Impressions from a Weekend in Charlottesville

by James C. Sherlock

Sometimes, things just force their way into your consciousness.

My wife and I were in Charlottesville this weekend. We were not there to visit the University, but its continuing construction overwhelms both the senses and attempts to get from A to B. Most of the growth is vertical — very vertical — on land that the University owns on or adjacent to the central Grounds.

Drive down Jefferson Park Avenue for a sense of the scale of it. Look straight up. Go to the intersection of Rt. 29 and 250 to see a new 14-acre complex under construction.

There is a sense that there is never to be an end to it.

There is certainly nothing to suggest a considered approach to growth in the University’s Strategic Plan. Sinclair Lewis recognized the symptoms a century ago.

No room was found in the Plan for any possibility of stopping doing something for which there is no longer sufficient demand in order to do something new in existing buildings.

Instead, University infrastructure growth seems on a self-generating loop — an idea for a new building, the land identified, a search for donors, an alumnus writes a check to buy immortality (unless the donor is later “cancelled” by the left), and voilà, some of the initial funding, if not the long-term sustaining money, is found. Skilled construction workers are brought in by the contractors who build at such scale, who then leave when the job is complete.


But there is no sense at all that the region’s very costly and limited housing stock and its small blue-collar workforce can provide long-term support to that infrastructure. Having reviewed the aforementioned Strategic Plan, I see no evidence that the University has considered that issue.

To be blunt, the growth is designed to satisfy the faculty, not the students and their parents. Just look at who was on the committee that wrote the strategic plan: professors of this and deans of that. And one fourth-year student in the Commerce school.

I rest my case.

But it is students and their parents who will forever pay the constantly inflating costs of keeping it all running. But they can borrow the money to attend. And to live in Charlottesville.

What could go wrong?

Charlottesville’s housing stock is very old and limited in availability, thus increasingly expensive. The city’s population is projected by UVa’s own Weldon Cooper Center to be flat through 2050.

Supply and demand imbalances being what they are, rents in the area have skyrocketed. Apartments near the University are $1,100 a month, minimum. If one can be found at that price. More are in the $1,500- to $2,000-a=month range. Another hundred a month for a parking place.

The Albemarle County population is projected by Weldon Cooper to grow by about 40,000 by 2050, but property and housing costs there are also expensive and will inflate with rising demand.

None of those trends scream blue collar workforce.

Future students will have to pay the bills for the costs of operation, maintenance, and repair of that vast and continually growing infrastructure.

There is no concept apparent in University planning for where the skilled workers necessary to support the infrastructure will come from or where they will live. The plumbers, electricians, HVAC technicians, elevator repair people, building engineers, and many more types of skilled tradespersons.

The University may not have noticed, but the country is incredibly short of skilled blue-collar workers. Wages have skyrocketed since Covid, but the shortages remain.

Does the University have some secret source of such workers amidst a general scarcity? Does it have an unseen inventory of housing that they can afford and in which they can raise their families?

I reread the University’s strategic plan, and there is no reference to that issue. When the plan discusses service-oriented students, the authors do not mean plumbers.

Charlottesville, at only 10 square miles in area, is built out. The housing stock is very old. The median year that owner-occupied structures were built is 1960. Renter-occupied, 1977.

Albemarle County, at 720 square miles with 112,000 residents, has plenty of land, and its housing stock is newer compared to Charlottesville. But the land is very expensive. And NIMBY is alive, well, and very influential in that wealthy enclave.

The prices of recent housing sales in both Charlottesville and Albemarle County continue to escalate, with the median sold price up almost 8% in July of 2023 from one year earlier.

In Charlottesville itself, residential real estate sold in July at $240 per square foot. That is double the national average of $124 per square foot. The median average value of residential real estate in Charlottesville is $465,527. Statewide it is $372,973,

Bottom line. I have several issues with the constant, mindless expansion.

  1. The University is creating new supply of permanent and inflating infrastructure and associated staffing costs without any apparent assessment of the long-term magnitude of those costs to students;
  2. There is no evidence in new construction plans of any consideration of how much demand for education and research is shifting as opposed to just expanding;
  3. There is no evidence of consideration of alternatives to new construction such as shrinking other offerings to accommodate changing demands for education and research. They are keeping the buggy whip faculty (no offense to buggy aficionados) while building new cars;
  4. The University has offered no public consideration of the source or costs of the skilled labor to maintain and repair the ever-growing infrastructure. Or where they will live;
  5. There also appears to be no care for the contribution of the construction and the energy demands of the new buildings to the climate change about which the faculty are so passionate in the classroom. The University exempts itself from those concerns. They are for others less entitled.

Ok, you want a new school of data science. Who wouldn’t?

But what is being taught and what research is being done in the vast inventory of existing buildings? Is there nothing for which there is a lesser demand than there once was? Nothing that can be cut back to accommodate data science?

Are there no classes that few attend?

Is there research on, say, ancient Greek literature (no offense to the Greek authors) or neo-pronouns (no offense to the ever-expanding list of pronouns) that is, or should be, exhausted but continues anyway?

The only sure things from the evidence are:

  • UVa tuition will continue to rise at a rate above Virginia incomes;
  • Student housing costs, because of local market conditions, will rise perhaps even faster than tuition;
  • Students and their parents will have to borrow yet more money to pay those bills.

But that is clearly of no concern of the University faculty or administration, ever- watchful of their own career prospects and the costs of arugula and craft gin.

The Board of Visitors is hounded and their time dominated by loud and insistent special interests from within the University, who provide them only sketchy briefings on their plans, having themselves ignored internally the more troublesome issues.

The University seldom seems to get to consideration of the long-term best interests of students, including but not limited to affordability.

Because, from the evidence at hand, the interests of students seldom arise in conversations, much less plans.

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38 responses to “Impressions from a Weekend in Charlottesville”

  1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    8% interest rates have a way of taming things.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      “The current rate on federal student loans for undergraduate students is now 5.50% — up from 3.73% two years ago. Private student loan rates have also increased considerably, with 10-year fixed-rate loans going from a record low of 4.87% last year to 7.56% today.”

      1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
        James Wyatt Whitehead

        Government backed student loans are keeping the house of cards from falling. The borrowers believe Uncle Joe. School administrators have a green light to raise tuition and spend spend spend. A cycle that is bound to break one day. C’ville took it on the chin pretty hard in the 91 recession and again in 2008.

  2. Lefty665 Avatar

    Real estate costs in C’ville and Albemarle have long amazed me. They had been running 1/3-1/2 more than Richmond and the spread has been increasing. The University’s blue collar work force has long been priced out of C’ville and is increasingly pushed out of Albemarle as well. The scar that is Vinegar Hill testifies to past ill begotten policies while UVa clots the future. At least the evil statues are gone, so everything is hunky dory.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      Inelastic supply combined with increasing demand will do that. The University keeps expanding its enrollment regardless of the facts on the ground.

      1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
        James Wyatt Whitehead

        The supply is being created, but in places not central to C’ville. Zion Crossroads and Ruckersville come to mind. C’ville is hemmed in by zoning, conservation easements, and a slow expansion of water/sewer. Green, Louisa, and Fluvanna are picking up the slack.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          Nice chart. I think John Boy lived down toward the southern part and drove his Model A to UVA…

          1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
            James Wyatt Whitehead

            This was the best part of the Walton’s show. It meant that it was finally 9 p.m. on Thursday night and I could flip the channel over to ABC for Kung Fu! So cool. Loved that show. I did enjoy grandma and grandpa’s banter back and forth.

          2. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            I preferred the original bantering ol’ folk, “Ma and Pa Kettle”.

          3. DJRippert Avatar

            Yep, the Waltons were reputed to live in Nelson County.

          4. Timmy V Avatar

            John Boy went to Boatwright College, aka University of Richmond.

          5. LarrytheG Avatar

            He did. I stand corrected. What did he do in Cville?

          6. Timmy V Avatar

            Not sure but C-Ville came up a lot on the show. I remember the dad having to go to work in an office there at one point, and he didn’t get along too well with the city folk.

          7. LarrytheG Avatar

            there were several episodes with the Waltons headed to Cville but I had forgot where he went to college which I keep “learning” then “forgetting”… ugh…

        2. Lefty665 Avatar

          Those are all quite a hike from C’ville. Expensive commutes for people to find affordable housing. 29 North is a miserable commute into town, and I64 East vigorous, not terrible but getting there. There is also a surprisingly large daily commute from Richmond. There’s a lot of development West, in the Crozet area, but that’s not much more affordable than in C’ville itself. South, down 29 has stayed mostly rural, but is as expensive as C’ville. All in all not a pretty picture for people without a lot of money.

        3. Paul Sweet Avatar
          Paul Sweet

          And Nelson and Augusta, especially Waynesboro.

  3. walter smith Avatar
    walter smith

    We are so far beyond the time for adult oversight. UVA is not worth the inState rate I pay, and it is only because my wife and I are both grads and have fond memories when UVA was under Frank Hereford, and college kids could be stupid without ending their careers, and could leave with no debt (at least inState).
    The mission creep is just to suck more money out out of students, and alumni, and businesses and the government. Totally corrupted.
    Look at the new “hotel” Darden has – starting on p24 –
    Ridiculous. When I went, besides walking uphill both ways in the snow every day, the law school and Darden were about 60 yards apart, very 1970’s looking brick buildings. Not any ridiculous adornments. The law students ran into closets to change into suits for an interview. The B school had a big open area for the ritual morning coffee after the first class. Not Starbucks and styrofoam cups. We got a real education at a bargain price.

    And now JR is putting in another huge hotel at corner of 29/250…

    Too many administrators. No intellectual diversity. No free speech. Too many worthless courses/studies in the course catalog. Non-stop, endless propaganda from UVA Today, while the $14 billion is allocated to support hundreds (thousands?) of initiatives that many alumni and parents and taxpayers would disapprove of…if they could ever get UVA to tell the truth about them!

    John Stossel has a column out today calling college a scam. Charlie Kirk wrote a book titled “The College Scam.” And it is – as currently operating across the country, a giant, left-wing money laundering scam. Go from academia to politics to lobbyin to NGOs supported by the Govt – back to academia for funded by the govt and affiliated NGOs “research” on “climate change,” and then to a Senator’s staff and back to UVA with a pay bump for the govt “experience”…

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Frank Hereford was the last good president of UVa.

      1. walter smith Avatar
        walter smith

        And Gilly Sullivan knew what his job was as head of the Alumni Association…

  4. Teddy007 Avatar

    HOw can the university be growing while the number of undergraduates has not really grown much in decades? Are the new buildings research facilities, new institutes, or other non-teaching ventures?

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      My guess is that the medical center is a big contributor to growth. However, even subtracting the medical center growth, it seems that square feet of facilities are growing enrollment or employment.

  5. DJRippert Avatar

    The comeuppance for American colleges and universities is on its way.

    I have recently been involved in a project to consolidate data from multiple sources in an effort to build a machine learning based tool that allows colleges and universities to detect struggling students early in an effort to intervene before they drop out. This has caused me to not only research the general state of US colleges and universities but to talk with administrators and board members.

    The future does not look bright.

    While West Virginia University may not have the academic reputation of UVa, it is the state’s flagship institution and a good university. WVU is cutting programs and professors to meet budget constraints.

    Meanwhile, well respected corporations are dropping the requirement for 4-year degrees for many lucrative positions. Delta Airlines joined a growing list of airlines in dropping the requirement for a 4-year degree for pilots.

    Finally, a board of trustees member for a university ranked above UVa but below the Top 10 told me that only the Top 10 universities in the US should feel any sense that they are impervious to disruption based on demographics, affordability and declining demand.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Another day and another public university cutting programs ….

      The leader of the university’s faculty senate recently told colleagues to prepare for cuts “of an order beyond anything we have seen.”

  6. James Kiser Avatar
    James Kiser

    The WSJ covered this in a report and all of this is paid for by the students.

    1. Teddy007 Avatar

      One may want to look up the budget of UVA or any state flagship university. The funding is very complicated even though tuition is the number one revenue item it is usually not a majority.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        That is one huge endowment. So large that the GA thought about trying to confiscate it until they realized they would be committing a theft.

        UVa doesn’t own the endowment. It’s owned by the Foundation. UVa is only the beneficiary.

        1. Teddy007 Avatar

          Federal and outside grants are also huge line items on the revenue side.
          Since all of those supposedly concerned with the budget cannot be bothered to take a minute and look up the budget. Here is a link to a presentation.

          Net tuition and fees is about 1/3 of UVA’s budget with state appropriations being 1/5 of tuition.

          1. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            Don’t forget, 1 out of every 3 students pays the full tuition. Now 2 out of every 3 pays 1/2, and technically, because mommy and daddy are state taxpayers, the state is supposed to pay the other half. If the state was indeed paying its share then UVa would not be maxing out the number of out-of-state students.

          2. Teddy007 Avatar

            That is why the budget mentions net tuition. Many universities report gross tuition (assumes everyone is paying full tuition) and then counts state provided financial aid as an expense (lost tuition). Also, many of those paying less than full tuition are still generating income for the university such as with Pell Grants or other financial aid.

          3. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            Financial aid, scholarships, grants, etc., should be applied to the student’s portion of tuition. Of course, it’s clearly not simple. Room and board are moneymaking enterprises too.

            Without knowing numbers (unlike the usual BR group I don’t care about UVa) I would expect that the State as a minimum should pay 1/3 of gross tuition collected. I seriously doubt the State provides that much to UVa. I believe the State funding amounts to about 6% of UVa’s operating budget.

  7. “The Board of Visitors is hounded and their time dominated by loud and insistent special interests from within the University, who provide them only sketchy briefings on their plans, having themselves ignored internally the more troublesome issues.”

    The Board of Visitors needs to throw out the rubber stamp and start asserting itself in a meaningful way.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Many corporations have an internal audit function that reports directly to the board (Bypassing the CEO / CFO and other management people).

      UVa should consider something similar.

  8. Rafaelo Avatar

    Ancient Greek literature: the best that has been thought and written. The Renaissance was its rediscovery. The American Founders, Madison and Jefferson in particular, were schooled in classical literature.

    U Va increasingly builds buildings devoted to vocational training rather than the liberal arts. The highest and best use of a mind may be a deeper problem than the highest and best use of real estate.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      What’s MIT’s motto?

      1. Rafaelo Avatar

        Mens et Manus. Latin for “Geeks R’ Us.”

  9. I suggest you C’ville be avoided like the plague this weekend. Friday (today) is move-in day for UVA first years, Saturday 2nd years and Sunday 3rd/4th years.

    If past years are any indication,the place will be a traffic nightmare the entire weekend.

  10. I suggest C’ville be avoided like the plague this weekend. Friday (today) is move-in day for UVA first years, Saturday 2nd years and Sunday 3rd/4th years.

    If past years are any indication,the place will be a traffic nightmare the entire weekend.

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