An eyesore, a hazard and a millionaire
The story of the Dewberry Hotel
Words by Spencer Philps. Photos by Riley Walsh.
At the corner of 2nd and East Main Street in Charlottesville sits an eleven-story, concrete skeleton of a building that looms imposingly above the historic pedestrian Downtown Mall.
The first few floors are boarded up with large plywood sheets that appear to be warping, and the nine floors above them remain fully exposed, with metal framing fitting between the raw concrete structure. The granite front of the building, what was once the Central Fidelity bank, is filled with debris, milk crates and piles of branches. Local residents have complained that the building is infested with rats and other animals.
This year marked the 11th anniversary of the groundbreaking of the Landmark Hotel, and there is little to show for it. According to the Dewberry Group’s website, the hotel is now poised to become The Laramore apartment complex. However, the construction would not comply with current zoning, according to The Daily Progress, and the completion of the project remains mysterious.
Conceived by Charlottesville developer Lee Danielson and financed largely by the wealthy entrepreneur Halsey Minor, a University graduate and descendant of the locally-prominent Minor family — two on-grounds buildings, Halsey Hall and Minor Hall, bear the names of his relatives — the nine-story boutique hotel was to bring over a hundred rooms to the heart of downtown Charlottesville.
Dave Norris, the mayor of Charlottesville at the time, was optimistic about the project, and at the groundbreaking celebration, Minor noted that the hotel would be “like nothing people have ever seen.”
After over 11 years of promises, delays, protracted litigation and bankruptcies, the hotel on 2nd and East Main is hardly closer to being completed than it was ten years ago, and the patience of many Charlottesville residents who see it as a blight on their downtown skyline has worn thin.
“People are upset because that location is literally in the center of the Downtown Mall, so one, its taking up this prime real estate spot on the Downtown Mall, and then two, it just looks terrible,” said James Burger, a University student who grew up in the area and worked in the Downtown Mall area during his time in high school.
“For as long as I lived here, it has just sat there, and nothing has been done about it,” Burger said.
Halsey Minor, Lee Danielson and the Landmark Hotel
The story of what led to the uncompleted tower cannot be explained without exploring the early relationship of Halsey Minor and Lee Danielson. Danielson, a local developer who led the Downtown Mall revitalization efforts in the 1990s, first purchased the land that would contain the hotel in 2000.
In the following years, Danielson tried in vain to construct a hotel on the property, selling it and then repurchasing the land in 2007. That year, he entered into a partnership with Minor, whom he had known since 1998, to fund construction of the Landmark Hotel.
The construction of the hotel grew turbulent just months after groundbreaking. Concerns grew around funding sources and the institutional lenders, and rumors spread that workers were not getting paid. Builders began to place liens on the property. By late 2009 and early 2010, construction on the hotel had stopped entirely, and Danielson announced that he had been fired by Minor.
Minor accused Danielson and a bank of colluding against him to drive up prices and filed lawsuits against the two — Danielson and the bank filed suits of their own against Minor. This was the beginning of several years of litigation and counterpunches — by 2010, Minor was involved in eight Landmark Hotel-related lawsuits in both Virginia and Georgia. That same year Minor Family Hotels, the company of which Minor served as the CEO, went bankrupt.
Simultaneously, Minor was dealing with other problems. In 2009, Sotheby’s, the art broker, claimed that Minor had failed to pay them back for three pieces of art, and a year later a judge ordered Minor to pay them $6.6 million. Additionally, a large farm he had bought near Colonial Williamsburg for $15.3 million to raise horses went bankrupt in 2011. According to a New York Times article, in one of his art-related lawsuits, his own lawyer described Minor to the jury as “rude” and “unlikeable.”
This lavish spending, coupled with the financial recession and the multiplying lawsuits, forced him to file for bankruptcy in 2013.
From the Landmark to the Dewberry Hotel
In June of 2012, the Landmark Hotel was put up for auction. Only two bidders entered, and the hotel project was ultimately awarded to Atlanta-based developer John Dewberry and his firm, Dewberry Capital, for $6.25 million. The project was renamed to the Dewberry Hotel.
Dewberry, a former Georgia Tech quarterback-turned well-known Atlanta-based developer, promised to pour millions of dollars in additions to the hotel, in line with Dewberry Capital’s underlying strategy of snatching up abandoned properties and continuing the construction.
A profile of John Dewberry in Bloomberg Businessweek noted his practices of sitting on valuable lots across the south, referring to him as a “developer who won’t develop.” The Bloomberg article also revealed that he currently sits on some of the most valuable properties in Atlanta, lots upon which he has yet to build. The article included quotes from people who knew him that referred to Dewberry as “narcissistic” and having an ego that gets in the way of his work.
At the time of his acquisition of the Landmark Hotel, Dewberry was in the process of renovating an old federal building in Charleston into a hotel that would be known as the Dewberry Charleston. They maintained that they would be completing that project first before starting on the Dewberry Hotel in Charlottesville.
In 2013, the City of Charlottesville ordered Dewberry to better secure the property, as it had become “detrimental to the safety, health and welfare of the community,” as people had begun to trespass and vandalize the property. Dewberry responded in a fiery letter that stated he had already done enough to secure it and went on to write that “I can never remember a property owner being held responsible for these acts of trespassing and vandalism. The perpetrator of these petty crimes is sought, not the owner of the property.”
In the letter, he also expressed his anger at the lack of progress on the project.
“Folks, I am much more frustrated than you. None of you have spent $7mm (and climbing) on this asset.” he wrote. He again reiterated that he would not begin work on the site until his property in Charleston was finished.
But by June of 2016, the Dewberry Charleston had opened its doors to laudatory praise. Despite Dewberry’s promise to begin construction on the Charlottesville Dewberry Hotel soon after, essentially no progress was made to the building.
In the fall of 2016, Dewberry asked the City of Charlottesville for an incentive that would allow him to recuperate the taxes that had accrued on the property so that he could continue construction.
City Council approved the terms of an agreement with Dewberry that guaranteed 75 parking spaces in the Water Street Parking Garage and substantial tax breaks that were contingent on Dewberry investing $20 million in the project and essentially complete the building by September of 2020. However, City Council voted down the plan in December 2017.
Michael Payne, formerly of the Charlottesville Arm of the Democratic Socialists of America and current candidate for City Council, was heavily involved with the community protest of these public incentives being offered to Dewberry. Payne noted Dewberry’s notorious reputation of sitting on land in desirable areas and fears other developers may follow his example.
“[The Charlottesville Democratic Socialists of America campaign] was trying to call attention to Dewberry’s business practices, and how he’s a bad actor, but also to oppose the City’s idea of giving him public money and public resources. I don’t think that that is a good practice, and I also think that it sets a bad precedent if the City gives into a developer in that way,” Payne said. “It creates a precedent that other developers could say, ‘Well, he did it, why don’t we try the same thing,’ and that’s something that’s actually happened in a lot of cities.”
Payne also noted how Charlottesville residents are still concerned about the Dewberry Hotel.
“I would say at the public forums and meet-and-greets that I’ve done, there’s almost always at least one question about the Dewberry Hotel, because people are upset about the fact that we have this big eyesore on the Downtown Mall,” Payne said.
He urged City Council to act decisively and fast to stop Dewberry from hurting the city more.
“Council needs to have a unified negotiating strategy,” Payne said. “It can’t waiver and go back and forth. They need to know exactly what their plan is going to be, and again, I would favor the City taking an aggressive negotiating strategy because at the end of the day John Dewberry is just trying to rip the City off.”
Not much apparent progress has been made to the building since the vote. In the spring of 2018, the Board of Architectural Review approved Dewberry’s plans to add new height and massing, and there are reports of meetings held with the City to discuss adding retail space on the hotel ground floor.
According to the Dewberry Group’s website, the hotel is now poised to become The Laramore apartment complex. However, if the apartments are over about 12 stories, the building may not comply with zoning code according to The Daily Progress, and the completion of the project remains mysterious.
Dewberry Capital has remained silent and difficult to contact on its plans, to the chagrin of the residents who have to look at the building everyday. They did not reply to a request for comment.
Jose Gomez III, a lecturer of structural engineering at the University, said certain precautions ought to be taken before continuing construction on the project.
“The developer would need to, first and foremost get a credentialed structural engineer to go in there and do an extensive inspection. You’d ask then what [is] the remediation that I need to do, and then you could start pricing it out” Gomez said. “I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t be still a viable investment to then complete … it’s not that far gone.”
Gomez explained that there could be cracks in the concrete that have filled with water, or worse, pigeon droppings, making the site structurally unsound.
“One of the things I’d be concerned with, and I’m dead serious, is pigeon poop,” Gomez added. “That’s a very acidic material, and so if you have the pigeon poop, which I guarantee you do, it’s a pigeon haven … that pigeon poop mixes with water and comes into the concrete cracks, and then the pigeon poop migrates to the steel and then you’ve got a highly corrosive material sitting there.”
Gomez was also concerned about the plywood sheeting that had been placed around the first few floors of the hotel, fearing it could hurt somebody.
“There was a case where a sheet of it fell down one day on the side street,” he said. “It’s in bad shape. The plywood, over a short period of time, when exposed to water, will just come apart … and I really think that the immediate safety issue is that plywood … last time I was there it was looking really bad.”
Like many others in the City, Gomez was fed up with the project.
“It’s just so frustrating — it gives a black eye to the community, it gives a black eye to the profession … I blame the developer, they have the purse strengths,” he said. “There’s no wins here. It’s a loss for everybody.”