Charlottesville Planning Commission gets year-end update on consultant-led initiative

This January will mark four years since the Charlottesville Planning Commission began its review of the Comprehensive Plan. The process was delayed due to a renewed focus on affordable housing, an outcome that stems from increased public attention on inequity following the Unite the Right Rally in August 2017. 

The previous City Council put the review on hold in December 2018, and hired the firm Rhodeside & Harwell in the summer of 2019 to complete an update of the plan, draft an affordable housing plan, and then begin a rewrite of the city’s zoning ordinance.

This year was to have featured a series of public workshops for what has become known as Cville Plans Together, but the pandemic resulted in all of the meetings being held virtually. The consultants have expressed that the renewed outreach to the city’s youngest and lowest income populations has not produced the city’s hoped-for representation 

Last month, the public had a chance to review and comment on the draft affordable housing plan as well as a set of guiding principles for the Comprehensive Plan.  

“We’re revising the [housing] plan now and we’ll have a revision in the coming month or so,  and the plan right now is to have a conversation with Council in January, and then hopefully work toward some sort of endorsement by Council of the plan,” said Jennifer Koch, the project manager with Rhodeside & Harwell. 

Koch said an endorsement will allow the consultant team to move ahead on revising the Comprehensive Plan to put specific language that will lead the city to implement its principles. For instance, if there is to be more residential density, the plan needs to say so. That in turn will inform the new zoning code.

“Today’s zoning also has a number of flaws and barriers to development previously identified by City planning staff and elected and appointed officials,” reads the Cville Plans Together webpage on zoning. “This is an opportunity to cure these flaws and remove the barriers to the kind of development that will be described in the updated comprehensive plan.”

Some of those flaws are contained in a May 23, 2017 letter from the Charlottesville Area Development Roundtable, part of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce. 

Others came from groups such as the Charlottesville Low-Income Housing Coalition, who have campaigned for changing “Historically Discriminatory Zoning Laws by Enacting Equitable Zoning Laws.” That phrase comes from the February 2020 paper The Impact of Racism on Affordable Housing in Charlottesville

At a high level, the draft affordable housing plan calls for a dedication of $10 million each year for ten years to be spent by the city to fund affordable units targeted at extremely low-income neighborhoods. A land use recommendation is very clear in what Council is expected to do. 

“Change zoning and development processes to increase the production of multifamily housing and expand feasible by-right development, and advocate for similar changes throughout the region, to begin to reverse entrenched patterns of racial segregation,” reads one strategy. 

The Planning Commission itself will not take a vote on this version of the draft affordable housing plan, but will take a formal vote on a recommendation when the entire process is complete.

“At this level the endorsement would not be an approval process necessarily but more of a nod that it’s moving in the right direction so that the next phase of the project can continue forward,” said Missy Creasy, the assistant director of the city’s neighborhood development services department. 

However, Chair Hosea Mitchell expressed concern that Council might see an idea that the Planning Commission did not support. 

“That could cause a lot of rework and slow things down,” Mitchell said. 

As it stands, Koch said a draft version of the Comprehensive Plan is expected to be ready for review in February. Review and revision has been underway since early 2017 and there were draft versions of some chapters before Council put the review on hold. 

“We are working from draft chapters,” Koch said. “We’re not starting from zero here so the thought is that we don’t want to go back. We want to move forward from where you all left off.”

“I think this is eminently reasonable because you’re building on all of the work that we’ve done for the last five years getting to this point,” Mitchell said. 

Updating the Future Land Use Map

Click for a higher resolution of this draft Future Land Use Map that was never adopted

One of the reasons the completion of the Comprehensive Plan stalled is due to something called the Future Land Use Map. Such a map can be controversial due to disagreements over the intensity of development that may be depicted for a specific site or group of sites, especially if the proposed uses require a different zoning to allow them. (2013 version) (February 2018 version

The future land use map is a guidance tool for the Council to use in evaluating new proposals for zoning amendments and other changes in the type and intensity of new development.

“The Comprehensive Plan Land Use chapter contains the Future Land Use Map which incorporates some of the land use goals that are in the plan but also is a long-term strategy for land use in the city,” Koch said. “It often is sort of the basis for some zoning adjustments but the future land use map is also often a longer term vision for land use that zoning may be.”

In December 2018, Council was presented with the work the Planning Commission had undertaken to date on the Comprehensive Plan. According to the minutes of the meeting, then-chair Lisa Green asked Council what they thought of the version of the map. 

“Ms. Galvin said the amount of purple (highest density) areas in the current draft was startling. She suggested within the lower density residential areas more intensity could be created there, in the yellow-orange zones, by mixing up the types of housing units.” 

At that meeting, Council discussed hiring an outside consultant to take over the work from the Planning Commission. They confirmed that decision in a vote in February 2019. (read my story from then)

As 2020 draws to a close, Rhodeside & Harwell are turning their attention to the future land use map. They are starting their work with a draft map from March 2018. 

“And we know there were several working versions of this map developed after this point but the reason we’re starting with this is because it was as we recall the last version that was shared at a public meeting,” Koch said. 

Commissioners Lyle Solla-Yates and Rory Stolzenberg objected to not starting with the map Council had seen in December 2018. However, Creasy said the work had to start from somewhere. Current Chair Mitchell agreed

“This is the last place where we did have true consensus,” Mitchell said. “We all knew this was the starting point and that’s what we’re trying to build on. Every time we try to go beyond this, we have five different opinions.”

Koch said they will present a new version of a future land use map soon based on the Commission’s feedback. 

University of Virginia

Commissioner Gary Heaton said the University of Virginia’s role needed to be taken into account.

“Where the city ends and the University of Virginia begins, our land use map should reflect how we envision the future of the city as it pertains to the effect of the University on the city,” Heaton said. He added that other university towns such as Blacksburg and Columbus appear to have had more success. 

“These are places that also have been heavily affected by the University,” Heaton said. “If the city could someone get out in front of there could be ways to address affordable housing.”

The city, the University of Virginia and Albemarle County signed an agreement in 1986 to work together on land use issues. Until last year, there was a public body called the Planning and Coordination Council that served as a clearing house to work together and share information. 

In the fall of 2019,  elected officials voted instead to create a private body called the Land Use, Environmental and Planning Committee (LUEPC) as “a vehicle to share and coordinate land use and development plans and projects.” 

There was to be an evaluation of this new arrangement, but as with the Cville Plans Together initiative and so many other matters, the pandemic changed things. 

“At the end of this first year, the entities were to evaluate the Committee’s structure to determine if it had achieved the stated objectives,” reads an update on the December 2, 2020 consent agenda of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors. “Given that the Committee’s work commenced amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the Committee respectfully requests that the entities postpone this evaluation until the conclusion of 2021.” 

Meanwhile, UVA has made a commitment to housing. On March 10, the University of Virginia announced it would build up to 1,500 affordable units on land it or its real estate foundation owns. The topic came up at a meeting of the Regional Housing Partnership last week. Colette Sheehy is the Senior Vice President for Operations at UVA. 

“We have now restarted that initiative, more probably coming in January, but we are trying to get back on track,” Sheehy said. 

Bill Palmer with the University of Virginia Architect’s Office agreed that UVA’s actual reality should be depicted on the map. He is a non-voting member of the Planning Commission. 

“Before we really go too far forward with this map, maybe really look at these areas around UVA to make sure that they are depicted correctly now,” Palmer said. “I know that there was quite an upzoning a good while back of the neighborhoods around the UVA to absorb student development.”

Palmer referred to the 2003 rezoning when the University Medium Density and University High Density were created. He also reminded the commission of UVA’s recent redevelopment of Brandon Avenue into a much more dense precinct. 

The Ivy/Emmet corridor is also slated for redevelopment, and there is a master plan for the properties it has assembled over the years. On Friday, December 11, the Buildings and Grounds Committee of the Board of Visitors approved the schematic design for the 61,000 square foot School of Data Sciences. That project is being funded by a foundation associated with Jaffrey Woodriff, who is also the main force behind the development of the CODE building on the Charlottesville Downtown Mall. 

Additionally, three large structures have been built on West Main Street and marketed for students in the past several years. However, Council is still wrestling with how to implement a plan for pedestrian infrastructure that had been intended to support the additional foot traffic and to revitalize the corridor’s retail and service economy. 

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