The 50-by-120 foot lots of Belmont became a template for the rest of the city
Charlottesville city planner Brian Haluska chuckles when he thinks about the original 1891 plat for the Belmont subdivision.
“This is what happens when someone gets out the ruler,” he said. Belmont started as a grid, divided into 50-foot-wide increments to sell off without much regard for the neighborhood’s terrain — least of all its roller coaster hills.
About 150 years earlier, the area of the city now known as Belmont, or Belmont-Carlton, was part of a 2,500 acre plantation owned by John Harvey, who had connections to Thomas Jefferson’s father. Around 1820, another owner of the property built a mansion dubbed Belle Mont, or “beautiful mountain.” The house still stands, at 759 Belmont Avenue, and contains multiple apartment homes. By the 1840s, the property was the site of a working horse stock farm.
Some claim that the 1891 purchase and subdivision of the land by the Belmont Land Co. makes it one of the earliest subdivisions in the country. Haluska has heard that too, but he hasn’t seen hard proof.
However, Haluska is sure that the original grid helps tell a story not just about the neighborhood, but about Charlottesville as a whole. Belmont’s 50-by-120 foot lots became the template for future subdivisions, including how far a residential building must be from the road.
“That’s where our road frontage requirement comes from: the Belmont subdivision,” Haluska said.
Its proximity to the James River, Scottsville and Richmond had made Belmont an attractive place for traders and merchants, and later for workers at both the Woolen Mill and the Ix & Sons textile factory. It was also a popular spot among people working for the growing C&O Railroad through the late 19th and well into the 20th centuries. By the 1940s, the city had gradually annexed more and more land around Belmont.
A majority white working-class and poor neighborhood, Belmont was close-knit and, according to residents, neglected by the city. That started to change in the 1980s, by the accounts in “From Porch Swings to Patios” oral history project. The city started to work with residents to improve sidewalks, sewage drains and other crucial infrastructure.
Like many of Charlottesville’s neighborhoods, Belmont was also segregated. In researching the city’s history of racially-restrictive covenants for the Mapping Cville project, Jordy Yager has come across a few rules on deeds that only allowed white buyers in Belmont, including some on Graves Street and a couple near Belmont Park. Though Black families lived — and continue to live — in the Hogwaller section of the neighborhood and in the areas near Elliott Ave. and Sixth Street, Belmont long had the reputation of being generally unfriendly to Black people.
Belmont’s less-than-savory image persisted for a while, long after some major shifts were already Haluska first started working for the city in 2004, people would joke about Belmont’s reputation as an unsafe, unwelcoming neighborhood. Haluska would hear things like, “Oh, the reporters are down there doing a live shot for the 11 o’clock news, down in Belmont, dodging the bullets,” But those jokes were stale: By that point, reporters were more likely to dodge people with pricey cocktails than bullets, he said.
Belmont is unique among other neighborhoods in town in that it has its own downtown area. In the last 15 years, restaurants like Mas Tapas, The Local and Tavola were opened in downtown Belmont, making the area more attractive to wealthier people. Other restaurants have come and gone there, and in recent years, the bodega-esque Belmont Market on Hinton Ave. closed and the building was sold. Currently, it’s empty.
“You get enough good coffee and nice dinners, and tapas, and it all lights the rocket, so to speak,” said Haluska. “The housing stock was there; the housing stock was not really expensive at the time.”
At the same time, subprime mortgage lending in the early 2000s encouraged buyers to flip houses, buying them on easy-to-get loans, renovating and waiting for the prices to rise before selling.
“People were kind of shocked when they started seeing houses selling for like, $300,000, $400,000,” said Haluska. There are some blocks in the northern part of the neighborhood where the median home price is now much higher than that.
But once that downtown Belmont housing stock had been flipped, buyers started looking to Starr Hill, Fifeville and 10th and Page — Charlottesville’s historically Black neighborhoods — for similar opportunities. Haluska wonders if Belmont has once again set the table for how Charlottesville might evolve.
Still, Belmont is more than its downtown area, and other parts of the neighborhood have evolved at a different pace. New builds are scattered among older single-family homes of a variety of sizes. Large multi-story homes with grand porches built at the turn of the 20th century mingle with smaller single-story tract housing and bungalows built a few decades later. A number of the larger buildings have been divided into multiple rental units, and a number of the smaller homes have been expanded. Some folks are building cottages, to use as accessory dwelling units (ADUs), in their backyards.
Belmont is also home to some of the city’s more affordable housing. Apartment buildings like Piedmont Housing Alliance’s Carlton Views, which opened in 2017, and Habitat for Humanity’s multi-family Sunrise Park development, are just two of the neighborhood’s communities reserved for low-income households. The city’s two remaining mobile home communities, Mountain View Mobile Home Court on Sixth Street and Carlton Mobile Home Park on Carlton Road, are in the east and west corners of Belmont. Mobile and manufactured homes are some of the last remaining types of unsubsidized affordable housing not just in the area, but the country.
A number of businesses, including a wide variety of restaurants, a few shops, car mechanics, warehouses, an arcade, hair salons, and more call Belmont home. Brown’s, a gas station on Avon St., is famous for its fried chicken — and for its “free piece of chicken with fill-up” offer advertised on every gas pump. The B&R Market, a convenience store on Avon, is a quick place to stop for a snack or a soda, and there’s La Guadalupana Latino Market in Kathy’s Shopping Center on Carlton, which offers groceries as well as tacos, sopes, arepas, and more. The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative, on Monticello Ave., has held art and music events since the early 2000s — but like all things, that will soon change. The building has been sold and the organization is looking for a new home.
About half of Belmont households made under $35,000 in 2013. Now less than 25% of households make less than $35,000 annually.
According to Census data, Belmont’s population increased from 3,935 in 2013 to 4,137 in 2020, peaking at 4,500 in 2017. Census data before 2020 are projections, while the 2020 number is the count from the 2020 Census. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted some data collection in the Census and might have caused errors.
“So, if you believe the numbers in the 2020 Census (and there are some reasons why they are somewhat suspect), then the data would suggest that Belmont’s population was not growing as fast as previously assumed,” Haluska said.
About half of Belmont residents rent their homes, while the other half own, which has been fairly consistent year to year.
Overall, the data show that Belmont is among the city’s more economically diverse neighborhoods, and its adult residents work in a range of industries. The age makeup of its residents, from age 0 to over 85, is also quite varied, according to the data.
The racial makeup of the neighborhood hasn’t changed much in the past few years. As of 2020, white people make up about 81% of residents and Black people make up about 16% of residents, not far from the city’s overall racial demographics.
Property sales in this neighborhood make up about a third of all residential sales in the city, with about 320 units sold annually. This is higher than other highly populated neighborhoods, such as Venable where the median sales quantity is under 90 annually.
Median residential property sale prices in Belmont once trailed the city’s median, but in recent years, that gap has closed.