The developer behind the Dewberry Hotel appears to be instead planning a luxury apartment building for the unfinished structure on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall.
The Dewberry Group has moved the property from its “hospitality” section of its website, which features a hotel, to the “living” section, which features luxury apartment complexes.
Multiple attempts to reach the developer were unsuccessful in the past two weeks. Developer John Dewberry is also elusive to city staff and officials, and some haven’t heard from company representatives in well over a year.
“The problem with Dewberry is nobody really knows what he’s doing,” said former Councilor Bob Fenwick. “He’ll tell people he’ll do one thing and then he’ll never come through.”
However, city staff may have little interaction with the company because the apartments would be allowed by-right, though only about 12 are legal under the current Downtown Corridor zoning. The building has eight floors above street level.
Any additional apartments would require a special-use permit, but city staff members haven’t received any correspondence in more than a year.
The property, now marketed as The Laramore, is listed alongside another complex that Dewberry constructed outside of Charleston, South Carolina.
That property lists studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments, with rents ranging from $1,250 to $2,155.
The website calls for two levels of retail property and a rooftop “venue.”
“Though it will receive the full Studio Dewberry treatment in terms of modernization and first-class amenities, its architectural provenance and integrity will be preserved and celebrated,” the website says.
The namesake comes from Joseph C. “Jack” Laramore, who designed the street-level portion of the building. Laramore was a Korean War veteran and Charlottesville architect who served on the city’s Board of Architectural Review. He died in 2017.
Drawings for The Laramore on Dewberry’s website are the same as those that were submitted to the city’s Board of Architectural Review, with the only change being the name on the front of the building and two trees or bushes removed from the roof.
The structure on the Downtown Mall has been a sore spot for residents and city officials since construction halted in 2009.
The property has been through several owners and iterations since tech entrepreneur Halsey Minor broke ground on what was planned as the Landmark Hotel in 2008.
Construction ground to a halt the following year and, by 2010, Minor’s business had filed for bankruptcy.
Two years later, Dewberry, a former Georgia Tech and Canadian Football League quarterback, bought the property at an auction in 2012 for $6.25 million.
Work was expected to resume in 2015 after Dewberry completed another hotel in Charleston, South Carolina, that opened in 2016.
Dewberry’s only contributions to the skeletal structure were a taller fence and blocked stairwells, installed in 2014 after the hotel was vandalized the year before.
The last push from city officials to jump-start construction was in 2017 through an agreement to provide more than $1 million in tax breaks for the project. The overall agreement 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.
Councilor Wes Bellamy and Fenwick voted in favor of the framework but flipped to vote against the proposal in December.
The final vote came after protests from the local arm of the Democratic Socialists of America — a protest led by Michael Payne, now a Democratic nominee for City Council.
Some residents have called for the city to seize the property through eminent domain, which could cost more than $6 million. Paul Long, an independent candidate for City Council, is holding a rally outside the structure on Wednesday to demand such action.
The city also has few options under the blight ordinance because the building isn’t falling apart or endangering anyone, so it likely wouldn’t reach the necessary threshold to be declared a blight. Eminent domain also requires the property to be a public danger or in the way of a public utility project.
Assistant City Manager Mike Murphy, who was interim city manager through May, wrote in an email that city staff spoke with Dewberry’s company in the winter and the developer “continues to consider his options” for the property.
Murphy wrote “I do not expect development is imminent” because Dewberry terminated the lease for parking spaces in the Water Street Parking Garage on March 1.
The parking agreement was signed by a Dewberry representative and former City Manager Maurice Jones in January 2018 after council approved it in November 2017. It was set to begin in April, but could be terminated with a 30-day notice.
Planning Commissioner Rory Stolzenberg said downtown residential complexes don’t have parking requirements. He also said that most landlords don’t lease parking spaces for their tenants, who must find their own parking. The parking garages, he said, also have multiyear waitlists.
The last city action on the property came in March 2018 when the city’s Board of Architectural Review approved additional height for the portion of the building along the Downtown Mall. The approval allowed for 17 more rooms than were in the original plans.
Fenwick said the possible change in plans is “interesting,” but he’s cautious to believe anything will happen to the building.
“He’s a businessman. He’ll strike the best deal he can,” Fenwick said of Dewberry. “Words are different than actual shovels in the ground.”