Richmond-area team works on urbanism in Staunton

The first four of 18 historic buildings have been restored for residential and office use on the old Western State Hospital campus.

Richmond developer Robin Miller is taking on a village.

He and his business partner, Dan Gecker, are four years into developing The Villages at Staunton, a 20-year project on 80 acres in the Shenandoah Valley.

Four of 18 historic buildings on the old Thomas Jefferson-inspired Western State Hospital campus have been renovated into condominiums and offices.

"The legend is that masons who worked at the University of Virginia came over the mountains and helped build the original buildings," Miller said.

The first buildings opened in 1828 as Western Lunatic Asylum in a resort-style setting with terraced gardens. The property sits on the eastern side of Staunton.

It was renamed Western State Hospital in 1894 and remained a mental-health hospital until the 1970s. It became a prison but ultimately fell into disrepair and was abandoned in 2003.

No stranger to taking on tough projects, Miller is often the first to see their possibilities. He and Gecker are in the middle of a 30-acre project with 150 parcels of land, mostly vacant, in Richmond's Old Manchester south of the James River.

"I like to be the first guy in," Miller said. "I'm the guy with the boots and the jeans, in the mud on the construction site. Dan is the lawyer and historic tax credit expert."

The two, the principals behind Miller & Associates, were among the first to go into Petersburg and redo old buildings there. They ventured into Oregon Hill and Monroe Ward and started restoring those old Richmond neighborhoods one old building or one new townhouse at a time.

Miller came upon Staunton by chance during a business trip, stopping there for lunch about 10 years ago. "It was the coolest small city in Virginia, bar none," he said.

The downtown area had been refurbished, with many commercial spaces converted into shops and restaurants.

A few years later, he and Gecker would bid on The Villages at Staunton, a new urbanism project blending new construction with 400,000 square feet of historic space into a place where people would live, play and work.

"It's a very special site," Gecker said. "It feels like you're in the middle of a park."

The hospital was built in a pastoral setting to help the healing process for the mentally troubled, Gecker said. The site was so beautiful that a fence surrounding the property was not meant to keep residents in, but to keep townspeople from going on picnics on the campus, or so the legend goes.

Miller and Gecker took title in 2006 and began construction in 2007. To date, they have spent $21 million, offset by $1.2 million in historic tax credits. Total project costs are estimated at $250 million.

Cheri Moran, a member of the Historic Staunton Foundation, recalled hearing Miller talk at a workshop -- before he was selected for the job -- about the preservation work he was doing in the Richmond area.

"Our city is all about historic preservation," she said. "Our industry and tourism are dependent on it."

Town planners and history buffs at the time had no clear idea of what to do with the hospital site. This much they knew: "We wanted to save the grounds from being torn down," Moran said.

She and her husband, Phil, were among the first to buy and move into a condominium at The Villages. "It is a wonderful place to live," she said. "It's like living in the country in the center of the city."

The Morans moved to Staunton from Altoona, Pa., about 30 years ago, expecting to stay a few years. They bought a Victorian house that she was hesitant to give up.

But the chance to live in an old structure with new amenities at The Village won her over. They downsized from 2,800 square feet into 1,600 square feet.

Six of the 19 condos in The Bindery Building, where the Morans live, have been sold. The building renovation was finished in early 2008.

The Bindery condos sell mostly in the $400,000 range. The Brookdale Condominiums, a 13-unit building, was finished last fall. Two are occupied. These sell in the $200,000 range.

The primary market is people who live outside the area who are looking for a place to retire or a second home, Miller said.

Sales have not been as strong as the developers had hoped. "The biggest problem is baby boomers have to sell the house they are in before they can buy here," Miller said.

The plan is to start on a hotel, which will occupy three historic buildings, in the next couple of years. "It totally depends on the economy," he said. "We wish the economy was better, but this too shall pass."

The plan is to build the project in five stages, each taking about four years. The first two involved historic renovation. The last three will be construction of town homes, apartments, single-family homes, retail and office buildings.

About 70 percent will be residential -- "from $200,000 to $800,000 and everything in-between" -- and 30 percent commercial, Miller said.

"We will be flexible to the market and shift the type of housing to meet market demand."

"This is a planner's dream," said Amanda Glover, assistant director of economic development for Staunton.

"It's not sprawl," she said. "It allows us to grow our downtown, which is a unique situation. What will gradually happen over time is people will not only live here but also work here."


Contact Carol Hazard at (804) 775-8023 or chazard@timesdispatch.com.

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