Woolen Mills: Preservation and Adaptation

Albemarle County and the city of Charlottesville have been exploring ways to make the Rivanna River corridor an attractive resource, economically and recreationally.

One proposal to transform the historic Woolen Mills buildings into residential and new commercial uses could work into that plan.

“We look forward to the possibility of redeveloping this site, preserving it for future generations and making it a vibrant part of the community again,” said local attorney Pete Caramanis on behalf of developer Brian Roy.

Roy wants to redevelop the 10-acre industrial parcel at 2100 E. Market St. in Albemarle County as a mixed-use project. The site is part of the Woolen Mills Village Historic District, which was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010.

The Charlottesville Woolen Mills made textiles and uniforms during its operations from the 1870s to 1962. The 20th-century mill buildings along a bend in Moores Creek were used most recently as a hub and for storage for a moving company.

Roy said he is committed to using historic tax credits, which mandate maintaining the integrity of the existing structures.

Appearing before Albemarle’s Planning Commission recently, Roy discussed how Woolen Mills is an untapped gateway to engage the Rivanna River and Moores Creek.

“This project is prevalent in cities across the state where these types of buildings have been turned into housing along a river,” he said.

Community member Roger Schickedantz said he supports the project because it is a good mix of history and new development.

“People could live and work in the same place,” he said. “That would take away congestion from the rest of the county.”

Roy said he wants to open the eastern portion of property at the end of Market Street for the public or for businesses centered on the river.

A bridge across Moores Creek to connect the Rivanna Trail also is in the site plan.

Roy said the bridge also could be used for looking back at the retaining wall from the original mill dating to the late 1800s, a seldom-seen piece of local history.

Roy said the project comes with some significant challenges.

One major barrier is that the current floodplain of the Rivanna extends through parts of the building site.

Roy said he is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to update the floodplain boundary.

“The floodplain is likely four feet lower, which takes it off the first floor of the building,” he said.

Roy said another challenge is balancing the mix of uses such that residential remains outside the floodplain and is secondary to commercial or industrial uses. With several buildings on site, he plans to reuse four of them and to build a new one.

“I propose building a new building would be more in line of what light-industrial user might like on the western side of property,” Roy said. “It could be a two-story structure for offices and industrial use with plenty of parking, as well.”

Broadway Street will serve as the primary access point to lessen traffic on Market Street.

Roy said the new building could allow for up-to-date parking and loading docks that would support a light-industrial business.

Planning Commissioner Karen Firehock asked whether, given the environmentally sensitive location near the river, Roy would consider looking into permeable pavement and a low-impact development approach.

“I’d love to see this as an example of a green development,” she said.

Commissioner Richard Randolph said he was not sold on the specific use for the project as primarily industrial as no businesses have come forward to use the existing space.

Susan Stimart, Albemarle County’s economic development facilitator, said there has been previous interest from businesses.

“There have been several of our target industries interested in the space, but because of current conditions they have been reluctant to move forward,” Stimart said.

There is also the proximity of the Moores Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant and its longtime odor issues. Caramanis said he thinks that will not be an issue because work is planned to solve the problem.

In January, the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority decided to initiate a $9.3 million odor-control project at the facility.

Randolph said the development has some clear recreational benefits to the county, but he was opposed to the staff’s proposal to limit residential use to less than 50 percent of the project.

“I would like to see us have some discussion about what is appropriate for the building,” he said. “I think the county wants as much light-industrial-flex as possible but the existing building may not be suitable for that.”

Commissioner Julia Monteith said that in the city context, Woolen Mills is primarily a residential community now, despite being used for manufacturing in the past.

“If you think of light-industrial use, that could be appropriate or very inappropriate depending on the component of the business using the space,” she said.

The commission recommended approval of a Comprehensive Plan amendment that would change the property’s zoning from light-industrial to office/R&D/flex/light-industrial with related commercial and residential uses.

It also recommended the Board of Supervisors consider an increased amount of residential use.

Credit: Ryan M. Kelly, The Daily Progress