Can a grocery build an oasis in Fifeville's 'food desert'?
Back in the 1980s, recalls Robert Mays, his dad, working nights as a conductor and brakeman for the C&O Railroad, would head home each morning with milk, bread and potatoes from a Cherry Avenue institution.
“His first stop would be IGA,” Mays told the Daily Progress, “and then he’d come on home.”
But since the end of 2002 when the IGA closed, there’s been no true grocery store on Cherry or anywhere else in Fifeville, no place to find fresh produce in the neighborhood whose busiest street is named for a fruit. But last summer’s purchase of the old Estes IGA property, which ended its days about five years ago as a convenience store called Kim’s Market, has the neighborhood buzzing.
“Everyone wants some kind of grocery store there,” says 6th Street resident Joey Conover. “A lot of people function on foot in the neighborhood, and one of the largest problems of not having a car is going to the grocery store.”
Enter Anthony Woodard.
The son of a major local developer and now a real estate executive in his own right, Woodard, via a limited liability company, bought the 1.36-acre Estes IGA site in August, 2022 for $3.5 million.
Under the tract’s existing zoning, his firm contends that it could demolish the old grocery building at 501 Cherry Ave. and construct 47 market-rate apartments. But at a preliminary discussion last Tuesday before the Charlottesville Planning Commission and three members of City Council, Woodard’s team laid out its request for a rezoning that would allow a mixed-used development. The plan would bring groceries back to Fifeville.
“It’s been a cool neighborhood to work with,” Woodard told the Daily Progress. “It has been described as a food desert, and it really is.”
Although no longer using the term “food desert,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture has marked Fifeville and tracts to its southwest as being low-income with fresh food more than a half a mile away from residents.
“We wanted the project to be more community focused and more in line with the community goals,” said Woodard.
Many goals were laid out in March 2021 city report called the Cherry Avenue Small Area Plan. One goal was a 25 miles per hour speed limit, and last September the City Council agreed to lower the limit on Cherry between Cleveland Avenue and Roosevelt Brown Boulevard from 35 to 25 miles per hour.
Delivering another plan goal, a grocery store, would seem to require the private sector.
Woodard proposes placing a second story atop the old Estes IGA building and constructing a four- or five-story building on part of the existing parking lot. He would dedicate about 18,600 square feet for commerce. Within that space, he promises to reserve at least 5,000 square feet for a grocery store.
“A lot of people don’t have cars in the neighborhood,” Woodard said. “We want to provide something that people can walk or bike to.”
Woodard says that he’s had discussions with several potential grocery operators but no deal yet.
“We’re open to anything that involves healthy food, fresh food,” he said.
But is 5,000 square feet large enough to provide room for fresh and affordable food?
Reid Super-Save Market, nearly a mile to the north, tips the scales at about 13,000 square feet. A smaller and more expensive grocer just off the Downtown Mall, Market Street Market, measures 3,740 square feet, according to city tax records.
Woodard contends that competition from surrounding markets— primarily the Fifth Street Food Lion, which is a mile away— prevents finding a much larger grocer. During Woodard’s March 14 presentation City Councilor Michael Payne acknowledged the dilemma.
“The economics of making a grocery store are extremely difficult,” said Payne. “It’s probably likely that to make the economics work you’re going to get a boutique grocery that’s at a much higher price point.”
City Councilor Brian Pinkston agrees.
“Everyone wants a grocery store,” said Pinkston. “But we’re not going to ask the developer to subsidize a grocery store in perpetuity.”
Already Woodard has offered some subsidies. In his plan to create as many as 118 residential apartments, Woodard would designate five units as affordable. And within the planned commercial spaces, his proposal offers to let two local non-profit groups, the Music Resource Center and Twice is Nice, buy commercial condominiums at “below-market” prices.
“The more commercial activity is better for everybody,” Jimmy Polania, owner of next-door frozen dessert shop La Flor Michoacana, told the Daily Progress.
“This area is growing up,” he said, “and it’ll be more convenient for everyone.”
Whatever Woodard builds, Councilor Pinkston said it will improve the status quo: an empty building surrounded by a swath of weed- and trash-filled asphalt within a chain-link fence.
“This is a creative project that can meet the needs and be a good fit for the community as well as support the non-profits that have been mentioned and take a space that’s quite blighted right now and do something remarkable and creative,” Pinkston said.
The site concerns Peter Krebs of the Piedmont Environmental Council.
“It’s sort of this dead spot right in the middle of Charlottesville,” Krebs told the Daily Progress. “A boarded-up or fenced-out property sends a message that this is not a healthy or pleasant place to walk.”
Krebs says he recently learned that suburbanites have strong access to fresh groceries, and he wants city residents to gain the same chance to avoid chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease with healthy food and walkability.
“Healthy food and active living go hand-in-hand,” said Krebs. “So having a fresh food source close to where they live can literally be a life-changer.”
Matthew Gillikin, co-chair of a walkability-oriented group called Livable C’ville, said he learned during Fifeville community meetings that there’s more to a neighborhood grocer than food.
“What stood out to me was not just that people wanted a grocery store, but people in the neighborhood miss the community that existed at the Estes store,” Gillikin told the Daily Progress. “You could send your kid to get milk.”
University professor and former city councilor Wes Bellamy runs a youth and adult basketball league across the street from the old IGA at Tonsler Park. He says he supports the idea of City Council finding a way, even if it’s subsidized, to bring back a grocery.
“That store was a pillar of the community,” Bellamy told the Progress. “That space needs to be utilized to provide access to fresh food and just bring life to the community.”
This story was corrected to provide the proper spelling of Livable C'ville co-chair Matthew Gillikin.