Affordable housing, community center, office space eyed for nine-plus acres

Who’s who of architects, design engineers assembled for site planning

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Ruins of the long-abandoned Black Kettle Restaurant, just off Warren Avenue in Washington, as it appeared  last Saturday.

Not since Malcolm F. Crawford built the imposing Rappahannock County courthouse and adjoining clerk’s office in 1834 — precursors to historic courthouse row — has the town of Washington contemplated such a major transformation.

Already briefed informally on a proposal to develop a nine-plus acre tract of land split between the town and county — named “Black Kettle Commons” after the long-abandoned Black Kettle Motel and Restaurant on the site — have been Washington’s mayor and town attorney, along with Rappahannock County’s administrator, county attorney and four of its five supervisors. 

The first “informational presentation” of the still-evolving project will take place in the coming weeks before both governmental bodies, starting with the Washington Town Council on Dec. 14. Planners have also enlisted a local web designer to create a website on the proposed project, to assure transparency and provide progress updates.

The acknowledged “environmentally sensitive” project — which envisions structures being connected by walking paths and footbridges to “celebrate” the property’s interspersed wetlands — touts on initial maps anywhere from 10 to 20 affordable housing units, the Rappahannock Food Pantry, a community center, offices for nonprofits, a small retail space and cafe, amphitheater, farmer’s market, even the potential future home of an educational center and the Rappahannock County Library.

“We’ve assembled a first rate team,” says Black Kettle property owner Charles T. “Chuck” Akre, a prominent financier, investor and businessman who with his wife, Dee, resides at Mount Prospect in Washington.

Working on the project is award-winning architect (and Flint Hill resident) Jordan Goldstein, global director of design at Gensler, the world’s largest architecture, design and planning firm with 50 offices around the world. A member of Gensler’s board of directors, Goldstein is a highly sought-after spokesperson on the future of design, his company pledging to eliminate within ten years all greenhouse gases associated with its built environment. 

“Right now we’re doing site capacity analyses, where we look at soils and wetlands, the topography,” explains another team member, design engineer Stephen T. Plescow, president of Culpeper-based St. Mawes, LLC. “We're learning about the site and what the site tells us, because anything we want to plan for it needs to respect those opportunities and limitations. And then, as Chuck has said, he wants this to be a very environmentally sensitive project, and we respect that and want to make that happen.”

Significant previous projects by Plescow, who is the former chairman of the Middleburg Planning Commission and past vice chairman of the Middleburg Historic District, include Snowshoe Mountain Resort in West Virginia, Belmont Country Club in Leesburg, and more recently the adjoining Residences of the Salamander luxury resort in Middleburg.

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Where visitors once slept, snakes and other creatures now make their homes in the old Black Kettle Motel in Washington — its surrounding property slated to breathe new life.

“There is a stream that comes in from both the north and west, and the wetland is thirty to forty percent of the entire project, and our goal has always been — and Steve is overseeing this — to make that a great asset of the property, to celebrate wetlands,” says Akre, who on that note introduces this newspaper reporter to John H. Foote, calling him “the preeminent land use attorney in Northern Virginia.”

Moving into town

Foote’s immediate role, among others with the project, will be to secure a boundary line adjustment (BLA) of the shared jurisdictional property bordering Lee Highway, Warren Avenue and Leggett Lane.

“In order to have access to sewer and water we’ve been advised by [the town’s attorney John] Bennett and the mayor [Fred Catlin] that they cannot offer them if it is on county property, it has to be in the town. So our solution is a BLA,” Akre explains, “to [legally transfer] all of the property into the town … [where] we can also have access to the town’s PUD [planned unit development]. This is only going to work by agreement between the jurisdictions.”

A PUD is generally described as both a regulatory process and type of building development, which allows a grouping of varied and compatible land uses that could include housing, offices and/or commercial development, perhaps recreational attractions, all within the same development.

“The BLA process is one of the tiny elements of this,” says Foote, who joins the project from Prince William-based Walsh, Colucci, Lubeley & Walsh, PC. “The first thing that has to happen is the parties have to reach agreement on it. … And then both jurisdictions have to hold a public hearing and adopt a resolution, which has certain technical requirements that statutes set out.

“And then once those resolutions have been adopted, after a public hearing by both of the governing bodies, then the lawyers for both present petitions to the circuit court. And when the petition is signed by the judge then it goes to record and the boundary line adjustment occurs.”

Akre, who purchased the property over a year ago, said moving the parcel entirely into the town won’t hinder its future use by all residents of the county.

“The uniqueness of this location … is to serve the community at large, which means not just the town residents but all of the county residents,” he explains. “Which is one of the reasons that I started off from the very beginning with the notion of having a community meeting room in this project. We’ve talked with RAAC [Rappahannock Association for Arts and Community] and all kinds of other people, and we’re willing to listen to anybody who has an idea.”

Plescow adds: “During our team meetings we were doing a vision session, talking about what [the development] could be, and for me the big thing that resonated was the concept that this is common ground — it’s where the ‘Commons’ comes from — it’s a common ground for everybody, not only the town residents, but county residents, visitors. It’s a place for everybody to use and enjoy.”

Creating a ‘garden spot’

Working in conjunction with Goldstein and others from Gensler will be ecologically conscious Michael Vergason Landscape Architects, LTD., and more precisely its DC-based namesake Michael Vergason. The highly respected firm’s portfolio includes UNESCO World Heritage Sites, parks, gardens, memorials and museums.

“We actually had a small mini-contest with four artchitecrual and land use planning firms. We picked two,” reveals Akre, who echoes Foote in foreseeing the dilapidated and overgrown property morph into a “garden spot.”

“That’s Vergason’s role,” says Foote. “He looks at that and says, ‘Oh my goodness, a park!’”

Foote will similarly be the project’s conduit for the US Army Corps of Engineers, which from a wetlands preservation perspective weighed-in heavily until finally allowing construction of the new Washington post office, being built presently across Leggett Lane from the Black Kettle property. 

The land has “already been delineated by the Corps,” observes Foote, who traces on a map the small stream that winds its way from the large pond at Avon Hall onto Black Kettle’s property, where a previous pond once existed when the motel and restaurant were operational beginning more than a half-century ago.

“We discovered the stream is actually in good shape, has a good bottom to it and so on, [there’s] just a lot of junk and vegetation around it,” Akre points out. “It may be that they are even able to design a pond or pool in there as it traverses through the property. That’s a possibility, we don’t know that yet, that will be an issue with the Corps.”

Either way, the proposed development is “not overloading the site by any means,” Akre stresses. “It’s rather light use of the land, and making great use of the natural topography that exists, including making a wonderful asset out of the wetlands stream. … There will be footbridges across [the developed property] from one side to the other. These are all things we are designing, with a lot of parking.”

Home for the food pantry 

On the frontburner for the Black Kettle Commons project is construction of a permanent home for the Rappahannock Food Pantry, its lease in Sperryville set to expire next year.

“One thing we already have a handshake on is providing a location for the food pantry,” Akre confirms. “And we will supply them with a site, no cost to them. And utilities to the site, no cost to them. And a very long term lease at a nominal value, like a buck a year. 

“So it’s entirely a charitable activity on our part from that point of view and we entered into that after they ran into problems [at a previous proposed building site] that was going to [cost] four-to-five-hundred thousand dollars, which is not in their budget and they just couldn't do it. So we volunteered this.”

Who are we?

An Akre “family LLC,” he answers, “that ultimately will probably turn into something charitable. The project has been designed from the beginning without a profit motive. It’s the first time I’ve done that!”

Akre is founder, chairman and chief investment officer of Middleburg-based Akre Capital Management, a long-term concentrated value investment firm. During his notable career, the financier has managed several lucrative funds, one of which, FBR Focus, repeatedly performed in the top 1 percent of growth funds annually.

“So we know that they [the pantry] would like to be [on site] sooner rather than later,” he continues. “They have the flexibility in their [current] lease, they said to us, to be able to extend for another year or some portion of that, so our ability to get this [project approval] done will affect them. It’s that simple.”

Affordable housing to sundries

Arguably the biggest addition to the Black Kettle site would be a proposed 10 to 20 housing units — rentals, most likely — which would be the largest complex of its kind ever built in Washington and Rappahannock County (eight rental units have been carved out of the former Washington School House, just south of the Black Kettle property, and a few former motels west of Sperryville also provide roofs for tenants.)

It doesn’t go unnoticed that Akre’s right-hand person in the Black Kettle Commons project is Betsy Dietel — “at my behest [she] is helping coordinate all of this work, that is her role, and she’s doing a great job,” he tells us — and both he and Dietel are founding board members of the nonprofit Rappahannock Communities. The group was formed about three years ago to address the issue of affordable housing in a county where the population is aging and school enrollments are declining.

“I’m not here as Rapp Communities,” Dietel says of her organizational role with Black Kettle Commons, although she readily admits that “some of the Rapp Communities initial survey work certainly was information that we looked at because it did show that there was a need for elderly housing and housing for younger families.”

“And,” adds Akre, “Rapp Communities and this project Black Kettle Commons are interested in doing things which there is demand for. We have not decided what the makeup of those [housing] units is going to be, we’ll let the market help us decide that. There are people on both sides of that argument ... but there are plenty of people, including ourselves, who believe that … there is plenty of demand for good quality housing at a reasonable price.”

In addition to “office space for not-forprofits,” Akre reveals that an education center “would like to be [at the commons] with a new location.” (Reached in recent days, the education center’s founder asks that his and its name not be included in this story, but confirms “I did indicate we could be interested.”)

“We’re also thinking about a community center — they will have meeting spaces for large and small groups — that could be associated with other uses,” the Black Kettle owner continues, adding: “We've had discussion with the library [board] — they've approached us, we've had conversations with them, we know they are on their own trying to figure out what they want to do [in the future]. That’s a possibility.”

Minutes of the Aug. 27, 2020 Rappahannock County Library Board meeting state “there may be a possible option of land use … on the ‘Black Kettle’ land owned by Chuck Akre. Mr. Akre is leasing a portion of this land to the Rappahannock Food Bank for $1 a year. There is a possibility he may be willing to make the same deal to the library.”

Akre also visualizes an historical exhibit on the property, whether it be a room or some other space, that explains the local history. He also pictures a pop-up farmer’s market, cafe and mercantile of sorts — “what I call ‘sundries,’ where you can get some toothpaste or deodorant or baloney or something like that.”

“One of things that’s observable in virtually all communities is the opportunity for people to come together over food. It’s a huge deal. And so if we have a place where there are picnic tables outside … it would be valuable,” he says.

Supervisor Chris Parrish, one of those briefed on the project, tells this newspaper he would be open to such a development, which would appear to be in line with both the town’s and county’s newly updated comprehensive plans that encourage any growth to be in and around existing villages “while considering the needs of senior citizens … and affordable housing options.”

“The benefit to the county would be the enhanced collection of real estate taxes, which is our main source of revenue,” Parrish points out, not to mention it would provide much needed jobs.

Mayor Catlin tells the News: “I have been given only generalities, but from what I have learned it is apparent to me that the people behind this possible project have the best interests in mind for the citizens of Washington and Rappahannock County alike. While the town has not received any details on what the project entails, my first impression is that it will meet the guidelines of the town’s and county’s comprehensive plans as well as benefit both communities’ residents.”

“We’re still at the ‘bubble’ level, as we call it,” Plescow stresses of the site planning, meaning nothing yet is set in stone. “One of the interesting things with the team is we’re looking for synergies between different uses. So, for example, if you’ve got a community center that is adjacent to or somehow combined with a library — if you look at libraries today they’ve evolved, it’s not just so much stacks [of books] but meeting and multi-purpose rooms. 

“If you can combine that use for the community center and maybe even create some non-profit office space you get synergies with the use,” he continues. “And it makes more sense — knit things together with an open space … trying to come up with a plan that works.”

Dietel predicts that “activities will spill out during the spring and summer and fall, as the natural areas [of the commons] become an extension of the built areas. ... I think if you build it they will come in terms of a gathering place for everybody and anybody who wants to do a whole variety of things.”

“We’ve been talking with everybody we can talk to about what is appropriate for that site,” Akre concludes. “We’re open to ideas, we want to make it work. That’s the important thing, a project that works for the people that they will enjoy using.”


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