Developer Frank Stoner discussed the history and current status of his Downtown Crozet Plaza project at the August 11 meeting of the Crozet Community Advisory Committee, describing the “eight years it took to get here” and the path ahead.
“I’m happy to report we had a meeting with the county today, and the revised 60% plans are going in to VDOT [Virginia Department of Transportation] next week,” said Stoner. “Almost all of the design issues have been resolved, so the expectation is that the review time will be relatively short. Then VDOT will release the county for the right of way acquisition and utility relocation phases.” The plaza project involves two separate but integrated construction efforts—the system of roads surrounding the future plaza on the former Barnes Lumber property, and the plaza buildings and outdoor spaces themselves. The former must come first.
As he reminisced, Stoner thanked Ann Mallek and the county Board of Supervisors for their significant support and funding over the long haul. “This all started with a public engagement session in early 2017 or so, and since then we have gone through countless meetings with VDOT, the county, the utility providers, and others,” he said. “We have literally had a fight at every turn with VDOT over the width of the road, over the intersections, over the radius of the corners on the intersections, over the size of the roundabouts, you name it.”
Stoner’s development company, Crozet New Town Associates (CNTA), entered into a public-private partnership with the county in 2019 in which the board agreed to provide $3.2 million in cash contributions and future loan forgiveness to finance the plaza project. CNTA has committed to contribute $2 million and to provide discounted rights of way for the roads project, which will be matched by a $2.3 million VDOT grant.
Stoner came back to the board in April of this year to ask for another $2.5 million due to increased construction costs, and he requested relief again this summer to cover utility expenses. “We lost about six months earlier this year because we got an initial estimate from Dominion Energy to move 900 feet of overhead power line for about $1.2 million,” he said. “Together with the county we managed to whittle that number down to hopefully fit within the updated budget.” The board stepped in both times to rescue the project by agreeing to fund the shortfalls.
During his CCAC presentation, Stoner displayed aerial graphic designs of the plaza proposal. “There will be a promenade, about 20-22 feet wide [between the commercial buildings and the grassy open areas]. “The schema shows a set of moveable benches which capitalize on the railroad theme. They can slide along the rails and could be moved at times, and then we’ll have a lighted promenade with outdoor dining and retail store fronts [opening onto] the plaza.
“[The design envisions] market stalls and an art gallery that that would front along the promenade, going up to the plaza, and then a series of spaces on the ground level that would be retail and small restaurants,” he continued. “These spaces can be combined, if necessary, if a business needs more than the minimum square footage. As you move up, we’ll have office space on the second level, and then the Crozet performing and art space. On the third floor are more performing arts and additional space that could be residential, but I think it’s probably more likely that it’ll end up being offices. We welcome feedback on both the planning and the architecture.”
Virtual attendees at the CCAC meeting asked a variety of questions about the plans. CCAC Chair Joe Fore wondered if the road network construction would be going on at the same time as renovations in The Square, which involve parking spaces and sidewalks. “Ideally, it’ll all be done at the same time,” said Stoner. “The timing for submittal [of the site plans to VDOT] looks like it’s going to work out such that the two projects will go within a week of each other, which is great.”
Fore also asked about the northbound egress of a roundabout depicted on the planned road connecting The Square eastward to Hilltop Street. “The idea is to put that roundabout in a location that could potentially connect to an underpass under the railroad over to Rt. 240,” said Stoner. “We had done some research years ago to figure out what the feasibility [of a crossing] was when we met with the railroad, and they, surprisingly, were very supportive. They were not supportive of an at-grade intersection closer to town, but they were very supportive of an underpass. Obviously, that is kind of a secondary priority at this point, but that’s the intent.”
St. George Avenue resident Clover Carroll asked what kinds of businesses the developer envisions for the mixed-use commercial building in the plaza, and whether there has been a commitment for a hotel. “We’re actually going to look at the commercial mixed-use building in a little more detail after we’re finished with the plaza, so at that point I can talk about the types of uses we envision in that building,” said Stoner.
“With regard to a hotel, we do have a commitment from one hotel developer, and we have interest from another hotel developer. Two different concepts that I think could complement each other very well—one is a very small boutique-y concept, and the other is more of a self-service kind of hotel concept, more of a condo-type hotel.”
Other questions concerned the destiny of the existing bike shop (it will hopefully remain downtown in the new space or nearby), parking (there will be a couple of lots to the north and east of the plaza), green energy (they are considering solar panels on the rooftops), and permeable pavement (VDOT rejected the idea due to high maintenance cost, and a compromise will be a combination of pavers and asphalt).
Parkside Village resident Sandy Hausman asked, “How much does our population need to grow to support the additional stores, restaurants, hotel and art center? How many more people need to live in Crozet before planners would confirm there are enough people to make these ventures a go?”
“[Our] consultants felt that Crozet could definitely support the amount of additional development that we’re proposing,” said Stoner. “Having said that, I think it’s really important to point out that the success of downtown will ultimately depend on the Crozet residents. This plaza, which I think will be spectacular, will be a natural attraction. But as I have said to my team over and over again, it doesn’t matter how nice it is, if it’s not programmed effectively, it’s not going to be successful. And so, I think the community’s role is so important in making sure that this space is vibrant and active.”
Board of Supervisors representative Ann Mallek added support for Crozet’s natural appeal. “I was just going to remind people that Crozet is the mecca for people from southern Batesville to Sugar Hollow and all the way to Free Union. When the planning was being done for the library, there was a 35-square-mile area that was considered the draw for that place. And I’m hopeful that that same geography will matter for this as well.”
In response to questions about project timing, Stoner said they are targeting construction for both The Square and the VDOT road extension for the summer of 2023. “I’d love to say it’ll be May,” he said, “but the reality is it could be June, July or August if everything goes well. Road construction will take six or seven months before we can even start the plaza or any buildings. Building construction is probably six months behind that, and phase one [of the plaza] is probably a three- to four-year construction project.”
In reflecting on the long road to get to this point, Stoner was sanguine. “You know, in some respects, maybe it’s a blessing,” he said. “If all of this had gone well [from the beginning], we probably would have been opening this commercial building right when the pandemic hit. So sometimes things work out for the best.”