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The Corner: Retail, student hub gives sense of place

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Posted: Sunday, May 13, 2007 6:41 pm | Updated: 5:05 pm, Thu Jan 24, 2013.

The theater, the barbershops and men’s clothing stores are history, supplanted by sandwich shops and dress boutiques and increasing numbers of chains and franchises.

The neighborhood, however, is far from dying.

The Corner, Charlottesville’s historic commercial district a stone’s throw from the University of Virginia, hasn’t lost its down-home feel or importance to UVa students, despite an ever-changing slate of storefronts. About 16 out of 67 businesses in the district, bounded by the Red Roof Inn to the east and Bank of America to the west, are either chains or franchises that can be found in cities across the country. Many of the businesses have local ownership, however.

Although no statistics have been kept on the number of chains and franchises, most merchants and long-time customers say they’ve noticed an influx of nationally known storefronts in the past few years. That includes Starbucks, Subway, Pita-Pita, Mellow Mushroom, Jimmy Johns, Qdoba, Absolute Tan, Sakura Japanese Cuisine, Amigos Mexican Food and the Student Book Store.

They coexist with local shops such as Mincer’s, Dixie Divas and Finch and restaurants such as the Buddhist Biker Bar, Coupe DeVille Restaurant and the Take-It-Away sandwich shop.

“We’re a magnet for restaurants, just like the Downtown Mall,” said Bob Mincer, the second of three generations to operate Mincer’s Sportswear at Elliewood and University Avenue. “We’ve got restaurants coming out of our ears and we’ve lost the variety of dry goods retailers but people eat three meals a day, so I guess things are going well.”

Mincer, who recently retired and turned the shop keys over to his son, Mark, said the past two decades have seen great change.

“We used to have three places that carried textbooks and now we’ve got only one, that’s the Student Book Store,” he said. “I hate to see them leave because they pull in some students, and students are customers. Like the old banking motto goes: Customers are good for business.”

There are still a lot of customers.

“We’re unique in that we have a lot of local owners of businesses in the area and a lot of businesses that have been here a long time,” said Mark Lorenzoni, of the Ragged Mountain Running Shop on Elliewood Avenue. Lorenzoni is the spokesman for the Corner Merchants Association. He opened his athletic shoe and accessories store in 1982.

“The Virginian, the White Spot, the College Inn, Littlejohn’s have been here for, in some cases, more than 20 years, although they may not have the same owners,” Lorenzoni said. “The area is far from being [dominated by chain or franchises like] U.S. 29. It’s overwhelmingly local and very accessible.”

Change is limited

Other college campuses have areas like The Corner that serve the student community without losing their uniqueness or historic nature. The University of Minnesota’s Dinkytown is one example.

Other college corners across the country, however, are being redeveloped with high-end commercial developments, high-priced condominium units and national stores. Some schools, such as Princeton, are purchasing property near their campuses to create a similar atmosphere that exists at The Corner.

There is likely to be little visible change on The Corner in the future. Charlottesville’s Corner properties in 2003 were included in a city historic district that restricts what type of redevelopment can occur.

“It essentially limits the kind of development that can take place and puts restrictions on any demolition of existing buildings,” explained Mary Joy Scala, preservation and design planner with the city. “If a franchise or chain or local business can meet the requirements of the district, they have no problem.”

The requirement helps keep The Corner free of “big box” businesses and restaurants that put up their own freestanding buildings. Some chains, such as Qdoba Mexican Grill, have fit their business plan into existing structures.

UVa officials say they’ve noticed the trend toward nationally known businesses, but say it has had little impact on students and student life.

“Things change. The market changes, the trends change and new products become more important in society and in the lives of students,” said Leonard W. Sandridge, UVa’s executive vice president and chief operating officer. “For first-year [students] coming to the university who have always known of Starbucks, seeing a Starbucks on The Corner is welcoming. It’s almost as if the Starbucks had been planned for the site by Mr. Jefferson. It’s part of their history.”

A sense of place

The Corner is a seven-block area from 12 1/2 Street Southwest to Madison Lane. It’s home to a quirky and eclectic mix of diners, restaurants, clothing and miscellaneous mercantile shops that include record stores, a smoke shop, a lingerie boutique and a pool hall.

Directly across from Central Grounds, the district has for more than 100 years acted like a magnet for students and faculty needing a break from the school day or looking for a place to snack and read. For some, there is no separating the university from The Corner.

“People come to the university to get a sense of place. The Rotunda, the Lawn, the historic buildings all give it a sense of a being one place apart,” Sandridge said. “Alumni remember the university and The Corner as they were when they were here. Whether they graduated in the 1950s, 1970s or 1990s, they can come down today and find The Corner doesn’t seem all that different, although it may have changed. They are still seeing it as it was during their period of time here. There is also a sense of connection between generations when they find some of the places they went to as undergraduates still here when their children are entering the university.”

That sense of place, and the foot traffic that goes with it, is a major reason entrepreneurs still come to The Corner.

“There’s a good amount of [foot traffic] with undergrad, hospital staff and townies. There’s a large number of people in the area who come down because there are good eateries and people walking around,” said Allison Hurt, the proprietor and operator of Flirt, a lingerie store at 14th Street Northwest and University Avenue.

Hurt, a UVa grad, was involved in numerous retail businesses on The Corner before opening her store last year.

“There are lots of great boutiques for women’s fashions. I saw Finch explode as [the owner] developed it,” she said. “I tried to have real jobs, but I kept coming back to not just retail, but aligning myself with entrepreneurs. I’m stimulated by buying, stocking, selling and marketing. It’s a lot of work, but I love it. Every little bit of this [store] is me. It’s me and I’m in control of it. I always found myself working harder than other people so why not work harder for me?”

Times change, customers don't

Historically, the business district has catered to UVa students with men’s and women’s clothing, drug stores, convenience stores, university-related items and entertainment including restaurants and bars.

Charlottesville economic officials see The Corner retaining that business base.

“It serves the university area almost exclusively and may actually grow as the university continues to expand up West Main Street,” said Chris Engle, of the city’s economic development department. “We don’t see the likelihood of having big chains coming because it’s pretty well built out. It has its own audience.”

That audience convinced four area residents to locate an organic drink and food business on Elliewood Avenue.

On a recent afternoon, Julia Jondahl, Geoff Robinson, Tim Rose and Stuart Madany (with 2-year-old Isa Sander Madany in tow) sat in front of the Take-It-Away sandwich shop on Elliewood, discussing plans for their business, Sublime All-Natural. All four are UVa grads, have restaurant experience and found The Corner an enticing place to locate.

“Students tend to be more open to new ideas and new experiences, and there’s a lot of foot traffic. That’s always important,” Jondahl said.

“Students also tend to be agents of change in society at large and are more willing to embrace change,” Madany said. “This is a good place for [the business] to be.”

Location, location, location

Students and society change, and The Corner has changed with them. According to research conducted by Coy Barefoot, author of “The Corner,” the district had 17 rooming, boarding and apartment houses in 1900, 21 in 1950 and only one in 2000 as more apartments and living quarters are built in nearby city neighborhoods to handle student needs.

There were two drugstores in 1900 and 1950 but none in 2000 and none today. Also gone from the scene are dance studios, cleaners, gas stations, florists and shoe repair shops.

In comparison, there are 26 restaurants, 11 bars and three coffee houses compared with seven, two and none, respectively, in 1950.

The businesses change according to trends in commerce, fashion and generational tastes. While women’s clothing continues a strong presence on The Corner, the last men’s clothier, Eljo’s, left its spot on Elliewood Avenue in 2006 after 56 years.

“[The Corner] is a great location and when one business leaves, another comes in pretty quick to take its place and most of those are locally owned,” said Lorenzoni, whose athletic store took over the space that housed Eljo’s, now located in the Millmont Shops, behind Barracks Road Shopping Center.

“Over the years certain businesses have played important roles in the lives of those at the university. The University Cafeteria was a major gathering place for students and faculty and staff, and certain sandwich shops and other locations have played major roles,” Sandridge said. “We tend to think of The Corner as remaining the same, but if you look at it realistically it has changed a great deal. It’s very much associated with the university and impacted by societal trends, which also affect us.”

Sandridge noted that his office, in UVa’s Madison Hall, was a hamburger joint known as The Dry Dock in the 1940s and 1950s when the building was owned by the YMCA.

“[The Corner] has been an important part of student life for many years. I’m convinced that it adds to the experience of being here,” he said. “The businesses may be different and the products are different but they still are an asset to students, parents and friends.”

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