Monthly Archives: November 2019

Toward 2050: Reformatting the commercial landscape on U.S. 29

On November 25, 2019, the School of Architecture held a panel discussion called Bridging the Gap: A Roundtable Discussion on Urbanism – The American Strip Mall. I attended the event and wrote this summary.

The 20th Century commercial landscape as canvas for 21st Century

As we approach the third decade of the 21st century, many of the highway commercial developments built in the second half of the 20th century are obsolete. Underutilized shopping centers with their vast parking lots provide an opportunity to help our community solve many of its problems.

“I think about what you could do with that space if we decided that the car and the single-use occupancy of vehicles was financially crazy and ecologically crazy,” said Barbara Brown Wilson, assistant professor of urban & environmental planning at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture.

“What would we do? Would build habitat? Would we invest in a mass transit system?” she asked at a recent panel discussion on the future of the American strip mall. “There’s a lot of land there that could be repurposed for social values.”

Wilson and four of her colleagues approached the topic from the perspective of different disciplines at a forum called Bridging the Gap. Part of the hour dealt with the environmental legacies of developing the land without carefully considering the impacts on area ecosystems. 

“They are destroying a lot of ecosystems and are not sustainable,” said Mona El Khafif, an associate professor of architecture and urban/environmental planning. “Go down Emmet Street. It has enclaves after enclaves that are cutting through ecological systems that are not even allowing people who live right beside it to go shopping on foot because you can’t access it. It’s the biggest perversion you can imagine.”

A timely conversation

The discussion comes at a time when Albemarle County and Charlottesville are facing steep population increases, a need for new housing, and growing community demand for better ways to move around without the use of a private vehicle.

The Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia projects Albemarle will have 138,485 people by 2040 and that 53,352 will live in Charlottesville by that year. That’s up from the center’s 2017 estimates of 108,639 and 49,281 respectively.

The first commercial strips in the Charlottesville area formed after World War II as development patterns began to shift. Across the United States, communities that were affluent enough to afford cars bought them, and suddenly a whole new market was opened up for real estate developers.

The panel discussion was moderated by Ila Berman, Dean of the School of Architecture. She set the stage by stating that many American communities have eschewed communal discussions about how to make a city work in favor of individual conversations about individual properties. That’s lead to support for sprawl development rather than investment in urban communities.

“The city is a cultural artifact that is certainly much more than the aggregation of its individual parts, yet the American ideological obsession with homeownership… has turned homesteading into a form of urban suburbanized sprawl, a historic trajectory that some might say is in direct opposition to the future evolution of its cities and public spaces,” Berman said.

The discussion offered a chance for representatives from various disciplines in the school to offer their take on the study and future of strip malls.

The view from urban design

Ali Fard, an assistant professor of urban design, said his students have been studying the commercial corridors that fan out from the University of Virginia. One of the largest is Barracks Road Shopping Center, which opened in 1957. While still relatively successful today, others such as Rio Road Shopping Center, Albemarle Square and Fashion Square Mall have uncertain futures.

“We’ve been trying to figure out what the main issues are, and how we can tackle them from the lens of design,” Fard said. “It’s been interesting to introduce design through the scope of the shopping mall, or the commercial mall.”

One question that has emerged from the research is whether if it is truly possible to transform parking lots associated with strip malls into urban spaces. In Albemarle, there are thousands of homes on either side of U.S. 29, but they may as well be across the county because there is no way to get around without a car.

“Are we forcing this idea of a public space on a space that is very much infrastructural and very much a logistic space for cars?” Fard asked. “It’s interesting to see the development in relationship to suburban forms of housing because for the most part, the connection between the commercial spaces and the housing is very minute.”

Views from architecture

In the United States, many American shopping malls built in the mid to late 20th century have the same architecture due to a series of formulas, contributing to a lack of identity.

“You see one mall after the other, in combination with suburban sprawl,” El Khafif said. “These two models nurture each other. What was really fascinating coming from Europe is that the vast colonization of land can be so tremendous and so big. America has a lot of land and it [went] ahead and colonized it and it’s based on individualism and automobiles.”

El Khafif would like to see housing built in the parking lots at Barracks Road, which could

transform the area. That outcome is not likely in the near future. On December 10, the Planning Commission will consider a special use permit for a Chick-Fil-A to replace the Burger King.

Felipe Correa, the chair of Architecture for the school, said for many years, strip malls were considered beneath academic study.  In 1972, a trio of architects wrote a book called Learning from Las Vegas were at first panned.

“[Architectural critic] Colin Rowe thought it was the most despicable topic architecture could actually engage with,” Correa said. “The American strip was beneath what architecture should be engaging with. Ten to fifteen years later the book in many ways becomes a classic and architecture understands the importance of understanding the landscape.”

In reality since then, Correa said suburbia grew because of economic models that allowed different types of suburbs and commercial corridors. All were in the support of promoting home ownership.

“What I think ties them all together is an aspiration to be able to achieve an American ideal which was the right for pretty much everyone to have access to land,” Correa said. “The only way this could have been achieved was through the development of the suburb.”

Correa said many shopping centers have closed, but the property owners have not gone bankrupt.

“They’ve already made significant amounts of money on those strips,” Correa said. “The question is, what is the land-banking strategy to then over time be able to transform them. That to me is the interesting question that architecture and all of the different disciplines associated with city-making can come together and begin to rethink.”

And for those of us in Albemarle and Charlottesville, Correa asks an important question that must be considered as we think about the housing needs we have in our community.

“What is that space ripe for now?” Correa said. “What should be the next model or iteration of the suburban strip mall?”

Views from planners

Ellen Bassett, chair of Urban and Environmental Planning at the school, said American society is premised on freedom, consumption and convenience.

“Freedom is inextricably linked to the automobile, and I actually don’t see that going away. Even though we say that we’re moving to more transit-oriented, it’s still a thing to own an automobile and still a marker of adulthood, stability and freedom,” Bassett said, adding that the needs of vehicles must still be factored in when considering new development. 

However, Bassett said the way Americans purchase products to consume is changing as it has become more convenient to order things online than drive to commercial centers.

“One in four malls is expected to close by 2022,” Bassett said. “There were 1,100 malls built between 1970 and 2008, and these things are just starting to sit empty.”

Bassett laments the loss of retail jobs that has and will take place because those are entry-level positions in the American workforce.

“The people who are being slammed by retail going away are females, minorities and youth, and they’re not finding access to jobs,” Bassett said.

Wilson sees a need to push for change.

“I think a lot about big cultural shifts,” Wilson said. “I study social movements. I think about when we decide something was morally reprehensible and we invested in it. At some point, all of our industries and textile mills were sized for the size for a child. At some point we decided child labor was morally reprehensible. Even though it was a huge investment from technological perspective, we made it because it was important.”

Wilson said she believes we are at a similar moment now in terms of climate change and social justice.  She said rethinking infrastructure can address both.

“When I think about the economic model that suburbia was based on, I think about racial exclusion,” Wilson said. “I think about driving away from cities we weren’t investing in.”

Wilson said white families who moved into suburbia were able to build wealth through homeownership, but many African American families were not because of discriminatory practices.

So how do we get to the future?

El Khafif said she grew up in a city whose bones were built a thousand years ago. She said there could be an effort now to create new alliances to work with owners of large shopping centers to persuade them there is a future in new urban centers.

“If we can convince Wal-Mart to come up with a different mall model that has benefit for them,” El Khafif said. “It has to be an economical benefit. Maybe an image factor that is added to their enterprise.”

El Khafif said parking lots could be reconfigured as public spaces with uses such as flea markets or temporary playing fields. These could be supported by other commercial spaces that convert from commercial to residential.

“I think there are great design opportunities,” El Khafif said. “Since master planning is probably not going to happen, because there’s no top-down and it’s all privately owned land, it’s about creating new alliances where the private development and owners of these malls see a benefit in creating a different kind of space that builds on top.”

Berman said there are alternatives to alliances, such as citizen pressure from ecological groups, regulation from the government, and tax strategies.

Fard said giant retailers are investing more in online platforms than bricks and mortar, which he said will have “devastating effects on the built environment.”

“Today as these stores are declining, there is the possibility to re-imagine this landscape with a new urban future,” Fard said. “But that’s where the distinction between the compact city and the suburb becomes critical. In most forms of compact city, the infrastructure such as streets and blocks are easily reusable into other programs and uses. The building stock of Manhattan has changed drastically over the last 200 years. The grid, not so much.”

However, Fard said the geographic footprint of large retailers are huge, and are hard to retrofit without tearing it all down.

“The opportunity is ripe not just to find new uses but to actually develop a new model of infrastructure that can actually guarantee urban longevity beyond the specific uses for which it’s created,” Fard said.

Albemarle County is depending on redevelopment of commercial areas to satisfy a need for more housing units, public spaces, and places for people to work and shop. The commercial strip along U.S. 29 is governed by a master plan known as Places 29. In December 2018, the Board of Supervisors adopted a small area plan for the area around U.S. 29 and Rio Road. This plan was put together in-house by the Department of Community Development, which is staffed by many former and current students from the School of Architecture. This process is one that could use more attention from faculty, staff and students, as well as the general public at large.

Wilson said organization has worked in other places to keep rents low and to preserve affordable housing stock in the way of redevelopment. One example is The Preservation Compact in Chicago which has tried help landlords maintain affordable rents through tax benefits and other strategies. In Denver, there’s an organization called Mile High Connects.

“As they instituted a new transit system, they knew that a lot of housing along the corridor was going to get lost,” Wilson said. “Without ridership, you have a non-functioning transit system. So they actually instituted a community land-trust model to try to recoup brownfields that didn’t have [housing] at the time.”

In Washington, D.C.,  there is a tool called the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) which is intended to give renters more protections.

Bassett said transportation policy needs to change if commercial corridors are to be repurposed. She said Albemarle has been creating a grid with the recent extensions of Berkmar Drive and Hillsdale Drive. 

“The idea as you think of future U.S. 29 is to try to bring back a grid,” Bassett said. “Of course, the scale of it is way bigger than really any medieval city. But it’s a starting point that is taking place. As these malls go down, and they will be demolished, we have great opportunities to bring in tighter street grids, green amenities, urban infrastructure and a design that we can think about will be a public space.”

Bassett said another thing that blocks potential change is the attitude from the financial industry, which tends to like formulas that produce the same kinds of spaces. She pointed out the recent construction of a stand-alone CVS at the corner of Barracks and Emmet Street.

“We had a great opportunity,” Bassett said.

El Khafif said Barracks Road Shopping Center or the Shops at Stonefield will survive for some time because they are programming to be places that are experiences in themselves.

“They have a diversity of different shops,” El Khafif said. “They even have public outdoor furniture and little niches where you can grab your coffee so they are trying a New Urbanism style.”

“It’s private land, so you cannot just take it over,” El Khafif said. “So you need to work with the fact that someone sells or doesn’t sell.”

El Khafif said communities should consider purchasing the land and putting it into a land bank for future public use.

“Only then can you have top-down power on the land,” El Khafif said.

Final thoughts

In the final question, Berman asked if UVA should be “at the forefront of thinking about new systems that reflect our values.” She asked what the School of Architecture should be doing to train the practitioners of tomorrow.

Fard said it is not enough that Albemarle and Charlottesville is trying to rebuild a grid.

“At the end of the day, I don’t think it’s about more technical connectivity,” Fard said. “It is really about coming together and rethinking the way we live together. That is what is very powerful about architecture. In many ways, architecture has a very strong history of imagining and visualizing alternative futures.”

Fard said architecture can develop pilot projects to demonstrate how different thinking can be implemented.

El Khafif said urban design is needed to help think through what happens if land uses changes from all-commercial to mixed-use.

“There are all different possibilities of how this will develop over time,” El Khafif said. “We really need to think about what are the forces that make this place and what is happening when some of these forces are being manipulated?”

Wilson said it is also crucial for tomorrow’s planners to think about the daily lives of the people who will use each space into the future.  How will they get there, for instance?

Correa said he would like to see design take into account potential longevity.

“What you are designing for now shouldn’t be for now,” Correa said. “It should be for 50, 100 years down the road. A lot of these spaces are designed for the now. It’s that thinking that needs to change and it can’t come from a single discipline.”

Bassett said the role of the planner is to introduce “a strong dose of reality.”

“Planning and building our communities is a highly political act,” Bassett said. “We need to learn how to navigate the political spaces as design professionals and public planner, and learn how to pitch arguments and be persuasive.”

“If we’re not savvy in terms of working the politics, we’re not going to get certain things done,” Bassett said. “We are in a market economy. That’s not going to change. I’d love to put a forest where these malls are but we’re going to have to come up with the money to pay people for it.”


Albemarle to further discuss fill dirt and debris changes in January

Albemarle officials are moving ahead with a review of whether its county code sufficiently regulates the burial of materials such as construction debris, fill dirt, and demolition waste in the rural area.

“The fill and waste provisions have not been reviewed since 1998,” said Bill Fritz, the chief of special projects in Albemarle’s Community Development Department.

Since then, Albemarle, Charlottesville and the University of Virginia have experienced at least two waves of building activity, meaning many brownfield and greenfield have had to be cleared. Both dirt removed through grading and buildings removed through demolition leave a waste product that has to go somewhere.

It has been common practice for waste material and fill dirt to be hauled into Albemarle’s rural area, prompting questions and concerns from residents about truck traffic and potential pollution.

In January, the new Albemarle Board of Supervisors will hold a work session on how to proceed with the review, which will eventually include roundtables with stakeholders. The goal is to have the ordinance updated sometime in 2020.

Background

On November 6, 2019, Supervisors adopted a resolution directing staff to take a look at §18-4.3.1 and §18-5.1.28 of the code because “the use of rural fill and waste areas may be inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan.”

Another reason is “the placement of fill and waste may cause increased traffic on rural roads that may be inadequate to accommodate increased traffic.”

In one incident last November, 69 loads of used astroturf were trucked from the Park at Darden to property off of Fox Mountain Road. This past May and June, an unknown number of loads of waste were hauled onto another property in Free Union to dump concrete, asphalt, and other debris from the demolished University Hall.

Both incidents triggered complaints from nearby landowners concerned about what was happening and both were investigated by Albemarle zoning inspectors.

The astroturf was later removed because that material was not permitted to be stored on that site, above-ground or below-ground. However, much of the material at the Free Union site was buried in the ground after the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality concluded the material was inert. Questions remain, however, about whether enough inspection has been conducted.

Also common is a practice in which dirt removed from construction sites can be transferred from one site to the other. In most of those cases, neighbors currently do not have to be told what is happening.

This review gives Albemarle residents and stakeholders the chance to demand that the rules be tightened up to give protections to neighboring properties.

Studying fill and waste areas

Supervisors initiated the study of this issue at their November 6, 2019 meeting and agreed to a public process for the review.  Fritz said the existing provisions may not be sufficient to address health, safety and welfare.

“The existing regulations are largely technical in nature and they deal with things such as ponding of water, reclamation of the area with covering fill, fencing, dust control,” Fritz said.

“No regulations exist that address the volume or hours of truck traffic.”

As with many activities in the rural area, if the dumping is connected to agricultural use, it is exempt with some exceptions due to the passage of the Right to Farm Act.

“If the fill and waste activity is related to bona fide agriculture, it is exempt,” Fritz said. “However, no mechanism exists to determine what type of activity is supportive of bona fide agriculture.”

Fill and waste areas are governed by Sec. 5-1-28 including provision a.3:

“Each fill or waste area shall only be for the disposal of soil or inert materials. The disposal of any other materials in a fill or waste area is prohibited.”

There are no definitions of “dirt” or “clean fill” in the ordinance, nor the word “inert” which can be defined as chemically inactive.

“We do not have a definition of clean fill but what we have used is dirt,” Fritz said. “Not rock or  rubble, but usable soil.”

Supervisor Liz Palmer asked if “fill dirt” could include concrete and asphalt if they are deemed to be inert.

“These are the types of things that as we’re looking at the zoning text amendment that should be clarified,” Fritz said. “There simply is no clear definition in our ordinance. I’ve looked at some other ordinances now that very clearly define the definition between clean fill and inert material. Some localities treat those two things differently.”

In recent history, Albemarle notified the owners of Hidden Fox Farm inspected the property after hearing about many trucks traveling to the property. University Hall was demolished on May 25, and by the end of June, some of the debris had been trucked to the site.

Records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that county officials determined the practice was not lawful after an inspection on June 26.

“The dumping of non-inert materials (metals, plastics, fabric, and other materials) was discovered at that time,” wrote zoning administrator Bart Svoboda in an email to DEQ officials.  “Following that additional inspection, Staff has concluded that a violation of county ordinances exists.”

Some of the material was removed from the site, but questions remain that should be addressed during this review.

Hauling

The county’s ability to regulate fill and waste areas is more complete if the material to be transported originates within Albemarle. If it comes from outside, then county officials may not know it’s happening.

“If there’s a project in Albemarle County that is generating waste material, either soil or they are demolishing a building, as part of the review of that particular project, we look at where that material is going to be exported to, even if that area that is receiving the exported material is under 10,000 square feet, because the sending [area is above] 10,000 square feet,” Fritz said. “However, if the material is being generated outside of Albemarle County, either from the city or the University or some other jurisdiction, that doesn’t happen. We only look at it if the disturbance is over 10,000 square feet at the receiving property. And then if it is, the normal erosion and sediment control regulations come into play.”

Section 5.1.28(b) requires a permit if a property owner knows in advance that the area of the fill and waste area will exceed 10,000 square feet. That triggers a provision of Chapter 13 of the county code, the solid waste and recycling chapter, that governs the transport of refuse. Section 13-302 governs the “accumulation, storage and removal of refuse on private property” and would apply to any fill or waste area in excess of 10,000 square feet, even on agricultural land.

Palmer asked Fritz if that meant the county had to rely on property owners to notify staff in advance of receiving that amount of material.

Fritz said yes, though pointed out county usually doesn’t know until there has been a complaint.

The 10,000 square-foot threshold could be reduced to as little as 2,500 square feet, according to Fritz.

The locality has the power to regulate point-to-point transfers within Albemarle’s borders, but from anything outside.

“If the permit has to be issued by the county [to] the demolishing party, they have to include that in their permit information,” said County Attorney Greg Kamptner. “They tell us where they’re taking it, but if it is UVA or the city, we don’t have that information until it reaches the threshold where our regulations kick in. We don’t have that communication between the city or the other permitting authority right now.”

Supervisor Ann Mallek asked if it were possible to get that authority.

“That’s the most important missing chunk right now,” Mallek said. “We are behind the eightball always, and it’s unfair to staff and neighbors to not have any capability. But if we need the authority to get that information, it’s a different question.”

Fritz said the county has been working with UVA to get better notification. In September, the facilities management office sent a full accounting of the astroturf that had been stored on Fox Mountain Road, but it was not required by law.

.Mallek said that there needed to be a legal requirement to make sure that practice continues into the future. That would likely take legislation in the General Assembly.

Another wrinkle is that if the property owner claims the receiving of fill dirt is for an agricultural use, the county’s water protection ordinance does not apply.

“The WPO ordinance does not allow enforcement action on bonafide agricultural activities,” said county engineer Frank Pohl. “That’s state law.”

Pohl is referring to the Right to Farm provision in state code which severely limits local regulation on agricultural activities.

For instance, the county issued a notice of violation in October 2018 to the owner of property of Seven Hills Lane near Crozet, the receiving site for fill dirt from another place that had recently been excavated. The landowner’s attorney appealed, citing that what might or might not be happening on the property is an “agricultural service operation” allowed under 10.8.1 of the zoning code.

Next steps

Supervisors will hold a work session on the issue in January to further clarify the specific questions that will be asked in the review.