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Drawing opposition from nearby residents and merchants, a developer is seeking rezoning approval for a high-density apartment building at Libbie and Grove avenues. A nearby condo project, meanwhile, has broad support. Photo by Steve Hedberg
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An architectural rendering of The Tiber condominium project planned along Libbie Avenue
The Grill at Patterson and Libbie avenues has all the makings of a laid-back mid-afternoon watering hole. The last lingering diners from the lunch crowd still munch at sandwiches as a daydream-inducing reggae tune wafts out the door onto the hot afternoon pavement of busy Patterson Avenue.
The long, varnished-wood bar is vacant except for a waitress going off shift who chats with the cook, Gina Montecalvo, as she uses a bread crust to finish a cup of restorative soup.
The Grill is a relative newcomer to the neighborhood — staff and patrons celebrated its two-year anniversary this past St. Patrick's Day — but it's already built the solid base of loyal customers from the neighborhood that help define this area of the near West End known as Westhampton.
Business at the Grill was pretty slow today, Montecalvo says, but you couldn't have packed another body in here the day before — Memorial Day. "It was like everybody from around here came in — twice!" she says, using her palm to adjust a tie-dyed bandanna back from her forehead, as if to show her lingering exhaustion.
The Grill may soon find itself with even more customers with the planned construction of The Tiber, a high-end condominium project set to be built on the southwest corner of Libbie and Guthrie avenues, about midway between Grove and Patterson avenues. Development plans call for 12 condos, two penthouse units and a cottage.
The project, currently being pre-sold ahead of planned construction sometime later this year, represents a potential watershed for the corridor. More than a decade ago the psychological distance between Grove and Patterson widened significantly along with a literal widening of Libbie Avenue from two to four lanes between Broad Street and Patterson, effectively turning the neighborhood cut-through into a major arterial
road for traffic.
The Tiber will help change that, its developers and supporters say, bridging the two commercial corridors on Grove and Patterson by creating a walkable, bikeable link anchored by condominiums priced between $600,000 and more than $1 million. An adjacent park — not yet named — on unbuildable land traversed by the Tiber Creek will further bridge the divide. The district's councilman, Bruce Tyler, also is advocating for a relocation of the branch library, which is now several blocks west of Libbie on Patterson, to a location near The Tiber, further adding to the town-center feel.
"The more money in the neighborhood, the more money is going to be walking through the door," says Montecalvo, who didn't need to hear much about the project before declaring her support. "It's going to be good for business, for sure."
While most of the city's attention on redevelopment and revitalization projects in recent years has focused on high-profile areas like the Broad Street Arts and Culture District or the James River riverfront project, few eyes have turned to what's happening in this sleepy West End outpost best known for its boutique shops, expensive private schools and its historic theater that specializes in art films.
But there's lots going on around here, and the Tiber is just the first visible sign of big changes. Also over the horizon are efforts by Bon Secours to extend its footprint around St. Mary's Hospital, possibly with a mixed-use residential development centered around the old Westhampton Elementary School, and another developer's far less popular proposal for a high-density apartment project on the current site of a BP gas station at Libbie and Grove.
The iconic Westhampton Theater, a mainstay for foreign and art film buffs was rumored in November 2011 to be under contract to a developer who reportedly planned to convert it to a mixed-use project. That plan has since faded, and now the area's business and community leaders seek to form a Friends of Westhampton Theater group to preserve the theater. In an early June meeting with Tyler, a handful of concerned residents began discussing options for acquiring the theater, with the hopes of keeping its function and character intact, while also opening access to its parking lot for the benefit of surrounding merchants. How the group would manage to acquire the theater remains unannounced.
Tyler helped spearhead revisions to the city's comprehensive plan, establishing the city planning department's new approach to the area. The revisions bolster assurances that the neighborhood remains a neighborhood, and that the two commercial corridors remain primarily retail, despite changes in traffic and density.
The previous version of the city's master plan discouraged projects like The Tiber, stating explicitly that the best way to preserve the neighborhood's feel was by "placing limitations on the extent and character of expansions." In other words, any new development would be carefully confined along Grove and Patterson and would not involve projects such as high-density condos or multistory buildings.
The new comprehensive plan, however, sees change as an agent for preservation. Along the business corridors of Grove and Patterson, redevelopment that isn't similarly focused on retail as its primary purpose still is discouraged. But infill in other areas — like along Libbie — allows for more creative projects, such as The Tiber.
Creative solutions also will be key in the future as the area confronts its parking and traffic demons, especially on the Grove Avenue side, where the only dedicated public parking is on the street. Some shops, such as Mango Salon, have off-street parking for customers, but with just 20 spaces to accommodate 60 employees and as many as 100 customers a day, the math doesn't always work.
Although Tyler led revisions to the city's master plan, the first big boost came through the independent efforts of some area business leaders, who recruited the Project for Public Spaces. The nonprofit planning, design and educational organization assists communities that are looking to re-imagine and reuse public spaces in creative ways. The organization arrived not long before revisions to the comprehensive plan geared up in earnest. Tyler credits the Project for Public Spaces with shaping the priorities contained in the plan — for instance, improving access to parking for patrons of area businesses.
Even before the influence of the Project for Public Spaces was felt, there was another catalyst for change that, in Tyler's opinion, started it all. "All of this started because a traffic engineer at the city decided to widen Libbie." That road project took what had previously been a quiet neighborhood road and converted it into a major arterial road, carrying heavy volumes of traffic past what had been a quiet block or two of family homes.
The process of long-range planning for the area, Tyler says, was also motivated by the fact that within just a relatively few blocks between Grove and Patterson, "there are approximately 35 different special-use permits and seven different zonings."
Special-use permits allow property owners to modify or build on their property outside of regular zoning guidelines — and having so many zoning types within such a small area means that transitions between those types happen abruptly.
"It was very obvious to me that the zoning [was] not working, and we [needed] to get in front of this, as opposed to being reactive," he says, pleased with a new plan that emphasizes mixed-use development with a "range of commercial and residential uses" all aimed at knitting the neighborhood back together.
Pat Heaney, a member of the Libbie and Grove Merchants Association and a participant in the master plan revisions, says he hopes Tyler remembers that philosophy as new projects come along that don't conform. Case in point, he says, is a four-story apartment complex proposed by developer Scott Boyers for the site currently occupied by the BP gas station on the southeast corner of Libbie and Grove. Heaney's business, Mango Salon, is directly behind the gas station.
The merchants association opposes the BP apartment project as it currently is proposed. Heaney says that could change if the developer were to revise his plan to emphasize mixed use, with a significant retail component on the street-level part of the project.
"The Libbie and Grove area is such a great area," he says. "One project should not define the strategy for the next 30 years — and that's what will happen if that [apartment] project gets approved."
Heaney says the business owners are not being obstinate by opposing the BP redevelopment project. The association unanimously supported The Tiber. That support, though, was because the development will help tie the community together.
Despite ultimate acceptance of the condo project, some Westhampton residents posed initial — and lingering — objections, says Billie Jo Darden, co-manager of Irresistibles, a women's boutique shop at 5814 Grove.
"Working in the store every day you hear so many different things from so many different people," says Darden, a supporter of The Tiber project who says she anticipates increased business. "But one woman came in and said, ‘I feel like it's turning into Short Pump.' We don't feel like that at all."
Neither does Tyler, who says that projects like The Tiber and the adjacent park don't aim to lure regional shoppers, but rather to retain the flavor of a shopping district primarily built around nearby residents.
That approach appeals to Charlie Diradour, a local developer and owner of several retail properties in the area, including the building where Irresistibles is located.
"I think as a condominium project, [The Tiber] is what's needed in the location that it is," says Diradour, a member of the Libbie & Grove Association. "But we're talking about The Tiber only."
Diradour says he is all for creating connectivity and community for the neighborhoods between Grove and Patterson, although he believes the two retail areas — Grove's high-end boutiques and restaurants versus Patterson's shops anchored by a pharmacy and a hardware store — should remain distinct from one another.
"I don't believe you can … take away the branding efforts of Libbie and Grove and rebrand an entire area just off of that idea," he says.
A Grove-area businesswoman who asked not to be named put it more directly: "Those people [on Patterson] want to be a part of Libbie and Grove, but they won't be," she says. "They try to piggyback on this neighborhood, but it doesn't work."
Leigh Johnson, co-owner of the Shops at 5807, a collection of boutique shops on Patterson, and immediate past president of the Patterson & Libbie Business District, says she has hope that the coming link between the two commercial corridors will help foster strong partnerships. She says she doesn't see the Patterson shop owners directing any efforts to encroach on their neighbors to the south.
"I think [The Tiber] can be a linchpin" for partnerships, Johnson says, citing a number of recent efforts by the two business associations to work together, including sponsorship of trolley-borne "Rudolph Rides" this past December, as well as coordinating events like the summer sidewalk sale that has become a signature event for Libbie and Grove.
"We do a lot of things together," she says.
And like Diradour on Grove, not everyone on Patterson either expects or wants the two commercial corridors to blend or homogenize as a result of The Tiber. /
Kristy Cosley, a broker with Jones Realty and Construction Co., also sits on the Patterson & Libbie Business District, and says she was initially cool to The Tiber proposal, envisioning new restrictions on commercial property owners to bring their properties up to snuff with the more affluent Grove corridor. She also feared restrictions on the more eclectic expressions of creativity and spirit that are a part of Patterson's character.
Cosley points to the example of a shop painted purple with a green door: "Some people would say that's an eyesore. I say it's cool."
And it seems to be cool with everyone else, too, she says, noting that she's become less concerned as she's learned more about the project.
"I don't know that my concerns are [allayed], but I think overall there has been a ton of support for this project. And at a certain point you get on board and make sure your fears are monitored and controlled, or you don't," she says. Regardless, Cosley adds, "I think The Tiber is a wonderfully done project."
The saga of how The Tiber won such generally broad support — from business and neighborhood associations along both commercial corridors and more than 140 individual residents — is a long one, spanning well over a year.
It wasn't always smooth sailing, acknowledges Jennifer Lodge Fergusson, a Realtor with Long and Foster who brokered the project and assembled the four properties on which The Tiber is being built. "Our whole objective was to work with the neighborhood to make something good," she says. "The dirty word in the business is change. But change will happen, so let's make it something good."
This meant that the change needed to be of the neighborhood's own design. The project's elevations, the proposed materials that will go into the units, even the inclusion of a cottage-style home on the property to create a buffer between the condos and the adjacent neighborhood were suggestions readily applied by the development team.
Tyler doesn't go quite so far when voicing his own enthusiasm for more projects, saying each will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, though the revisions to the comprehensive plan certainly encourage any sort of development that steers this area toward a more walkable, livable community.
"I would call it New Urbanism," he says, referring to a now-decades old trend in urban planning that emphasizes active lifestyles, town center-style mixed-use development, reducing the need for short car trips to nearby destinations. "It's not a dense New Urbanism. That's what this whole discussion is about, is how do you take an area that is clearly in transition and create a master plan that makes New Urbanism work … to allow people to enjoy the atmosphere that is here — and to serve the neighborhood, not the community at large."