use during their trips back home that is used as a hotel room the rest of the year. They are becoming increasingly popular in communities with large universities. Bowers said the University of Virginia Health System has not yet expressed any interest in using the existing hospital facility.

Bowers said the ERA report has ruled out converting the campus to a research and development park. He said that “wet-labs” would use as much water if not more as the hospital. The report does acknowledge a demand for office space, though Bowers that did not necessarily mean an office park.

About three dozen people attended the meeting

An audience member asked if retirement communities were being considered as a redevelopment partner, because he and his wife would like the option to stay nearby. He pointed out that the hospital is already equipped with the right size rooms. Bowers said that the hospital structure could remain, but that the power plant and related issues might make reusing the hospital less financially feasible. He said another obstacle to using the existing structure is that it does not get much light.

“There are very few uses for a building without light,” he said. He also said the existing power plant would need to be replaced, and that would be very expensive.

After the ERA report comes out, the hospital will discuss the possibility with potential partners. Bowers said the field of suitors would be narrowed down by the summer.

Bowers said the hospital’s first preference is to find a single partner who will take on the redevelopment of the whole site. He said that would be the simplest way to make a deal, and ensure that any necessary infrastructure upgrades at the site would be implemented. “We don’t want a cherry picker,” he said. Bowers said the hospital wanted to partner with someone with a national track record.

Bowers gave the community several assurances. First, no one will be displaced as part of the redevelopment process. Second, the redeveloped campus would accommodate the City’s desire for growth while accommodating the neighborhood’s desire to stay intact. As a sign to show the hospital’s commitment to this principle, Bowers said five houses on Locust Avenue would be preserved. “If we keep something downtown, this might be a place to do it,” he said. The houses are currently used by the hospital in a variety of support capacities, and City Councilor David Brown stood at the meeting to say he would support down-zoning so they can be used as residences once more.

Another audience member asked what would happen if a suitor wasn’t found by 2012. Bowers said he didn’t want to see the hospital end up as an empty hulk, but that demolition would not be the hospital’s call. The hospital may or may not end up as an equity partner in the redevelopment project, but that would depend on the structure of the deal. While there have been no firm offers, Bowers said his office has had a handful of meetings with interested parties.

The process of how that partner will be determined has not been finalized, but Bowers said whoever is selected must have a commitment to becoming part of the neighborhood. He pointed to the recent decision by the Jefferson Scholars Foundation to demolish a house near the University to make way for their new headquarters. “That’s what we’re trying to avoid,” he said.

“The redevelopment partner will be making a bet on the future of downtown,” Bowers said.

Sean Tubbs