A $50,000 economic revitalization plan for a street near the the Woolen Mills factory has started moving forward in Albemarle County.
As part of the county’s financial support for the redevelopment of the historic factory into the corporate campus for WillowTree Inc., the county earmarked funds for an economic revitalization plan along the light industry-zoned Broadway Street.
“The study recognizes the inevitability of change and evolution along the corridor with the relocation of WillowTree to Woolen Mills,” said Deputy County Executive Doug Walker to the Board of Supervisors on Wednesday.
He said the board directed staff to focus on “encouraging adaptive reuse, and leveraging the unique assets of the corridor for business development opportunities,” and not to undertake a fuller land use planning effort.
“The interest here is to study and understand what the options and opportunities are, recognizing that any role that is played could have significant implications,” Walker said.
Walker said WillowTree’s relocation is already creating interest from other technology innovation sector businesses that want to be close to the company. On Thursday, WillowTree announced its merger with Dynamit Technologies.
Business tenants of a warehouse at 1740 Broadway St. said during the public comment period that they are worried that rent increases associated with development in the area will push them out of the space.
Morgan Ashcom, an area artist who manages the building, said that when he moved to the area in 2017, he realized there were not a lot of affordable places for entrepreneurs and artists to have a place to work. He said he worked to set up the space, and realized a potential $30 to $40 per month rent increase to pay for high speed internet was going to displace many of his tenants.
“What I’d like to do is develop some sort of plan with you all to help protect the working class people and the artists that are doing something really amazing unique at this building,” he said.
Patrick Collins, the owner and operator of Collins Cellars, said he rents space in Ashcom’s building for his boutique cidery.
“This is my first harvest just now and I’ll have a product for sale next summer,” he said. “It would not be possible for me to do any of this without the availability of low-barrier, small square footage warehouse space.”
Collins said that 1740 Broadway St. and other nearby spaces encourage small business development.
“I asked the board to please not only consider my own ability to conduct business in the county but to also affirm the opportunity for additional owner operated businesses in the immediate and long term future to open and thrive,” he said.
Karina Monroy, the program coordinator for Creciendo Juntos, an organization that advocates for the Latinx community, said the nonprofit began renting space at 1740 Broadway St. in August. She said the space has not only allowed their work to become more organized and efficient, but also has given a space for safety and creativity for Latinx community members.
“A safe space for gathering is something that is often taken for granted,” she said. “But as a person who is with these Latinx community members every day, I’ve heard students and community members saying that they don’t feel like they have a place to gather and be themselves and voice their opinions openly and freely, and this space has become that space for them.”
Bill Emory, a former city planning commissioner and a resident of the Woolen Mills neighborhood, asked the board to direct county staff to widen the scope of future community engagement.
“To date, the Woolen Mills and east Belmont-Carlton neighbors, those who live surrounding the Broadway corridor, those who will shoulder the impacts Broadway Blueprint, have not been included in the outreach effort,” he said.
Emory, as well as Sean Tubbs of Piedmont Environmental Council, encouraged the county to work with Charlottesville.
“Just thinking strictly from a transportation network and how long it takes to get transportation projects working, it might have been useful to have begun that part of the process earlier,” Tubbs said. “There’s still time to proceed with that, as various projects go through.”
All streets that lead to Broadway are city streets.
Super Norman Dill asked if county staff had reached out to the city about the economic revitalization plan and redevelopment projects on its side of Woolen Mills.
Walker said the city does know about the plan and they anticipate the city will be more involved in the future.
“They have not yet been included in the immediate outreach to the property owners and tenants, but we are anticipating that that will occur,” he said.
Supervisor Ann H. Mallek said part of placemaking is to “get out of the way and to not be telling people what to do,” referring to the tenants who spoke earlier in the meeting who have, she said, already created “a hub of activity there that has blossomed without intervention.”
“I think they’re very fearful that they’ll be put out of business because of the expansion, as it’s happened to lots of small businesses in the other parts of the county where they are clinging to their old warehouse space,” she said.
Mallek said she was interested in learning more about the possibility of imposing tax caps on certain parts of the area.
“I think there must be some way that we could help to have some conversations about that, and learn what people who own property and have tenants who would like to stay, how they would like to participate and get ideas from them as well,” she said.
Supervisor Diantha McKeel said she agreed about getting out of people’s way, but said that there has to be a balance.
“Because if we completely stay out of their way, I fear that the organic and natural increase in property values will be detrimental to their ability to keep up, so I think there’s a balance,” she said.
Mallek said it’s great to share, notify and listen to other jurisdictions, but it’s the county’s responsibility to take lead on this plan.
“I hope that we will remember to keep our focus on what our citizens need and our decisions, and not leave people out and welcome their input, but doing this as a giant governmental structure is not something I’m ready to go for right now,” she said.