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September 16, 2010

City planners recommend Martha Jefferson historic district

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DailyProgress

By Sean Tubbs
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Charlottesville Planning Commission has recommended approval of new protections for the Martha Jefferson neighborhood.

If the historic conservation overlay district is approved by the City Council, the Board of Architectural Review would be granted the authority to determine whether buildings within its boundaries could be demolished.

“It would add regulations to the underlying zoning, but it would not change the underlying zoning,” said Mary Joy Scala, the city’s historic preservation planner.

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The endorsement came despite concerns from two commissioners who feared the change could limit the city’s ability to redevelop the Martha Jefferson Hospital property when it becomes vacant next year. The BAR would review the design of new construction within the district.

“Martha Jefferson is moving,” Commissioner Dan Rosensweig said. “I think for us to restrict and further overlay what could happen there is probably going to restrict the ability of Martha Jefferson to sell the hospital and the ability of someone in the future to do something creative.”

The hospital has been looking for one firm to redevelop the property since announcing plans to move operations to Pantops Mountain in Albemarle County. Last year, the hospital announced it had signed a contract with Crosland Development, but the firm withdrew in April.

To find a new development partner, the hospital issued a request for proposals. Interviews were conducted with three firms.

“Currently, we are in negotiations with one of the firms,” said Jennifer McDaniel, a spokeswoman for the hospital. “Our vision for the site continues to be around the idea of mixed development, including processional office space, residential options and retail.”

Citing confidentiality agreements, McDaniel said she could not elaborate further. However, the topic came up during Tuesday’s public hearing on the historic conservation overlay district.

As part of the district, any “contributing structure” to the historic character of the neighborhood would be subject to BAR approval before demolition. Both the Rucker and Patterson wings of the hospital were described as “contributing structures” in the neighborhood’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

During her presentation before the commission, the city’s Scala said she didn’t think the overlay district would be a problem for the redevelopment of the hospital property.

“If they come in and redevelop the hospital, the only question would be would they want to keep the two contributing properties,” Scala said. In fact, she said, the protections would allow for the eventual developer to apply for preservation tax credits.

“The timing of this decision seems to occur at a point where we have one of the largest redevelopment opportunities in downtown’s history,” Commissioner Kurt Keesecker said. “We would be entering into a design review process that’s untested and unprecedented.”

However, Commissioner Genevieve Keller supported approving the district with the boundaries intact. She pointed out that Martha Jefferson officials had not objected to inclusion in the district as it went through the planning process.

“I would dare say if they had concerns, they would be here,” Keller said. “I see [the overlay district] as a way to manage change and to offer guidance.”

Mike Harvey, the president of the Thomas Jefferson Partnership for Economic Development, said he had heard an acquisition of the site may be in the works, but he was not familiar with the details. He said he would prefer a commercial use rather than a residential one.

“I would like to see getting an employer in there to replace those jobs for downtown,” Harvey said. “Nothing against residential development, but downtown is losing a significant number of jobs. Those people live, eat, work and shop there.”

The commission’s vote was 4-2 in favor of recommending the council adopt the overlay district. The City Council is expected to take up the matter at its first meeting in October.

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