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Neighborhood’s persistence pays off: Woolen Mills to get historic survey

by Dave McNair

If there were a City award for neighborhood activism, the Woolen Mills residents would win it hands down. From stinky sewers, to leash laws, to trail paving, trail painting, dam removal, road paving, U-haul lots, truck traffic, bulb-outs, long grass, and erosion control; as well as Coran Capshaw’s original pavilion idea and other planned developments, the Woolen Mills residents have never shied away from…well, making a stink.

For example, horn-blowing photographer Bill Emory and his fellow Woolen Mill’s residents have long wanted the City to officially recognize the special historic, cultural, and architectural value of the Woolen Mills neighborhood. Now that persistence just might pay off.

Yesterday, the City announced that an architectural survey of 50 properties in the Woolen Mills will take place next week in an effort to have the neighborhood listed in the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register.

According to a news release, neighborhood residents are spearheading the project with the help of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. VDHR staffers and UVA student volunteers will take three to five days to map, document, and photograph the properties. In addition to a possible historic designation, the survey information might also be used to guide development in the area and allow property owners to get historic tax credits for any improvements they make.

Indeed, the push by residents for a historic designation has always been motived by a desire to protect the “rural character” of the neighborhood from random development. As Emory wrote in an eloquent online photo essay to the City in 2005, “The Woolen Mills is a place to cultivate with sensitivity toward the environment and toward historical and sociological treasures. It is not a neighborhood in want of more “steel buildings.”

Of course, not everyone agrees that the Woolen Mills is worthy of historic designation, or that such a designation is a priority. In a June 2006 Hook article , City planning commissioner Bill Lucy recalled listening to a group Woolen Mills residents concerned about a new high-density housing project in the neighborhood.

“The Woolen Mills isn’t as historic as the residents think it is,” said Lucy, pointing out that the majority of buildings in the area were built after World War II. In fact, according to Lucy, nearly 50 percent of Charlottesville’s houses were built between 1945 and 1970. “The residents felt the development didn’t reflect the �historic’ character of the Woolen Mills, but I told them it didn’t reflect it enough.”

From Lucy’s historical perspective, the planned houses needed to be even larger, just like most of the post-war houses around them. Instead of focusing on the Woolen Mills distant past, Lucy was focusing on its most recent, readily visible past, and hoping to solve a practical problem.

“So many people with families are looking for reasonably priced, quality houses that are just a little bit bigger,” he said, “but there are so few of those in the City.”

Lucy said his comments didn’t seem to make much of an impression, if they were understood at all, caught up as the neighbors were in defending the older history of their neighborhood.

“The bigger houses are being built in the county, not in the city,” Lucy continued. As a result, he worried that the city was losing the diverse population it needed to help the community thrive. This has been a national trend for sometime, he said, but it has increased dramatically in the last decade.

In 1980, the percentage of Charlottesville families with children under 18 living in poverty was about the same as in Albemarle County. However, by 1990 there were twice as many poor families in the city as in the county. Today, the city has three times as many families living in poverty.

“To have a balanced school system, you need a balanced housing market,” said Lucy. “Of course, the Woolen Mills residents really had no awareness of these larger issues.”

photo by Jen Fariello

  • greg gelburd January 7th, 2007 | 8:18 am

    thanks for the article. quoting mr. lucy hd no relevance to anything. he was insulting to us at the meeting last year when protesting the franklin st. development (which is still a big empty lot).
    always appreciate the coverage.

  • […] At a June 4 City Council meeting, Councilor Dave Norris brought up the infamous “taking by typo” issue regarding the property behind the Mary Williams Senior Center in the Woolen Mills neighborhood, which may have been accidently de-listed as historic due to a series of zoning snafus. Recently, the Board of Zoning Appeals rejected a challenge by the feisty neighbors, who argued that the entire 7-acre property, owned now by scrap yard owner and BAR member Preston Coiner, and home to his Woolen Mill Self Storage facility, was designated an Individually Protected Property by City Council in 1993. […]

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