While the ongoing project to build a community plaza and commercial area in downtown Crozet was mostly out of the news in 2020, developer Frank Stoner said much of the year was spent moving the plan past regulatory obstacles and design issues, ultimately resulting in an improved blueprint. “While it’s unfortunate that it’s taken this long, there are silver linings to it,” said Stoner, who conceived the idea for the project in 2013 and bought the former Barnes Lumber property in 2014. “The longer people think and talk about it, the better the concepts get.”
The thorniest issues have revolved around gaining Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) approval for a series of road improvements for the area surrounding the planned plaza. The primary road will run from The Square off Crozet Avenue eastward to connect with Hill Top Street in Parkside Village and from there on to Park Ridge Drive. “We applied for VDOT funding for the primary road because it was a high priority road for the county, so they agreed to make it their project,” said Stoner. “Unfortunately, that has created some design problems as there was a significant disconnect between how we and VDOT envisioned the road.”
While VDOT standards called for a wider, faster-moving street with wide bike lanes on either side, Stoner and members of the Downtown Crozet Initiative (DCI), a nonprofit group promoting and raising money for the plaza, pushed for mini-roundabouts, lower curb heights, and a narrower road. “We felt that if we couldn’t build an urban street that’s going to meet the needs of people and retailers—things like on-street parking and adequate pedestrian facilities and the right ratios for spatial relationships between roads and buildings—then we were not going to build it,” said Stoner.
Stoner and his “technical team,” a group that includes county planning officials, transportation engineers, and DCI representatives that meets a couple of times each month, eventually won concessions from VDOT on the primary road and the Library Avenue extension and High Street connector that will frame the plaza. “We’ve submitted plans [to VDOT] four or five times now and I will say that [Board of Supervisors representative] Ann Mallek has been instrumental in getting VDOT’s attention on this project,” said Stoner. “We finally started getting some traction with them toward the end of last year.”
A separate dispute—on which Stoner’s team was not successful—concerned what he envisioned as a Phase 2/3 “secondary street” running parallel to the primary road from High Street eastward almost to Hill Top, forming a large rectangle enclosing future downtown development. The secondary street was designed to meet High Street at an offset just below the planned roundabout at the intersection with Library Avenue, but VDOT would not allow the offset and declared that the new street must intersect High at the roundabout.
“The idea was that we wanted the ability to close down the areas around the plaza for festivals and concerts, and the secondary street would be a way around the primary street if you wanted to get to Crozet Avenue and not go through the retail district,” said Stoner. “The problem is, once the secondary street connects directly to the roundabout, it makes that street easier to take than the primary street, and that was a major concern of mine because the secondary street was intended to be narrower and more pedestrian. We had a major fight with VDOT over this, but we lost and it cost us time.”
Stoner’s group recently submitted what’s called a “60% construction plan” detailing the proposed Phase 1 road construction. “We hope to get feedback from VDOT by the end of this month or early next. Assuming nothing goes wrong, we then will submit final construction plans and wait for VDOT to issue the waivers we’ve requested,” he said. The group’s latest estimate for beginning construction is sometime in the third or fourth quarter of this year.
“Phase 1 includes the residential and retail buildings around the plaza,” said Stoner. “The idea is to get as many buildings built around the plaza as possible so that space is created and you get a sense of enclosure and it becomes a real place. We are planning on ‘spec-ing’ what will appear to be six buildings on the west side of the plaza, largely a mix of retail office space and some residential on the upper floors.”
As for the plaza itself, landscape architects have begun work on the plaza conceptual design again, as its dimensions have changed because of the change in the secondary road design. Meg Holden, chair of the DCI, says that organization has been focused on promoting local businesses during the pandemic, and on preparing for a fundraising push. “We have expanded our board and improved our website, and we’ve written a case statement and a letter of intent because we will essentially rent the plaza from the county for a period of time to manage events there.”
The DCI has committed to raising $1 million toward the plaza project, which will cover what is called “FF&E,” or furniture, fixtures, and equipment for the space—in this case items such as art, sculpture, seating, a fire pit, a water feature, and other accoutrements. Despite the delays, Holden remains optimistic and credits Stoner’s perseverance. “We are so blessed because while it is taking forever, the battles that have been fought have made the project so much better,” she said. “It takes a lot to say, ‘hold on, let’s get it right.’ As much as I’m sorry we’re still in this phase—and I thought we’d be popping champagne bottles long ago—the fact that Frank is still committed means so much.”