Houston Street Residents Not Sold on Cottage Development

By Paige Gance

A Charlottesville architect and developer are working on a proposal to build cottage housing on the grassy sweep of land across from Stonewall Jackson Cemetery and next to the hospital.

A maximum of 13 cottages would cluster along the back and hospital side of the 2.3-acre property, which is within walking distance from downtown Lexington.  The remaining space along Spotswood Drive and the back of Houston Street houses would be transformed into a part-public, part-private park.

The latest version of the proposal resulted from three meetings with local residents over the past two months. At the most recent meeting on Sept. 8, developer Ashley Cooper and architect William Atwood gave out about 20 disposable cameras so that residents could take pictures of elements they would like to see incorporated into the site.

But residents of Houston Street are not on board yet.

They are putting up resistance now, even before the city has said it would offer the property to developers like Cooper and Atwood. “Once the plans are approved, they can build anything,” said Dorothy Blackwell, a resident of Houston Street for 22 years.

Blackwell said the medical building down the road grew much larger than planned once developers received approval. Four stories, taller than all the surrounding houses, it was originally going to be two stories, said Marge Slusser, also of Houston Street.  Since its construction, many residents say they have noticed an increase in traffic and parking problems.

From the three community meetings she helped organize, Cooper compiled a list of the top 10 concerns and her response to each. According to this document, each unit would include off-street parking.  Compared to residential units, she argues in the document, additional medical buildings would create 10 times more traffic.

But it’s unclear what else would occupy the city-owned land if this development fell through.  City Council Member David Cox said the city is “waiting,” having agreed to look at the proposal but making no commitment otherwise.

An increased tax base is certainly an incentive for the city to sell the land, Cox said, but if the houses don’t sell, the area’s housing market might suffer. This could depress all home values when properties are assessed and decrease the tax base, Cox said.

To guard against poor sales, Cooper said, she and Atwood would build the cottages in phases.  If sales of the cottages along the southeastern edge of the property are promising, those along the side would then be built, she said.

The final phase would be acquiring the Rescue Squad Building and constructing cottages on the second floor, said Cooper.  The first floor would remain a food bank and community meeting area.

The prices for a cottage would range from $120,000 to $283,000, with the smallest at 900 square feet and the largest at 2,000 square feet.

The owner-occupied units would be marketed to singles, the elderly and small families. Some residents still worry that students would rent the cottages.

There are no other condo-like units in Lexington, said Al Carr, chairman of the Lexington Planning Commission.

The city council needs a super majority of five votes to transfer the property and the council has not yet issued a request for proposals.

The land was deeded to the city by the Cemetery Board. Some residents said they expected the cemetery, not houses, eventually to be on this property.

Blackwell said no one she knew has changed his or her mind since the first meeting. Opposition to the development is still strong on Houston Street, she said.

Cooper, however, said that after the last meeting, residents had thanked her and Atwood for listening to them and offering compromises. Their next step is collecting the photos taken by residents and conducting another meeting in the Rescue Squad Building, where those in attendance will vote on their favorite pictures.

Standing in her doorway on Houston Street, Slusser showed how she had left her camera in its foil. But she said one neighbor took pictures of what he would like to see there: gravestones.

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