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Dewberry building beautified, but fate stays murky

The newly minted Friends of Cville Downtown organization officially unveiled a new mural wrapped around the unfinished Dewberry building at a press conference Monday, but there are few answers about the former Landmark Hotel’s fate.

The $45,000 mural is the first major effort for the nonprofit downtown organization, part of its Campaign for Main Street project. The mural, entitled Music Box on Main, is made from vinyl panels printed with the artwork of Eric Waugh, a Canadian painter.

The organization, which has absorbed and replaced the former Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville, says it has other plans to improve downtown’s aesthetic and appeal.

The Friends group is a privately funded, nonprofit organization that plans to work with the city government. It is a designated fund of the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation to which people may make donations.

The organization’s current managing board is primarily made up of developers, landowners and business owners.

Michael Caplin, co-chair of the Friends’ Campaign for Main Street, said the idea for the group came during a meeting of the now defunct business association, which was organized under a different section of the Internal Revenue Service code, making it unable to raise donated income.

“It never was able to assemble enough revenue to do the kind of projects they wanted done. I attended their meetings and we discussed standing up a friends group. Informally, a friends group is just a group of people who agreed to put money in to be spent for public purpose,” Caplin said.

“With the help of the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation, we stood-up a donor-advised group, Friends of Cville Downtown,” he said. “Then [the association] decided that they would merge their operations with ours. We’ve now filed for our own tax exempt status.”

Caplin said there are plans to put more murals and art installations throughout the Downtown Mall area. Other goals are to install public restrooms on the mall, add side street lighting, renovate Market Street Park and help those people downtown who are currently homeless.

“Everybody is aware of the fact that there are homeless people who during the day spend their time on the mall,” Caplin said. “I asked Charlottesville Social Services to explain to us what a better response could look like, and they’ve designed something.”

That something, Caplin said, is the Community Care Team. He said the team would be an intense, proactive outreach to people on a daily basis to build relationships and assist with “a more promising outcome.”

“We’ve wrapped up the budget. We have worked up in mechanics. Now I have to go get some money,” Caplin said of the care team.

Charlottesville Mayor Lloyd Snook said the team initiative is slated to appear on a future City Council agenda.

As for the freshly skinned but still skeletal Dewberry building, neither Caplin nor Snook had information on the developer’s plans.

For years, the building has sat empty and unfinished, drawing complaints, criticism and snide remarks from the public and some officials.

The property’s original and most recognizable name was the Landmark Hotel when tech entrepreneur Halsey Minor broke ground in 2008. The concrete frame of the building was raised, but construction stopped after the Recession struck and the project went into bankruptcy.

In 2012, John Dewberry, a former Georgia Tech and Canadian Football League quarterback, bought the property at auction for $6.25 million. He placed his name on it, calling the building the Dewberry Hotel.

City officials tried to jumpstart construction with an agreement for parking and tax breaks in 2017, but the deal fell through at the last minute. In 2019, Dewberry said he planned to turn the building into luxury apartments. Under the property’s current zoning, Dewberry can construct 12 apartments by-right in the building.

Dewberry, founder and CEO of the Dewberry Group, and his wife Jaimie Dewberry, director of the Dewberry Foundation, were slated to appear at the press conference, but canceled due to COVID-19 related issues, said Caplin.

The Dewberry Foundation donated $10,000 to Friends of Cville Downtown and is listed as a co-sponsor of the mural. Caplin said the Dewberrys plan to visit Charlottesville in the next couple of weeks.

The vinyl wrap of the Landmark’s remains and Dewberry’s bones, has been derided as a Band-Aid. When asked about the criticism, Snook said sometimes that’s needed.

“Sometimes you need a band aid. A band aid is better than nothing. This is not going to be the answer, but it’s an expression of things, and that’s very important,” Snook said.

“I’m not saying this because I have any inside information, I don’t. But the fact that we’re here at all, the fact that we’re here with the Dewberrys’ support, suggests to me that maybe something good is about to be happening,” the mayor said.

“I’m hoping that somebody soon will be able to stand up and say, ‘I’ve got an announcement that you’re all gonna really enjoy,’” he said.

Some have called on the city to take over the building and use it for housing, but Snook said the city can do very little unless the building falls into dangerous disrepair.

“What people often seem to want us to do is to take it over and to convert it into public housing, but you don’t have the authority to do that unless the building is literally falling down,” Snook said. “We don’t have the ability just to say we don’t like this building, we’re taking it.”

Snook said the city cannot afford to buy it.

“If we were to buy it, we’d have to pay a market price for it. And it’s currently assessing $6 million,” he said. “That’s just never been an option for us.”


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