Spotswood development proposal gets thumbs-down from Lexington residents

By Crawford Humphreys

Lexington residents have expressed concerns about City Council’s consideration of the sale of a 3.2-acre property on Spotswood Drive to a Richmond developer.

At a public hearing March 4, several people questioned the below-market offer of $350,000 by Echelon Resources, Inc., to purchase the site that also has been the long-time home to two nonprofits that serve Lexington and Rockbridge County.

Echelon wants to build 150 apartments on the site. Most would be single-bedroom apartments, but up to 30 would be two-bedroom apartments.

The developer’s plan calls for demolition of the Piovano Building, which houses the Rockbridge Area Relief Association, an organization that addresses hunger and poverty, and the Community Table, which provides meals to anyone in need.

“I don’t see how this proposal would add to the quality of life in Lexington,” resident Lisa Tracy said during the hearing. “It would entail destroying a valuable community asset, which is the Piovano building and be sold for what seems like an extraordinarily low price.”

Financial concerns

Echelon’s $350,000 offer is much lower than the property’s value of $1.2 million, real estate broker Leslie Giles said in an interview.

Giles said the property draws most of its value from the Piovano Building, which is designed to house rescue services. She says its assessed value is almost $800,000.

“There is a significant value attached to that building . . . which to ignore, I think, is possibly kind of foolish from the city’s perspective,” she said. “Whether the developer has any use for it or not, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have value.”

City officials said the development would meet a need for market-rate housing in the area. The market-rate apartment market is 98.8% occupied, according to an independent analysis of housing services in Lexington by Danter and Associates, LLC, in 2019. The market is “clearly limited by supply rather than demand,” the analysis said.

“It would generate housing that is really not available in this community today,” City Manager Jim Halasz said.

He also said the proposal’s lower price accounts for upgrades that Echelon would need to make before building apartments. He said the company would need to level the land, fix rainwater collection problems and move a city sewer line.

But Giles said the city could get a better deal if it solicits offers from other developers.

“One of the problems with unsolicited proposals is, of course, they are going to be heavily weighted to the developer rather than the property owner,” she said. “In the absence of any other ideas, it’s really hard I think to compare what its truly valued.”

RARA displacement

RARA has been located in the Piovano Building on the Spotswood property for almost a decade. As a part of its lease agreement with the city, the organization pays a reduced rent but is required to relocate if the property is sold.

RARA gave away 354 tons of food last year, Executive Director Jen Handy said. That’s enough to fill 50 tractor-trailers.

Packaged goods line the shelves inside the Rockbridge Area Relief Association’s headquarters at 350 Spotswood Drive. The building would be demolished to make room for the proposed multifamily housing development. (Rockbridge Report file photo)

RARA operates through donations. Valerie Moliterno, president of RARA’s board of directors, said it would have difficulty raising enough money to finance a move to a new space.

“We simply don’t have a place to move right now,” she said. “Our current options will require a significant increase in donations from our supporters for many years to come. We need time to plan and fundraise.”

During a community meeting on Feb. 3, Edwin Gaskin, owner of Echelon Resources, said one of the project’s goals is to relocate RARA and the Community Table.

“They have been engaged both directly by us and via the city,” he said.

But Moliterno said there haven’t been any discussions about how Echelon would help with RARA’s relocation.

“We have talked to the developer just about how the development process would go, but not about that,” she said.

Project scale

Residents also raised concerns about whether there would be enough parking spots. Echelon’s plan includes a parking lot instead of a garage. City regulations require two parking spaces per apartment. Mayor Frank Friedman says it would be a challenge to incorporate the necessary 300 parking spaces without running out of land.

A second public hearing is set for March 18.