Charlottesville plans to hire an independent consultant to assess the structural integrity of the unfinished Dewberry building on the Downtown Mall — a move that marks the first step toward possibly taking it down.
Assistant City Attorney Sebastian Waisman sent a letter to David B. Groce, general counsel for Dewberry Capital Corp., on Nov. 1 asking for permission to inspect the building.
City spokesman Brian Wheeler said Dewberry didn’t respond to that letter, so the city sent a certified copy in December. The letter was signed for and accepted, but no response has been received.
“It’s not often that I can say I speak for the community, but I think I speak for all that Dewberry’s steel skeleton is an eyesore we would like to see disappear as soon as possible,” Wheeler said.
The city provided a copy of the letter after The Daily Progress inquired about a charge to mail the certified letter on a city employee’s credit card statement obtained through the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.
The hulking skeleton on the Downtown Mall — now known as Dewberry Living— has sat vacant, unfinished and exposed to the elements since construction halted in 2009.
The building is owned by Dewberry Capital, a company led by John Dewberry, a former Georgia Tech and Canadian Football League quarterback and real estate developer. It originally was to be a hotel, but Dewberry is now planning luxury apartments.
If the assessment were to find the structure unsound, the city could begin taking steps toward demolishing it under the blight ordinance.
The ordinance follows state code, which requires properties to meet certain circumstances to be declared blighted. A property must endanger the public’s “health, safety, or welfare” by being “dilapidated, deteriorated or violat[ing] minimum health and safety standards,” according to state code.
If the building were determined a blight, the city could tear it down and bill the owner for the work.
Wheeler said City Manager Tarron Richardson and City Attorney John Blair are discussing the next steps, including further communication with Dewberry or legal measures.
Waisman’s letter cities several complaints of issues at the building during the past year and a half that have “intensified the City’s concern over long-standing risks,” including construction debris, rodent infestation, weeds and unsecured exterior doors.
The letter says a resident reported in August that debris blew off into the public right of way during a storm.
That month, Alex Ikefuna, director of the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development Services, emailed then-interim City Manager Mike Murphy to say that city staff did not directly see any debris, but noticed two boards that needed to be reattached. Wheeler provided the email at the time after an inquiry from The Progress.
Ikefuna’s email said that Groce had contacted the city to say the problem would be promptly addressed.
Another August report came from city officials who noticed weeds growing into the public right of way.
The letter cites an August 2018 report of a rodent infestation and notes that although Dewberry has taken measures to address it, the city is still concerned about pests.
In October, city staff noticed that the exterior paneling of the building had been damaged and the city’s on-call contractor had to make the repairs over several days. Waisman notes that since the structure isn’t monitored, the city doesn’t know if anyone entered it or did anything that could compromise the building’s integrity.
Waisman’s letter also says that 2018 saw some of the heaviest rainfall on record and that city staff are still concerned about its exposure to extreme weather.
The letter references a 2017 report by KSi Structural Engineers, which Wheeler said was contracted by Dewberry, that concluded that the structure is in “good condition.”
“Our observations and review did not reveal any signs of distress which would cause concern for the general safety of the structural system,” the report said.
Waisman’s letter makes it clear that the city believes a new study is necessary.
Waisman is currently on leave and was not available for comment.
The building has troubled city officials since tech entrepreneur Halsey Minor broke ground on the planned Landmark Hotel in 2008.
In early 2009, construction ground to a halt before a planned Fourth of July opening, and by 2010, Minor’s hotel business had filed for bankruptcy.
Dewberry bought the property at auction for $6.25 million in 2012 and has since left a sour taste in the mouth of many city staffers and area residents.
Dewberry said work would resume in 2015 after he completed another hotel in Charleston, South Carolina. That hotel opened in 2016 and nothing has been done to the Charlottesville property since.
The City Council last explored civil and criminal options after a January 2016 incident when part of the structure fell on a neighboring building.
The most recent construction on the property occurred in 2014. After the hotel was vandalized the year before, Dewberry installed a taller fence and blocked stairwells.
In late 2013, Dewberry sent a letter to city officials expressing his outrage in the belief that he was being targeted because people were vandalizing his building.
City officials pushed to incentivize construction in 2017 through an agreement to provide more than $1 million in tax breaks for the property. The agreement also guaranteed 75 spots in the Water Street Parking Garage and required at least $20 million investment and substantial construction by fall 2020.
The framework for the deal was approved in March 2017, but nine months later, a divided council voted it down.
In March 2018, the city’s Board of Architectural Review approved a certificate of appropriateness for additional height on the portion of the building along the Downtown Mall. The approval would allow for 17 more rooms than were in the original plans.
Since that meeting, the only change in the property has been two new names — first The Laramore and now Dewberry Living.
Wheeler said the certificate of appropriateness expired in September and the building permit also has expired, therefore Dewberry cannot conduct any work without city approval.
Dewberry representatives did not respond to requests for comment.