Oversight group discusses Cville Plans Together initiative

(This article originally appeared in the May 25, 2021 edition of Charlottesville Community Engagement)

The steering committee overseeing the Cville Plans Together initiative met on May 19 to take a mid-month review of the latest round of the public engagement efforts. To recap, Rhodeside & Harwell is overseeing an update of the city’s Comprehensive Plan as well as a rewrite of the city’s zoning code. They’ve already produced an affordable housing strategy that City Council adopted in March. (review the plan

In February 2019, Council voted to approve spending up to $1 million to hire an outside consultant to take over oversight of the Comprehensive Plan. For background, read my story from then to explain the reasons behind the decision. 

The latest version of the schedule for the process

The work got underway in January 2020 and continued during the pandemic with virtual meetings. There were two previous community engagement periods last year in addition to the one underway now. 

Jennifer Koch is a project manager with Rhodeside & Harwell.

“We fully recognize there are folks in the community who may not have been aware of this process that was going,” Koch said. “We’ve been working hard to reach folks but it’s been quite a year… We’ve been doing a lot of virtual engagement for the past year and we don’t anticipate that will completely go away as we move forward but we also know it’s really nice to speak with people in person.”  

First, members of the steering committee had the opportunity to weigh in. One of them is City Councilor Michael Payne, who will be one of five votes to adopt the Comprehensive Plan and the updated zoning code sometime next year. At this stage, he wanted to suggest a change in the title of one of the draft chapters.

“With the Economic Prosperity and Opportunity [chapter], I know it mentions community wealth building in the update but I still wonder if it may make more sense for the chapter itself to be focused on community wealth building, again to try to gear that chapter towards more system change thinking about things like community land trusts, community development corporations, [and] community gardens all interconnect as a system for wealth creation that’s different than the normal way of doing economic development,” Payne said. 

Seven draft chapters of the Comprehensive Plan are available for review (download)

Christine Jacobs, the interim executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission, applauded language about regional partnerships. However, she wanted her organization to be more specifically referenced given the number of bodies it runs on which Charlottesville City Councilors serve. 

“The TJPDC does have the Charlottesville-Albemarle MPO,” Jacobs said. “It also has the Regional Transit Partnership and the Regional Housing Partnership.” 

Diana Dale represents the leaders of neighborhood associations in the city, some of which have expressed concern about too much density. She drew attention to the chapter on Land Use, Urban Form, and Historic and Cultural Preservation. 

“And I’m thinking in particular of goal two,” Dale said, reading from the chapter summary. “Protect and enhance existing distinct identitiess of the city’s older neighborhoods while promoting housing options, a mix of uses, and sustainble reuses in the community.” 

Dale said some residents of neighborhoods are concerned that some of their portions have been changed from low-intensity to medium-intensity, such as most of the Lewis Mountain neighborhood and some of the Martha Jefferson neighborhood. That could allow between four to 12 units per lot, but that will remain unclear until it is time to rewrite the zoning code. 

“What is aspirational? And what is actually codifiable?” Dale asked.

The zoning rewrite will be conducted by the firm Code Studio, a subcontractor whose work will be informed by the affordable housing plan and the Future Land Use Map. 

“I’m not certain that we have a whole lot of the answers,” said Lee Einsweiler of Code Studio. “We were hoping we could work through things at the more generalized level of the Future Land Use Map and then begin to craft strategies for implementing those tools.” 

Einsweiler said that each category on the future land use map will not be represented by a single zoning district. 

“There would be two, three, four implementing zoning districts that might all have appropriate strategies for different types of the community but those can’t quite be figured out until we can understand where they are likely to be applied,” said Lee Einsweiler. 

Dale remained concerned. 

“The vagueness is not helping people’s confidence in the plan,” Dale said.

The Lewis Mountain Neighborhood has been designated as medium intensity in the draft future land use map. (interactive map)

Dale also expressed concern about the impacts of a more people on the existing infrastructure. She said roads might need to be widened to accommodate additional traffic, and stated the city has issues delivering on infrastructure projects such as frequent buses and a consistent bike and sidewalk network. 

“The guidance is recommending multimodal strategies, and that’s going to take time and funding to implement and that’s been a long struggle for a lot of improvements over time for those of who have been in the city,” Dale said. 

There are 19 neighborhoods across the city, and the 2007 Comprehensive Plan contains an entire appendix of specific requests from neighborhoods that came from a city-wide design day arranged by a now-defunct non-profit called the Charlottesville Community Design Center. That approach was abandoned for the 2013 Comprehensive Plan and the 2017 process did not seek a thorough capturing of what residents of neighborhoods wanted. 

Ashley Davies, who represents the Charlottesville Area Development Roundtable on the steering committee, suggested an approach that built upon previous efforts to plan at a neighborhood level. 

“I think people are hungry to give you feedback that is more specific to their area and I think it’s a shame that we can’t have the time right now to do the small area planning because I think that’s what a lot of people want to inform the land use plan,” Davies said. 

Neighborhood plans were drafted in the 2007 plan, as described on page 285. If you’re a Charlottesville resident, what was said about your neighborhood? (download the plan)

There’s a lot of discussion of what role the Future Land Use Map plays. Is it advisory? If so, what does that mean? Ron Sessoms is with Rhodeside and Harwell.

“The future land use map is a critical component of a Comprehensive Plan and sets the stage for the city’s long-term vision of how it’s going to grow,” said Ron Sessoms of Rhodeside & Harwell (RHI). “You can think of this as the 10,000 foot view of the city and defining where there are opportunities for growth.” 

Sessoms said the land use map is a guide for development, but is not binding like zoning. 

“As we think about the future land use map, it’s much more broad and the zoning code is much more detailed with specifics of what it means to fulfil the future land use map,” Sessoms said. 

The medium intensity residential category is new with this comp plan update, and encourages construction between four and 12 units per lot. Sessoms said that did not have to be out of scale with existing buildings. 

“They can be integrated into the fabric of a neighborhood,” Sessoms said. “They don’t have to be five stories to get fourplexes or any of the medium intensity development types.” 

Ashley Davies said she liked that the future land use map begins a process of reducing the amount of areas colored as low-intensity residential, but thought there should be some sense of what types of housing units are prioritized. 

“It seems to me the strategy for adding units in the city and adding residential, maybe we need to talk about the hierarchy of that can truly happen in Charlottesville,” Davies said. 

Dale said the Martha Jefferson Neighborhood Association’s Board of Directors supports soft density by adding accessory units and permitting apartments within structures. But they don’t support being colored as medium intensity. 

“Is there an opportunity to merge the ambitions of transforming Charlottesville to general residential, which is a big step to begin with, and to merge some of the intentions of the medium intensity?” Dale asked. “I recognize this may happen as you move to more strata, more levels of medium density.”

This draft also includes a name change for Low Density Residential to General Residential, which recommends up to three units per lot. 

Lena Seville, a Belmont resident who is on the steering committee, wanted to know why General Residential didn’t recommend allowing four units per lot. 

“There are plenty of little houses that are split into four,” Seville said. “At two stories, it’s four apartments. They’re easier to build. They mirror each other. They have the same footprint.”

Much of what is happening in Charlottesville is patterned off an effort in Minneapolis, where their City Council voted to permit duplexes and triplexes in all R-1 areas. Here’s Lee Einsweiler with Code Studio again. 

“You may have followed the exercise in Minneapolis in which they began talking about four but ended up adopting three,” Einsweiler said. “Part of the conversation was about the likelihood that the existing house would be replaced as opposed to split. The three is most likely an additional building on the property and a main unit carved out of the main house.” 

At the meeting, some members expressed concern about a perceived lack of engagement. Valerie Washington represents the Charlottesville Low Income Housing Coalition

“While this process has been going on for a while now there are still many folks in the community that I’ve spoken to who have no idea about this process,” Washington said. “Is there any plan to really put some education out there for folks who are having difficulty understanding the planning process so they can better participate?”

LaToya Thomas of the firm Brick and Story acknowledges that many people are not knowledgeable in planning issues, but the Cville Plans Together initiative wants to educate more people especially as the pandemic recedes.

“We are reaching out to as many people that we can get connected to, but we also know that many of you are connected to folks and so we will continue to make ourselves available if there are groups of folks that you want to convene,” Thomas said.

Dale suggested a pause while people get caught up on the planning process. That would give people the chance to read the many recommendations in the affordable housing plan adopted by Council in March. 

“Most of the community doesn’t really understand how it informs the plan,” Dale said. “It was previewed with the public last fall when everyone had their head down dealing with Zoom school and Zoom work and health care and everything else. It was a 100-year health event.”

The housing plan was adopted in March 2021 and informed the development of Future Land Use Map (download)

S. Lisa Herndon is a Realtor on the steering committee who wants to see a map that depicts where redlining occurred which overlays areas proposed for more intense development. 

“Going back to the history of Vinegar Hill and Gospel Hill, there [are] communities that were negatively impacted and now we’re going through redevelopment again and we see a lack of equity in terms of participation and I see nothing within this which shows where we were and how we’re going to prevent that negative effect in communities of African-American historical context,” Hernson said. “I don’t see that.” 

Sunshine Mathon, executive director of the Piedmont Housing Alliance, said he has been through this process in other communities where he has worked.  He reminded people the intent of the initiative is to guide change. 

“One of the things that gets lost in the translation is that change is constant and people have this assumption that their neighborhoods are a thing and have always been that thing which is fundamentally not true,” Mathon said. “One of the changes that we are seeing across the city regardless of the form of the city, one of the real changes is a dramatic increase in the cost of living in the city. That’s a fundamental change. The plan itself can’t be the change that solves that on its own, but it is an ingredient in that tool set.”

Comments will be accepted through June 13 now that a two-week extension has been granted. The Planning Commission is expected to have a work session on June 29. 

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