Real estate developer Frank Stoner of Milestone Partners met with the Crozet Community Advisory Council Dec. 18 at The Meadows community building to describe a development concept for the roughly 19-acre Barnes Lumber Company property in downtown Crozet.
Stoner has a contract to buy the two main parcels making up the yard from Union First Market Bank on the condition that it will be rezoned to be included in the Downtown Crozet District, a unique zoning district in Albemarle County that has rules designed to make Crozet’s downtown develop as a traditional, pedestrian-oriented town commercial center.
“This is not so much a presentation, but we’d like a dialogue,” said Stoner, who was joined by his associate at Milestone, L.J. Lopez. Stoner said he grew up in a small town in western Pennsylvania, of a size similar to Crozet today. He came to Charlottesville in 1984, he said, and since then has been involved in the development of several projects, among them Kegler’s (a bowling alley); Queen Charlotte Square in downtown Charlottesville; the Belmont Lofts, a set of apartment blocks; and more recently Belvedere, a large-scale project off Rio Road on the north side of Charlottesville. Belvedere describes itself as an “eco chic neighborhood” that includes single-family houses, blocks of townhouses and apartments, a senior center, a civic and commercial center bordering a village green, sports facilities, green space along the Rivanna River, and, in the future, an organic farm. His company recently completed the renovation of Jefferson School in downtown Charlottesville.
“I’ve held on to my small town roots,” he said. “It’s humbling and exciting to think about transforming the Barnes Lumber site.”
He said Milestone Partners “does development for clients. We provide soup-to-nuts management expertise. Barnes Lumber is complex enough to need a long list of consultants. We are development managers.”
Stoner said he got the Barnes Lumber parcels under contract in August after six months of negotiation with the bank. He did not say who his client for the project is.
Stoner said his research into Crozet’s population trend predicts that the town will grow to 8,000 by 2020 and 12,000 by 2030.
He asked CCAC members then to describe to him what the “character of Crozet is and how it should be manifested in downtown.”
But before visionary talk began, CCAC member Brenda Plantz asked Stoner, “Why have you already been to the Planning Commission and why do you already have a zoning request?”
She was referring to the change in the DCD’s rule against residential use of the first floor of a building, apparently unaware that the Board of Supervisors had already acted the week before to change that rule on a case-by-case basis through special use permits.
“We perceived a critical flaw in the DCD,” answered Stoner. “I approached the county [planning staff] and they suggested a zoning text amendment. The flaw is this: you could build a single family detached unit without a commercial use but not an attached home. Now you can with a special use permit.”
“Mixed use is still the most important thing to the community,” interjected White Hall District Planning Commissioner Tom Loach, who had voted for the change.
“The single biggest query in Crozet now is how do we save downtown,” added CCAC chair Meg Holden.
Stoner said he did not find any flaw in the Crozet Master Plan, but “wanted the community’s idea of how to use Barnes.”
“We’ve got one opportunity to get it right,” answered Chris Holden, “or it will be screwed up for a long time. We’re an eclectic group. It’s a great asset here.” He pointed to Crozet’s past as the “peach capital of Virginia” and said the goal of developing Barnes should be “to thread the needle to honor the agrarian past and the eclectic present. You shouldn’t do something big and monolithic.”
Kim Connolly said Crozet is characterized by “locally owned businesses where they know you and you know your neighbors. We don’t want chain businesses. We don’t want to be ‘any town’ that you can find anywhere. We want our unique personality.”
“We have a vibrant community of artists and musicians here,” Lisa Goehler said.
“Could a permanent draw be built around that?” asked Stoner.
“Yes,” came the emphatic answer.
“We’re friendly here and supportive of each other. It’s really cool,” Goehler summed up.
Stoner proposed a wine center in Crozet, but White Hall District Supervisor Ann Mallek spoke up to say, “That’s more likely closer to Monticello.”
“People are really connected to the outdoors here. They’re completely tuned in,” she said, and stressed that employment for local residents is a high priority in how Barnes is developed.
Other speakers said they want to see “the features of European towns” in the development.
“Our vision is evolving,” said Stoner. “That’s part of the value of this. We envision this as an interactive process.”
Then he projected a picture of Rothenberg, Germany, a medieval town of narrow streets, onto the wall of the Meadows Community Center and said, “This is what I would like to build, but with VDOT and Fire/Rescue you can’t do that.”
Next he projected a scene of Aguas Calientas, a town in Peru, which showed a railroad track down the center of a narrow street. It was sort of a joke.
“The real flaw in the DCD is a lack of connectivity,” he said. “It needs another railroad crossing at the east end of the [Barnes] property.”
Next he put an image of Warrenton, a town of about 10,000, showing a traditional 19th century main street. “The economics of new towns is a challenge,” said Stoner. “They don’t pay for themselves. Warrenton is a county seat.” Finally he ran through a series of images of Smithfield; Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; and Dallas, Oregon. “Small town retail and mixed use does not pay for itself. Building new today you have to get $18 to $22 per square foot to pay for it. Residential over retail is very difficult to get financing for. Banks and investors don’t like it.”
“Old Trail has done it,” observed Loach.
“In their case they got tenants who could pay but are now gasping at the rent,” Stoner said.
“Access to this site is restricted,” he continued, “and that is a major problem. Circulation is very difficult. The level of service on roads in downtown is already marginal in downtown Crozet. Maybe an underpass [under the tracks] at the east end of the property? We don’t have the money for that. Crozet needs more residents in walking distance to downtown.”
Stoner then reviewed what he called “opportunities.”
“Crozet will continue to grow. It needs a unique downtown. Barnes is a rare transformational opportunity. Let’s do it right. It will require a commitment from us and from the community. I hope you’re up for that.”
He showed a plan for the Barnes property proposed in the past by Katurah Roell in which a pedestrian mall was the central feature. “This was retail with large buildings and parking around them. We’ve reached out to CSX about purchasing their property [a triangular, roughly 3-acre parcel adjoining the tracks]. We think it’s possible. It’s well suited for commercial.”
Then he presented his latest version of a development concept and road plan. “This allows us to create a focal point.” The plan has a traffic circle at the east end of the property and what Stoner called ‘a square’ that looked vaguely triangular where High Street and Library Avenue would intersect. High Street would continue to a connection with The Square. In a red colored area of the drawing, about six acres in size and adjoining The Square, Stoner said commercial buildings would go. In an area to the east about two acres large, shown in purple, office buildings could be built. In a yellow area, single family and townhouses would be built, a total of 75 to 80 units, and in the southeast corner of the parcel, depicted in green, space needed for storm water control would remain open.
“It feels like a small town main street,” Stoner said to sum up the general plan. “The objective of the county is to get the road built. We’d start at The Square and at the residential end. The residential would be needed to pay for the road.
“This property is a non-starter for us if proffers are involved. Then we’re not your guys,” Stoner said flatly.
Existing county policy calls for developers to pay $17,000 to the county per residential unit built to help the county recover costs that fall to the public in accommodating growth.
“It’s a very expensive road. The county estimates $2.4 million. We estimate maybe $1.8 million.”
“This is a mixture of uses,” observed Loach, “but it’s not mixed use as envisioned in the DCD [with residences over commercial space]. I don’t see anything wrong with your yellow. It’s compatible with the neighbors. I have no problem with that.”
Stoner contended that the purple zone of the drawing would be mixed use. “You could put apartments buildings there, or a hotel.”
Plantz asked, “How much residential do you need?”
“We don’t know yet,” answered Stoner. “We’ll know in three or four weeks. The demolition costs there are enormous. There is no pedestrian friendly access to this area.”
CCAC members disputed that and said that there are more and more pedestrians in downtown. They pointed to the developing trails system in Crozet as giving people convenient walking routes through town.
Stoner said that the county’s requirements for such things as curbs and gutters on streets, while desirable, are driving up housing costs, meaning that more residences were required to cover road expenses.
Asked for a timeline, Stoner said he intended to submit a zoning amendment request in January. “We’ll submit a plan like this and everything else would fall under DCD zoning. We would submit a SUP [for the housing units] congruently and hope to have it all done by July. Then we would need community input on design and help attracting businesses. We would work toward the middle [of the property].”
Stoner said he would show architectural plans to the CCAC in advance. He projected images of his previous projects and CCAC members let out audible gasps upon seeing the Belmont Lofts. “Not that!” came from the group.
“Us fighting the community is a recipe for disaster,” Stoner said. “I don’t want to fight. We’ll tell you what we think makes sense. If you don’t like it, we’ll go away. We want you to be excited about it. We think we are the right people to do it.
“This is a starting point for dialogue. We didn’t bring copies of the plan that people could carry out saying ‘This is what they are doing.’”
“We want buy-in,” added Lopez. “This has enormous potential. Our take-away is we have a lot to digest from the comments. This plan will change. We’ll keep persevering.”