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Woolen Mills project nears completion; Albemarle board agrees to another extension of agreement

The redevelopment of the former Woolen Mills factory in Albemarle County is nearly completed.

“There’s still some little things to do,” developer Brian Roy said. “If everyone wanted to be up and running, we could get it all done.”

Construction started in February 2019 on the project, which will house mobile app developer WillowTree Inc. and an event space, restaurant and microbrewery dubbed The Wool Factory. The property also will provide a public connection for the Rivanna Trail.

The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors on Wednesday voted to extend an agreement with Roy to Sept. 30, which requires the development to provide 10 parking spaces for public use; build a pedestrian bridge to connect to the Rivanna Trail across Moores Creek; and pay up to $40,000 for the first year of shuttle service connecting the site to downtown.

The agreement already has been extended once, but Roger Johnson, Albemarle’s economic development director, said this extension will give Roy time to complete the bridge.

“There’s been other factors … more than just COVID-19, but those factors all combined, [we] said let’s just move this back to Sept. 30 to make sure that the developer has plenty of time to complete this particular part of the project,” Johnson said.

Roy said in an interview that there have been coordination issues with the contractors and the agencies that need to approve the bridge.

“We’re actually ready to build it now, so I don’t know that [the extension] is really necessary but it’s just kind of preemptive, as it can take a long time to get something approved,” he said.

WillowTree will use most of the space in the buildings, leasing nearly 85,000 square feet.

CEO Tobias Dengel told the board that the company has lost about 20% to 25% of its clients due to economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In the last two weeks in April, I feel like every time the phone rang, it was one of our clients telling us they had to suspend the project or end it early or weren’t able to start,” he said.

With 550 employees, the company didn’t qualify for the Payment Protection Program, Dengel said, and it instituted graduated compensation reductions instead of layoffs.

“Myself and other owners went to zero compensation for the time being in order to save money, and we’ve been able to weather the initial shock,” he said.

The company’s growth is going to be slower than expected, he said, and WillowTree will ask for an extension on employment targets that were part of an agreement with the county.

To match a state grant, Albemarle agreed to give the company $500 for every new employee, up to $200,000. The agreement expires March 1, 2021, but can be extended one year.

“We are going to, ourselves, be very careful about reopening,” Dengel said. “We do have the luxury that a lot of the work that we do can be done from home — almost all of it. So we’re going to make the office available as the state opens up and the region opens up over the next few weeks and months to folks who want to come back to work.”

During a walk-through of the site, Roy said he wanted to preserve as much of the old factory’s original floors as possible.

“When I first bought the property, there was probably a quarter-inch of black soot and grease,” he said. “It took a while, but once we uncovered them, they came out beautiful.”

There are three main buildings on the site — two sawtooth buildings and one four-story building. The roof structure of the sawtooth buildings, which the team was able to keep during construction, allows for a lot of natural light.

“We kept the original windows, but they’re thin, single-pane, so we put an interior storm window and so we still have the historical look but still have functionality and are able to control the temperature,” Roy said.

A library area, in the space of the original elevator on the second floor, overlooks the third and fourth floors.

“I wanted to preserve where the freight elevator had been, and so we were able to make it a useful space that you can still see that this is where the original elevator was,” he said.

The Wool Factory, which sits toward the back of the main building, is home to an event space, Selvedge Brewing, the restaurant Broadcloth and wine bottle and coffee shop The Workshop.

Wool Factory partner and COO Dan FitzHenry said the space originally was intended to have people mix and gather and access each of the entities, but with social distancing guidelines, the employees have had to make changes.

“We’ve had to definitely rethink that,” he said. “But as we’re thinking about when and how to open, our highest priority is definitely the safety of our staff and the guests that come on site.”

A specific opening date is not and was never set for the space. FitzHenry said some bookings in April were postponed, but even with the altered timeline, things are still moving forward.

“We’re not really tethered to the kind of preconceived notions of how that space is, or how a restaurant used to run, which is freeing in a way,” he said. “And we can train our staff from the very outset operating with new procedures, thinking about which members of the staff are running food, which members are cleaning. It’s kind of worked to our advantage. Obviously, we would not have ever wished this to happen, but we’re getting creative and it’s fun.”

Outside the building, historical markers are being added along the river and the public is welcomed to use the paved walkway to get to the pedestrian bridge over the creek, Roy said.

“This has been a break in the Rivanna Trail for years, so it’ll connect this point,” he said. “So you’ll be able to, in theory, loop around all of Charlottesville.”

Roy said his intention is to own the site long-term.

“I’d like to hold it,” he said. “I love the building, love the area and I want to be part of it for a long time.”


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