A Georgia developer’s $6 million investment on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall could be reduced to rubble if fixes the city wants aren’t made, although officials say that outcome is unlikely.
The city Planning Commission will decide Tuesday whether to declare the skeletal Landmark Hotel blighted and send recommendations for dealing with it to the City Council for final approval.
One of the options is to raze the structure, although that would only happen in extreme circumstances, said Jim Tolbert, the city’s director of neighborhood development services.
“We have the right to do it, under the city code … council would have a public hearing, declare it blighted, and if the owner doesn’t do anything to fix it, we tear it down,” he said. “That’s an option we normally put out there, but I don’t anticipate that happening. It hasn’t gotten to that level.”
Instead, Tolbert will ask the Planning Commission and the council to approve a plan to fortify fencing around the building to prevent vandals and graffiti artists from entering the site.
A city staff report calls for the city to build a new 10-foot-high fence around the first floor of the building, to replace the existing 8-foot plywood fence.
To prevent people entering the structure from adjacent buildings, the staff report recommends adding a chain-link fence around the second floor. Tolbert said city staff members have not proved that people are entering from neighboring buildings, but preventing second-floor access is “common sense.”
The report also calls for security cameras to be installed at the site to record anyone entering the property, and for additional fencing around an interior staircase, to keep people from climbing to the upper floors.
If the Planning Commission and the council approve the plans, the city will put the work out to bid, then bill developer John Dewberry, Tolbert said. If he refuses to pay, the city will put a lien on the property, Tolbert said.
Tolbert said he knows neither the cost of repairs nor when they would be completed.
“My guess is council may give him a few days to see if he will do it, and if not, we will have to write the specs and bid it, so it will not happen immediately,” he said.
The council is expected to make a decision Feb. 3, Tolbert said.
Construction on the nine-story structure halted in 2009, after then-owner Halsey Minor ran into financial trouble.
Dewberry purchased the property in June 2012, and said then that while he hoped to begin work within a year to turn it into a luxury hotel, the project would not be completed quickly.
His company also is building a hotel in a former federal building in Charleston, S.C. He has said work on the Landmark would not begin until construction starts in Charleston. Dewberry told city officials in the fall that he’d yet to secure financing for that project.
At the Landmark, meanwhile, vandals and graffiti artists have scaled the fence and tagged the upper stories of the building, stirring the concern of city officials.
Tolbert sent Dewberry a letter in September, telling him city staff had preliminarily determined the building was blighted, and gave him 30 days to correct the problem.
Dewberry responded with a letter to the City Council in late October. In it, the former Georgia Tech quarterback compared vandals entering his property to thieves breaking into a house.
“I am certain, if one is desirous, one can scale the wooden wall and climb onto the property. Just as I am certain, if one is desirous, one can enter each of your homes,” the letter read. “I can never remember a property owner being held responsible for these acts of trespassing and vandalism.”
Dewberry expressed a similar view last week in an interview with WINA radio host Rob Schilling.
Dewberry did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but Tolbert said Dewberry has seen and responded to the staff report Tolbert will present next week.
“He sent me an email and said, ‘Thanks for sending me the report, and I hope you and your family had a nice holiday,’” Tolbert said.
Though the Landmark is nearing its fifth year as an unfinished husk, Tolbert said previous owners have always avoided a blight declaration by allowing the city to secure it.
“The previous owner allowed us to make the needed small repairs,” he said. “The current owner has made no repairs, and his representatives told us to stay away from the property.”
The city razed a house on Montrose Avenue in 2011, Tolbert said, after the council declared it blighted and gave the owner 30 days to repair it.
But the city never has dealt with a situation like the Landmark, Tolbert said.
“We’ve never had a project, to my knowledge, that has sat unfinished like this,” he said. “Most people finish their projects.”
Councilor Kristin Szakos said she is not interested in tearing the building down.
“I haven’t heard anything yet that tells me that it ought to be torn down,” she said. “If I got everything I wanted, I would like to see it built.”