Historic buildings find new life in Central Virginia

Redevelopment is happening all over Central Virginia. It’s been the latest hip and trendy movement we’ve seen in cities all over the country—especially those with historic warehouses begging to be converted into lofts and breweries.

Over the last 15 years Lynchburg and the counties of Bedford and Amherst have been transforming their defunct shoe factories, auto repair shops, and even flour mills into some of the most desired places to live and play.

Penny Lane Properties, a real estate and renovation company with an emphasis on restoring forgotten properties, has completed the design and development of the Bedford Exchange, Golf Park Coffee’s two locations on Bedford Avenue and at the Farm Basket, Bacon St. Bagels, and is completing the renovation of the old Hancock Motor Company on 6th and Church Streets.

Daryl Calfee, owner of Penny Lane Properties, said most of the redeveloped buildings in the area are being repurposed for residential because everyone needs a place to live, but when you redevelop for commercial use, it gives them a place to do life.

“And that’s very different and it’s more risky,” he said. “But man, when it hits, it’s like, oh man, I can’t imagine life without X, because X is where you now meet a friend or get a drink or hang out.”

When he and his wife, Johanna, purchased the building where Bacon St. Bagels is now at 306 Rivermont Ave., it had been sitting vacant for more than a decade and was in a state of decay.

“The building had character and was in an amazing location with a high traffic count, that I would call ‘the path of progress’ based on what I saw happening with other developers in the area,” he said, referencing other redevelopment projects on Rivermont Avenue leading into downtown. “It was a place that people would drive past every day wishing someone would do something with it.”

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Calfee, along with others under the name WellSafe Holdings, also purchased The Bedford Exchange building in 2016. The 33,000-square-foot building located at 2306 Bedford Ave. was formerly the Vaughn Chevrolet building.

“We knew that we wanted something that offered community in that building and we had a lot of nonprofits and businesses that had moved into that building, but they needed a place to hang out,” Calfee said.

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Golf Park Coffee Co-Founders Ben Young and Adam Shurr teamed up with WellSafe to open their first brick and mortar location at The Bedford Exchange in 2018 and have since opened a second location this spring within The Farm Basket.

The Bedford Exchange also includes the Mid-State Group, CrossFit Lynchburg, Freedom 424 and Sports Outreach Institute.

Calfee said if building owners want to help young people launch their business and let them grow, they have to be willing to provide affordable rent and help with improvements to keep out-of-pocket investments low.

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“Then over time everyone grows,” he said. “You’re not gonna be able to charge a premium for some of these places until you raise the tide in the whole area.”

Most recently, Penny Lane has been working on the redevelopment of the former Hancock Motor Company built in 1926 and designed by local architect Stanhope Johnson.

It has become dormitories as well as a church over the years, but soon it will be home to 20 luxury apartments as well as Selective Wealth Management, which will move into the ground floor in September.

“We just love Lynchburg and we just love resurrecting things,” he said about the work Penny Lane does. “Our tagline is that we rebuild and restore forgotten homes and buildings and we love doing just that.”

Though Lynchburg has been seeing an increase in revitalization over the last decade, some developers are reaching beyond city limits and venturing into rural counties, such as Amherst and Bedford.

Waukeshaw Development from Petersburg, Virginia, owns the entire Bedford Middle School campus, which has four buildings—a two-story main building that was built in the 1930s, the three-story “Old Yellow” that was built in 1912, a one-story cafeteria building built in 1964, and a two-story gymnasium built in 1999.

Old Yellow will become a boutique hotel and the former Bedford Middle School, which was damaged by fire in January 2020 and is being restored currently, will become apartments.

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Emily Sanfratella, COO of Waukeshaw Development, said the company loves doing adaptive reuse projects and thinks if you do it right, you end up with a product that has so much more character than something that would be new construction.

“We’ve been doing adaptive rework in the Lynchburg region for the last 10 years or so,” she said.

The company has completed the Bedford Lofts, which was an old furniture warehouse; The Westie, which was an old elementary school in Madison Heights; Beale’s brewery in the town of Bedford; and Camp Trapezium brewery, in an old, historic mill in Amherst County.

“So we’ve done a lot of different types of conversions, whether it be a school or a warehouse or now the [Camp Trapezium] flour mill,” she said. “But in all of them, there’s a unique character and there’s a really interesting and rich history that those buildings have and I think it’s really an honor for us to be able to bring those things back to life.”

When she thinks about places such as the original Bedford Middle School building “Old Yellow,” for example, everyone in that town has a story about the building, like the history of the last dance that was held the night before the Bedford Boys were shipped off to World War II.

“To see that building fall into disrepair, it’s a really sad thing for the community,” she said. “So to be able to restore it and bring it back to life and for the community to continue to tell that story, it’s immensely rewarding for us.”

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As the developer of these projects, she said Waukeshaw sees itself as stewards of these buildings and is just one owner in a line of many.

“Who knows what these buildings will be 100 years from now, but it’s exciting to think about being part of that story and that the story doesn’t have a dead end,” she said.

People have emotional attachments to many of these buildings, she said, and their memories are tied up with the physical space.

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“So when we come in and we propose to do something transformative, like with the Amherst mill and converting that into a brewery, people were nervous and rightfully so,” she said. “Because it’s an important part of the community and we have an obligation to the community to deliver it back to them in a format that they will be excited about and proud of.”

When Camp Trapezium opened, so many community members came and talked about stories they had about growing up in Amherst County they would come to the mill to adopt baby chicks or make the weekly pilgrimage with their grandparents to buy supplies and many still recognized the space after the revitalization.

“Yes, now it’s a brewery and it’s very different obviously from a flour mill but all the bones are there and you can see the history and we’re trying to tell that story over time,” Sanfratella said.

During that process, however, there are a million challenges.

“It’s really difficult because sometimes when you begin these projects you can’t anticipate all the construction challenges that you’re going to encounter,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many times we’ve discovered as we get into a project, there’s a termite infestation, there’s a structural issue, and those are things that you had not planned for and now you’re having to reengineer the building or figure out a way to just get it to a place where you can continue with construction.”

She said it’s been exciting to see small downtowns being revitalized and if you have a few catalytic projects, it encourages other developers to come and make similar investments.

“I think you’ve certainly seen that in downtown Lynchburg over the last 10 to 15 years,” she said. “Once you have a few trailblazers, you can see a lot of other people wanting to get on board with that vision and do that work.”

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One of those trailblazers is local developer Tony West, who has developed several residential properties in the city, including The Virginian Lofts at 303 Rivermont Ave. and the Trolley Barn Lofts at 401 Rivermont Ave. West is currently working on completing The Ellington at 421 Rivermont Ave., which will become apartments with 15 units, as well as the former Schewels Home corporate offices and Leggett department store buildings at 1031 and 1011 Main St., respectively.

The real challenge of working with these large buildings is breaking them up into apartments, Kandise Powell, property manager for West, said.

“You need an architect with a vision and a specialty to come in and see what this investor is seeing because a lot of people don’t see it or believe in it,” she said.

Dealing with old buildings also sometimes involves historic districts and working with guidelines set by the state or city as well as the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

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“I think he’s very comfortable with the older properties,” Powell said of West. “He kind of loves and understands the older buildings.”

Just as Sanfratella noted, Powell said people love the stories behind these buildings.

“They love to be in something that’s been repurposed,” she said. “It’s trendy. People love the aesthetic. They love the tall windows, they love
the exposed brick. It’s not cookie cutter. I think people just like the opportunities to live in something that’s unique.”