There’s an age-old question in land use. Which comes first? The development, or the infrastructure? Should developments be limited in size if all of the pieces aren’t yet in place to support additional residents?
The topic came up during Council’s consideration on August 2 on the rezoning of 1206 Carlton Avenue which will allow development of an eight-unit apartment complex on a currently empty lot in Belmont. The project also requires a special use permit. City planner Matt Alfele represented city staff.
“The applicant is also requesting side setbacks be modified from 13 feet to 8 feet,” Alfele said. “The application materials indicate the height of the building would be approximately 40 feet but no greater than the R-3 allotted 45 feet.”
Charles Neer of Chestnut Avenue appealed to Council to deny the rezoning, as a previous Council had done for that property in October 2018.
“The petitioner has come back again asking to rezone the property, increasing the density from six to eight and not increasing the parking,” Neer said.
The project is being developed by Management Services Inc., a firm represented by civil engineer Justin Shimp who we’ll hear from later.
This rezoning comes at a time when there is heightened attention on the cost of housing. The Alfele said the Planning Commission had asked Shimp about how much it would cost to live in the apartments.
“The applicant stated it would be the $1,100 to $1,500 range for a mix of one and two bedroom units within the development,” Alfele said. “The Planning Commission also stated that this type of housing, missing middle, would support more housing opportunities in the neighborhood.”
In his presentation, Shimp laid out the dimensions for the proposed building.
“So the premise is here that we have a small building that is 26’ by 94’ so its essentially about the size of two single family houses stacked back to back, with a stairwell in the center, is the scale of the house, being about three stories,” Shimp said.
Four of the units are one bedroom, and the other four are two bedroom units.
Shimp also said this proposal contains one more parking space than the one denied in 2019.
“It is not intended to be luxury type of housing,” Shimp said. “The developer of this is not in that. They’re trying to build a simple structure with moderate price housing.”
Shimp stated the rents would effectively be within the range of affordability for people and households making 80 percent of the area median income. He said the property had been zoned R-3 until a city-wide rezoning in 2003.
Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker had concerns there was not enough parking, and that the developer would not be required to add sidewalks elsewhere in the neighborhood as part of the development. She said the city should not have to be the sole party responsible for building infrastructure to support growth.
“The developers are talking about feasibility and we never ask them questions about what that means in terms of profit for them and I know I’ve been told quite a few times that that’s apparently not our business,” Walker said. “How can they ask us for more but we think something that’s necessary for the neighborhood and especially for the new community members, that if we’re talking about walkability that we want them to walk somewhere and be safe. I just don’t understand how we think that that is not something that is acceptable to tie into a request when they are asking us to build more than they can build by-right.”
Councilor Lloyd Snook said if the city is going to intentionally increase density, there need to be plans for how the infrastructure will follow.
“Whether the infrastructure is provided by the developer or whether it is provided by the city at our expense, and as I look at that area the first that concerns me is that the streets are all pretty narrow, the lots are pretty close together and that’s fine,” Snook said. “But if we’re going to have close together lots and an emphasis on walkability, then we also ought to be having an emphasis on sidewalks and sight lines on the roads that we’ve got. A lot of the roads not only are narrow but they twist and turn a little bit. I would like to think about whether there are things the city would recognize that there are things that we would like to go in that area.”
There is no small area plan for Belmont. The 2007 Comprehensive Plan has an appendix that compile neighborhood input that had been collected by the defunct Charlottesville Community Design Center.
There’s also the 2015 Bike and Pedestrian Master Plan as well as the also the 2016 Streets That Work plan, which is intended to make streets serve pedestrians and cyclists. Those are handy documents to have, but city engineer Jack Dawson said they are not always useful in cases like such as this.
“There is sort of a missing link I would say very generally between developing a single property and looking at the overall multimodal network,” Dawson said.
But in the case of 1206 Carlton, Shimp pointed out that there is a sidewalk on one side of Carlton Avenue. He said the issue is a request to build a sidewalk on to Chestnut Street.
“We have sidewalks on our side that will get you all the way into Belmont,” Shimp said. “It’s not an issue. There was a question of could we connect to across the street, and that road comes down at a pretty rough slope and I don’t think it’s possible to build a sidewalk without substantial work and probably right of way condemnation. Those are all outside the limits of this project.”
Councilor Michael Payne has joined Council since the October 2019 vote. He said he supported the project as a good example of infill development that would provide workforce housing.
“You know, I was just comparing it some recent apartments that have come on line,” Payne said. “These are half the rent of some of the new apartments that have come online.”
Walker wanted to know what would prevent those units from increasing in rent anyway. Shimp said the design of the project would limit its worth on the open market.
“The square footages are not substantial,” Shimp said. “It’s a smaller unit. There’s not swimming pools or other sort luxury amenities. It’s just designed as a workforce housing structure. That’s for the neighborhood that it is in.”
Walker said that at one point, her house in Belmont was considered workforce housing with small homes on small lots.
“Mill workers at the IX building and now you have houses that are selling for $300,000 and up,” Walker said.
One home on Walker’s street that is blocks away sold in June for $452,500, or nearly 48 percent of the 2021 assessment.
Shimp said a lack of non-luxury units in the community on the market helps contribute to the rising market price for housing. He again said this project would provide the “missing middle” prompting a question.
“So when you are saying missing middle, what does that mean for you?” Walker asked.
“That means something that is basically more than a duplex but less than a garden apartment building,” Shimp said.
Shimp said that “missing middle” was about the structure, and not about the income of those in it. However, he also said he would be submitting a triplex to city officials and hoped the rent in those would be in the $800 range.
Walker expressed concern the rents would not remain low without a guarantee. Shimp said he would like to see a city policy that would make it easier to build houses with rents at lower price points. That is not currently in place.
Councilor Lloyd Snook said there was not much the city could do to put an affordability guarantee in place.
“In a market economy, I don’t know how you guarantee that kind of thing more than a years down the road anyway,” Snook said.
There was no official vote on the rezoning because a second reading is needed. A majority of Councilors did indicate support. It will come back up for approval at a future Council meeting.