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UVa buys a storied estate and one of Charlottesville's largest tracts of land

Oak Lawn, one of the largest tracts in Charlottesville proper with plenty of Jeffersonian history, has been sold to the University of Virginia, which says it will expand its health services there while preserving the property’s 1822 mansion which stands on 5.2 acres at the corner of Ninth Street Southwest and Cherry Avenue.

"UVA Health will partner with the Fifeville Neighborhood Association and other community groups to explore how to best use the historic home to support community needs," UVa said in a statement after the sale.

The purchase price was $3.5 million, and the buyer is listed as the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, according to a deed dated Oct. 16 and filed in Charlottesville Circuit Court. The property is assessed at $2.2 million and was listed for sale in March for $4.2 million.

"I think it’s a win for the Fifeville community," the listing agent, Ross Stevens, told The Daily Progress.

Stevens said that UVa’s submission of the winning bid should come as no surprise.

"There’s no other land with that proximity to the hospital," said Stevens.

Early on in the sales process, Stevens said he was getting interest from developers.

"That was kind of the last resort," Stevens said after UVa’s purchase was made public.

He said that UVa submitted a simpler and quicker-to-close contract than a developer could offer — of particular note as Charlottesville is in the midst of a major overhaul of its comprehensive plan.

"There was so much up in the air because of the rezoning process, and we didn’t want to get hung up on a long study period," said Stevens.

A mile to the north, the developer of additional phases of the Dairy Central mixed-use complex, home to the Dairy Market food hall, announced a pause in plans to build more than 400 apartments after activists complained in July about various aspects of that proposal.

One proposal for Oak Lawn came forward shortly after the property was listed: a cultural center called "Agora" promoted by a veteran museum creator. That project seemed to require millions of dollars in public or private financial support, and no politicians threw their energy behind it.

UVa’s statement mentions "childcare services for both Fifeville residents and UVA Health team members" as an option for the Oak Lawn property, and Stevens said that’s consistent with what he heard.

"I think the catalyst for all of it was the need for child care for the hospital," said Stevens, "and they’ll figure out the rest."

What the rest might look like concerns some neighbors, such as Katrina Turner, who was working the cash register at the nearby Kush Kingdom market the morning after the sale announcement.

"If UVa is doing something to help to help this community, to help with child care, then I’m all for it," Turner told The Daily Progress.

However, she expressed concern that the tract, like most properties that UVa owns, would soon be coming off the tax rolls.

"Everybody else has to pay taxes," said Turner. "UVa needs to start paying the taxes."

The UVa Student Council agrees. In February, that group passed a resolution calling on the university to make an annual payment of at least $10 million to cover a portion of the foregone tax revenue on the roughly 2,000 acres that the school owns.

That footprint concerns Peter Johanson, a customer at A Cut Above the Rest, a Cherry Avenue barber shop.

"It brings a better look to the neighborhood, but you’re pushing people out," said Johanson. "UVa buying this is just another step to expanding their property and pushing everyone else out."

Leadership in the Fifeville neighborhood doesn’t seem quite as worried, as the president of the neighborhood association delivered a quotation for the official UVa press release, which noted several partnerships between the community and the university, including a pay-what-you-can farm stand and health station at Abundant Life Ministries on Prospect Avenue.

“We look forward to our continued partnership with UVA Health, and to coming together to envision how Oak Lawn can serve the Fifeville community,” Carmelita Wood, president of the Fifeville Neighborhood Association, said in the statement.

One piece of the property which seems secure is the house, which was constructed under the supervision of James Dinsmore, a Scotch-Irish immigrant who became a major contractor at Monticello, the primary estate of UVa founder Thomas Jefferson. Dinsmore built Oak Lawn for a local merchant named Nimrod Branham.

"There are no current plans to tear down the historic house," said the UVa statement. "It will be used to help provide services to the community."

James Fife, an engineer and planter-turned-preacher, bought Oak Lawn in 1847 when the property measured more than 300 acres. Fife’s descendants sold off tracts and lived there until recently. The last couple there both became Charlottesville mayors: Nancy O’Brien and the late Francis Fife.

Stevens said the family supports the sale.

"The sellers are glad that it’s in good hands and will help the Fifeville community," he said.


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