Can a grocer build an oasis in Fifeville’s ‘food desert’?

In the 1980s, Robert Mace recalls, his father, working nights as a conductor and brakeman for the C&O Railroad, would come home each morning with milk, bread and potatoes from a Cherry Avenue establishment.

“His first stop would be IGA,” Mace told the Daily Progress, “and then he’d go home.”

But since late 2002, when the IGA closed, there’s been no real Cherry grocery store or anywhere else in Fifeville, no place to find fresh produce in the neighborhood whose busiest street is named after 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, excited the neighborhood.

“Everybody wants some kind of grocery store there,” said 6th Street resident Joey Conover. “A lot of people walk to work in the neighborhood, and one of the biggest problems of not having a car is walking to the grocery store.”

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The son of a major local developer and now a real estate executive in his own right, Woodard, through 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 says it can demolish the old grocery building on Cherry Ave. 501 and build 47 market rate apartments. But during a preliminary discussion last Tuesday before the Charlottesville Planning Commission and three City Council members, Woodard’s team laid out its request for a rezoning that would allow for a mixed-use development. The plan will bring groceries back to Fifeville.

“It’s been a great neighborhood to work in,” Woodard told the Daily Progress. “It’s been described as a food desert, and it really is.”

Although it no longer uses the term “food desert,” the USDA has labeled Fifeville and areas to the southwest as low-income with fresh food more than half a mile from residents.

“We wanted the project to be more community-focused and more in line with the community’s goals,” Woodard said.

Many goals were laid out in a March 2021 city report called the Cherry Avenue Small Area Plan. One of the goals was a 25 mph 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 mph.

Achieving another goal of the plan, a grocery store, appears to require the private sector.

Woodard is proposing putting a second story on top of the old Estes IGA building and building a four- or five-story building on top of part of the existing parking lot. It will devote about 18,600 square feet to retail. 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 he has 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 big enough to provide a place for fresh, affordable food?

Reid Super-Save Market, nearly a mile north, tips the scales at about 13,000 square feet. A smaller, pricier grocer just off the Downtown Mall, Market Street Market, is 3,740 square feet, according to city tax records.

Woodard says competition from surrounding markets — primarily the Fifth Street Food Lion, which is a mile away — prevents a much larger grocer from being found. During Woodard’s March 14 presentation, City Councilman Michael Payne acknowledged the dilemma.

“The economics of running a grocery store are extremely difficult,” Payne said. “It’s probably likely that to make the economics work, you’re going to end up with a boutique grocery store that’s at a much higher price point.”

City Councilor Brian Pinkston agrees.

“Everybody wants a grocery store,” Pinkston said. “But we’re not going to ask the developer to subsidize a grocery store forever.”

Woodard has already offered some subsidies. In his plan to create up to 118 residential apartments, Woodard would designate five units as affordable. And within the planned retail space, his proposal proposes allowing two local nonprofit groups, the Music Resource Center and Twice is Nice, to purchase retail co-ops at “below-market” rates.

“The more commercial activity the better for everyone,” Jimmy Polania, owner of neighboring frozen dessert shop La Flor Michoacana, told the Daily Progress.

“This area is growing,” he said, “and it’s going to be more convenient for everyone.”

Whatever Woodard builds, Councilman Pinkston said, will improve the status quo: an empty building surrounded by a strip of tarmac filled with weeds and trash, inside a chain-link fence.

“It’s a creative project that can meet a need and be relevant to the community and support the non-profits that were mentioned and take a space that’s pretty blighted right now and do something remarkable and creative,” Pinkston said.

The site concerns Peter Krebs of the Piedmont Environmental Council.

“It’s kind of dead center right in downtown Charlottesville,” Krebs told the Daily Progress. “A property with boards or a fence sends a message that it’s not a healthy or pleasant place to walk.”

Krebs says he recently learned that suburbanites have good access to fresh groceries, and he wants city dwellers to get 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,” Krebs said. “So having a source of fresh food close to where they live can literally change their lives.”

Matthew Gilliken, co-chair of a walkable group called Livable C’ville, said he learned during community meetings in Fifeville that the neighborhood grocer is about more than food.

“What struck me was not just that people wanted a grocery store, but people in their neighborhood were missing the community that existed at the Estes store,” Gilliken told the Daily Progress. “You may send your child to fetch milk.”

University professor and former city councilor Wes Bellamy runs a youth and adult basketball league across the street from the old IGA in Tonsler Park. He says he supports the idea of ​​the City Council finding a way, even if subsidized, to bring back a grocer.

“This store was a pillar of the community,” Bellamy told Progress. “This space should be used to provide access to fresh food and just bring life to the community.”