Hotel city: When will Charlottesville get 'roomier'?

On a crisp, bright day in March 2008, a suave-looking guy with long hair and a tailored light-grey suit (no tie) told us at a ground-breaking ceremony that a stylish, luxury "boutique" hotel, complete with a roof-top bar and stunning views of of the southeast mountains, would tower over Central Place on the Downtown Mall. What we got, of course, was an ugly tower of grey concrete rising out of the demolished shell of a bank building, an eyesore on our cityscape since 2009 that has the permanence of a metamorphic rock formation.

In June 2012, another suave-looking guy with short hair and a tailored blue suit (no tie) again told us that the abandoned tower would indeed become a luxury hotel, as soon as he finished a similar hotel in Charleston, South Carolina. Around the same time we were also told by a West Virginia developer that a seven-story Marriott extended-stay Residence Inn would be rising up at the corner of West Main Street and Ridge/McIntire in the spaces occupied by Random Row Books and City Clay.

The new Marriott appears to be on track, as City Clay, Random Row Books, and the other businesses on the property have left the premises, but you'll have to excuse us if we remain a bit skeptical. 

However, according to the state tourism board, there is a shortage of hotel rooms in Charlottesville, while demand for them has been rising. In the coming years, they say, based on the many accolades and "best places" designations bestowed upon us, people – lots of them – will be coming. Maybe these hotel developers know something we don't.

The giant on Ridge-McIntire

The seven-story hotel that will transform the corner of West Main Street and Ridge-McIntire came closer to becoming a reality last month, as both Charlottesville City Council and the Board of Architectural Review (BAR) approved a few small details that had delayed progress. According to the site engineer for the project, Clark Gathright of Daggett & Grigg Architects, the developer hopes to request building permits in mid-August and begin demolition/construction in the fall.

Among those small, delay-causing details: rerouting several water and sewer lines on the property, which required Council's approval. The work will come at no cost to the City. The BAR, which previously had issues with a thick and continuous cornice running along the facade facing Main Street, gave final design approval last week, as well.

The 124-room, 118,694-square-foot Marriott extended-stay Residence Inn, courtesy of West Virginia-based developer Charles Wendell of Virginia Inn Management Inc., will be one of the biggest structures ever built in Charlottesville.

As a detailed video animation of the project shows, lower three-story structures with brick facades will front West Main, in keeping with the style of the buildings along the street, while the seven-story hotel structure with its main entrance and most impressive height will be tucked behind them, facing north down the hill on Ridge-McIntire. Other features include an outdoor courtyard facing West Main Street in the middle of the complex with seating and even a modern-looking gas fire-pit, an indoor pool, and a fitness center. There are also 37 open-air parking spaces in the back of the building, plus another 82 spaces in a parking structure under the building.

As previously reported, the City Clay ceramics space on the corner, once the home of RSC Equipment Rental, and before that an auto dealership called Mooney Oldsmobile, along with the nearby building where Random Row Books is located, will all be coming down to make way for the new hotel, something they have known about for some time, as the BAR approved demolition back in 2010.

While property owner Bob Mooney, grandson of the late dealership founder, was busy fielding big development offers over the past few years (one included a CVS pharmacy which didn't pass BAR design muster, and another was a nine-story condo proposal that couldn't get financing), the small businesses there, which have also included a clothing store, a photography studio, and a bakery, enjoyed a downtown location at a fairly reasonable price – a situation made possible by the imminent arrival of a big development project.

Still, some are sad to see those funky local businesses being replaced by a big, corporate hotel chain. 

"I love our new spot; it's actually much better for us," says City Clay owner Randy Bill, who recently moved his business to 700 Harris Street. "But it is very sad to have yet another national chain run out local color, especially on such an important corner. Once again money trumps everything else."

Indeed, money, specifically the borrowed kind, appears to be ushering in a slew of hotels in the next few years. As Esra Calvert, a researcher with the Virginia Tourism Corporation, points out, the improved economy has banks lending again, and Charlottesville is ripe for new places to stay.

"Demand for rooms in Charlottesville is up nearly three percent since 2011," says Calvert, "while supply has stayed flat."

In addition to the West Main hotel project, developers recently broke ground for a new Homewood Suites hotel on India Road where the Seminole movie theater used to be. To be completed next April, the luxury hotel will have 149 "studios" with living areas and kitchens. Across the street, a 137-room Hyatt Place is nearing completion as part of the Stonefield development, and another 137-room hotel, a second Homewood Suites, is going up on Rio Road where Phillips Building Supply used to be.

Even Crozet is getting in on the action, as the Albemarle Board of Supervisors recently voted to create a tourism zone in the area that would make developers eligible for state funding for hotel projects through the Virginia Tourism Development Corporation. Indeed, earlier this year, the developer of The Lodge at Old Trail Village, a senior living complex, presented informal plans to build a 46-room boutique hotel at Old Trail.

The "Dew" does Downtown

And, of course, there's the skeleton of the "Landmark" hotel on the Downtown Mall, which was purchased at auction last June by 48-year-old Atlanta-based developer John Dewberry for $6.25 million. The unfinished hotel is the result of developer Lee Danielson's ill-fated partnership with former Internet tycoon Halsey Minor, whose well-documented financial woes culminated in the CNET founder declaring personal bankruptcy in May. Now its future is in the hands of yet another young, charismatic developer. Dewberry, sometimes referred to as "the Dew" down in Georgia, is a former Georgia Tech football star turned developer and socialite-jet-setter. In 2009, he had a very public and successful battle against prostate cancer. And just a few months after he bought the Landmark, he survived the crash landing of his private jet.

“It would be like driving a car off a 40-foot embankment at 100 miles an hour, then basically hitting the highway and falling off the other side,” he told reporters.

While the Hook could find no records suggesting any current financial hardships, his company, Dewberry Capital, defaulted on an Atlanta hotel called the Hotel Midtown in 2008, and the "Dewberry Hotel" brand, of which the Mall hotel will be part, is a concept in its infancy. As previously reported, Dewberry has said that he will begin on the Charlottesville hotel once a similar project is completed in Charleston, South Carolina.

So, ah, how's that Charleston hotel coming along? Funny you should ask. According to a recent roving Hook reporter's visit to Charleston, it appears the project may not be as far along as we might have hoped. Indeed, as far as lingering eyesores go, Charlottesville's "Landmark" has nothing on Charleston's "Rivers Federal Building," a former federal building commissioned by President John F. Kennedy in the 1960s. The building was abandoned in 1999 after it suffered damage from Hurricane Floyd and was discovered to be asbestos-contaminated.

Initially, the City of Charleston had plans to purchase the building from the feds at a discounted price in exchange for some city property, but that deal fell through, and at an auction in 2008 Dewberry scooped it up. It wasn't until early 2012 that he announced plans to renovate the building and make it the first "Dewberry brand" hotel. On the eastern edge of Marion Square, which is a 10-acre park at the corner of Calhoun and Meeting Street, the Rivers building has been empty for 13 years.

Calls to Dewberry asking for an update on the Charleston project weren't exactly answered with details.

"We look forward to sharing the progress with you at the appropriate time," says Sally Jackson, who does PR for Dewberry Capital. Jackson says that Dewberry won't be commenting on the progress in Charleston or Charlottesville "until our plans are further defined."

That, it seems, could be awhile.

"It's a historic building in a very prominent location," says Tim Keane with Charleston's department of planning and preservation of the South Carolina former federal building. Keane says the "hoops Dewberry had to jump through" to get approvals from the architecural review board and the zoning commission, etc., were "not insignificant."

According to Charlottesville City neighborhood planner Brian Haluska, there has been no communication yet between Dewberry and the City regarding the construction of the new hotel here, but there's been an understanding that the Charlottesville project won't begin until the Charleston project is finished.

And the Hook's roving reporter, vacationing Hook ad exec Katie Hartwell, who peered through several openings in the side of the building, notes that it didn't appear any construction was underway— and several Charlestonians confirmed that.

"I haven't seen any construction going on," said one, a bellhop at the Embassy Suites hotel across the street from the empty building.

By-and-large, Keane says the community down there is happy that Dewberry wanted to save the building, and that people are "excited" about the project. Still, while Keane says Dewberry has gotten all his approvals, he confirms the "project itself is not underway."

Indeed, according to various sources in Charleston the Hook spoke to, but who wished to remain anonymous, a general contractor hasn't been chosen yet. And while the interior demolition and asbestos removal has been completed— and a few model suites have been built— there hasn't been any construction activity for months. One source we spoke to thought that financing could be an issue, as investors might be wary about launching a new hotel brand with no history or track-record. Still, sources express confidence in Dewberry's ability to get things done.

If Dewberry's people aren't talking about completion dates, Keane says he anticipates building permits for the Charleston hotel to be submitted this summer, with construction beginning in the fall. But it's anyone's guess how long it'll be before the project is finished.

A Charleston bike cop who approached the Hook's reporter as she peered through holes in the building's side offered the closest thing to an answer when asked when Charlottesville might get its own Dewberry.

"Y'all," he said, "are going to be waiting a long time."



Animation of planned Marriott extended-stay Residence Inn on West Main Street


Dave --

FYI, the "stunning" ridge line that only penthouse dwellers will be able to view if Charlottesville's overbearing-building boom continues belongs to the Southwest Mountains, not "the southeast mountains."

Another reason to NOT come down to the mall area. The loss of the bakery!
It, and the hardware store eatery were our two main stops. Expensive small clothing stores, etc. is not a draw for the most of us. Watch out that you dont over plan, and run your customers away.

Not the Carter Mountain range southeast of town?..

Yay! More hooker bait!

Southeast, southwest...the mountains are pretty either way. :)

Carter's Mountain is not a range. It's part of the Southwest Mountains, which aren't necessarily named for their location with repect to downtown C'ville.

Is that you, Seannie O' The Hills?

Sean - Carters Mountain is part of a series of mountains - a range, if you will - that includes Montalto, Carters Mountain, Hightop Mountain, etc. They are to the southeast of Charlottesville - "southeast," merely a descriptor which is not capitalized in the story.

I was referring to the range (also not used as a proper noun) that Carters Mountain is a part of. It is to the southeast of Charlottesville, even if it is called the Southwest Mountains. And I *hope* they're not named for their location relative to Charlottesville.

well...they are southwest of someplace folks!!! just a question of where people were when they attached that name to them.Charlottesville might have been pretty tiny at that point. I'd bet a stack of chips that Dewberry never really intends to do anything with that hotel site and saw it as an investment opportunity since it was at auction. He'll probably wait until he can unload it at a profit on a company that actually builds and operates hotels. At least the location is good. Its a shame that there is no mechanism for the city to add pressure for some kind of completion; the whole mess definitely takes away from the mall experience.

Those mountains are named SOUTHWEST MOUNTAINS because they are southwest of Fredericksburg whence early settlers came to this region.

Forget about which name to give these hills.
I wouldn't be so sure there will be so many people wanting high line hotel accommodations in this little burb going forward. Maybe of the "Motel Six" variety. The "Stealth Depression" continues with the next huge fiscal crisis soon to take the stage, before the next sham election cycle.
I wouldn't want to be on the hook for an expensive project like that, but I guess we'll see, won't we?

Parking is already at a premium downtown. This Residence Inn is planning 119 (87 garage + 37 open) parking spaces.
124 rooms + restaurant & event guest + employees = MANY MORE THAN 119 CARS!!

How does that pass review?

I do miss the local spots. There are plenty of hotel rooms, it is really OK if the entire city is sold out occasionally.

There are definitely not enough hotels in charlottesville. My parents have to pay 200 bucks/night just to find a hotel on any random weekend (that does not include UVA grad weekend).

it's called PLANNING AHEAD, Andy

Randy Bill is a she not a he

Great reporting.
Dewberry is under the gun. His $6m purchase of the ex-Landmark is costing him $30,000 per month in carrying costs excluding taxes and miscellany like securing the structure. Obviously, Charlottesville is back to a real estate slow down. Look at the single family market: it's going backwards too.

isn't this what living in a "small town" is all about?