Historic recycling: Developer gives old asylum, prison new life as upscale town center

I’m taking an intern from UVa. on a drive around the Valley one summer day a few years back. We decided to stop for lunch at Wright’s Dairy Rite in Staunton. It seemed the touristy thing to do.
“What’s that over there?” he asked, gesturing at the old Western State Hospital complex, then in use as a state correctional facility. “That’s got to be the country club.”

The kid had foresight. Fast forward to 2009, and the old asylum and prison is in year three of a 20-year makeover that is turning what had threatened to be a vacant 80 acres in the heart of the Queen City into a eight- or nine-figure mixed-use, New Urbanist development with 1,000 residential units, a high-end hotel and spa, an array of office buildings and a retail center.

Much of that is still off in the distance, but it’s not as far off as you might think.

“We’re right on schedule. We would like to have a few more sales, but given the state of the economy, we’re pretty happy with where we are,” said Richmond developer Robin Miller, the visionary behind the Villages at Staunton, which has its first handful of residents in the Bindery Condominiums at the entrance to the campus from Richmond Road.

I don’t call it a campus by accident. The core buildings at the property were designed by architect Thomas Blackburn and built by the workmen who had helped build Central Grounds at the University of Virginia.

The bricks-and-columns theme survived the Western State and prison years and is the dominant feature at the location today as the work crews give the interior of the buildings at the Villages at Staunton their new jolt of life.

The buyin isn’t cheap – condominiums in the Bindery start at $300,000 and run to $850,000 for the 2,800-square-foot penthouse palaces on the fourth floor. Seven of the 19 units in the Bindery have been sold or are under contract, Miller said as we talked last month at an open house for an adjacent building, Brookdale, whose condominiums will go on the market for $199,000 to $299,000.

“We’re targeting primarily baby boomers, people 50 and older, and those folks, in order to move here, have to sell the house they’re in. And that’s the problem, that until we’ve bottomed out in the home market, which I think we will by sometime this summer, this fall, with interest rates as good as they are, I’m optimistic that particularly this project, the Brookdale, will attract some folks from this area,” Miller said.

So the economic slowdown, not surprisingly, has had an impact on the Villages, and not just in the sales area. “We came extremely close to having the hotel deal worked out when the economy crashed. So we’re in a holding pattern on that,” said Miller, noting that the news on the hotel front isn’t all bad, “because we have the architecture plans drawn up for a 100-room hotel, and I think that probably by the end of this year, when the recession has bottomed out, and the hotel business has picked back up, we’ll start pushing it again,” Miller said.

Miller feels just as optimistic about the interest he expects to see renewed in the residential wings at the Villages at Staunton. “One of our goals is to get people from Richmond, Northern Virginia, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, to come to Staunton, see what a neat place it is, and once they see it, I think we’ll get some buyers,” Miller said.

“Particularly the baby boomer generation – they would like to sell the big houses they’ve had for 20, 30 years, kids are grown, and maybe buy a smaller house or townhouse or condo in a community they live in and get a second home somewhere else, either at the river, the ocean, or somewhere in the mountains. And if they’re coming to the mountains, there’s no better place than Staunton,” Miller said.

 

– Story by Chris Graham


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