Charlottesville PC reviews Urban Rivanna Corridor Plan

(This article originally appeared in the August 17, 2021 edition of Charlottesville Community Engagement)

The Rivanna River serves as the boundary between eastern Charlottesville and the Pantops area of Albemarle County. To the north is the Pen Park within Charlottesville, and the river meanders south to the Sentara Martha Jefferson complex.  What steps can be taken to connect the waterway to the built environment?

The area has been studied for many years, and the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission has been working on a study intended to unify future planning and implementation efforts. Nick Morrison is a planner with the TJPDC who updated the Charlottesville Planning Commission at their meeting on August 10. (TJPDC page on the plan)

“The goal of this phase of this planning project was to develop a vision and an action plan for that urban section of the corridor,” Morrison said. 

Morrison said a vision statement makes the argument that the Rivanna River is one of the community’s “greatest assets.” 

An overview of existing land use categories in the study area (Credit: TJPDC)

On the Charlottesville side, there’s a new apartment building nearing completion on River Road. Planning is moving forward with at least one pedestrian/bicycle bridge over the Rivanna. On the Albemarle side, apartments are planned along State Farm Boulevard and the fate of the State Farm headquarters building remains unknown. Their employees no longer have to report to work to do their duties. 

The idea of the plan is to coordinate infrastructure, and to make sure attention is being paid to the impact on the environment. 

“In terms of environmental protection, high-level, looking for approaches to protect any sort of sensitive biological or ecological areas, any sort of improved ongoing coordination between the city and the county, particularly in water quality and conservation,” Morrison said.   

Commissioner Jody Lahendro noted that the report contains dozens of action items. 

“Where do you go from here?” Lahendro asked. “I’m worried about creating yet another report that is just overwhelming with so many action items that are so disconnected that it goes back on a shelf. What’s the implementation for this?”

Sandy Shackelford, the director of planning and transportation for the TJPDC, said that before the plan is finalized, her staff will identify short-term goals as priorities. 

“My thought was that we focus on sort of the foundational action items that are going to be needed to build off of these other ones, so focusing on things like inventorying existing infrastructure or conditions, or systems, or things like that,” Shackelford said. 

Lahendro said he felt the cultural inventory conducted to date does not go far enough to protect certain areas that may have been Monacan sites. 

“You just assume that everybody wants to be able to visit all these cultural sites,” Lahendro said. “I expect there’s some prehistoric sites along this river that we don’t want to have people going with metal detectors ravaging and destroying.”

Commissioner Rory Stolzenberg suggested the plan should take note of desire from many to limit additional parking spaces. He also said the plan should address transit. 

“The only thing that actually about transit is about signage from transit stops, which I think is good, but I think it would make sense to have stuff about connections to the river area both transit and pedestrian and bicyclist,” Stolzenberg said. “I’m also a bit confused by this idea that adding pedestrian facilities means we must add more parking as well.”

The TJPDC is also helping Albemarle County with a study of how to expand transit, with the Pantops area being one of the study areas. (check the August 11 CCE for that story)

Commissioner Liz Russell said language should be more clear about helping community members and visitors learn more about the history of the river, if it’s going to include a section on that topic. She noted the plan already includes examples from how other communities have utilized their riverfronts, such as Greenville, South Carolina and Richmond.

“You know the Richmond case study really I think says very beautifully that ‘helping visitors develop a fuller understanding of different aspects of people’s lives throughout the history of the region will help them understand strong connections and understanding.’ I really think we’re not quite making that point in like why are we talking about the history, and what could that mean in anyone experiencing any of these opportunities within the corridor.”

This is the second phase of the planning process. So far, there’s not a concrete plan for a third, but Shackelford said it would be more to design future infrastructure. 

“If you look at the Richmond plan, they ended up with a master plan where they put things on paper,” Shackleford said.

Shackelford and the draft Rivanna plan refer to the Richmond Riverfront Plan, adopted by that city council in November 2012 and amended nearly five years later. 

A section of the draft plan addresses what the city of Richmond has done with their riverfront planning (Credit: TJPDC) (download the draft plan)

Commission Chair Hosea Mitchell cautioned the plan should not be to create an urban environment such as in Richmond or Greenville. 

“We don’t want to be that developed I don’t think based on the emphasis on protecting the environment, protecting the river, being the prime directive,” Mitchell said. 

Commissioner Stolzenberg said he felt developing along the river in a way that put more eyes on it could be beneficial. 

“If you had apartments or restaurants that kind of fronted the river and had access to it, that would create a positive feedback loop where we would care more about the quality of the river, and more people would be able to use the river,” Stolzenberg said. “That might detract somewhat from the sense of being out in the wilderness but you can get that on the James, right?”

The plan was originally to have been adopted by December 2020 but the pandemic affected the timeline. The Albemarle County Planning Commission has not yet had a presentation on the latest draft. After this article was originally purchased, Albemarle Planning Director Charles Rapp said the project will go to the Board of Supervisors and will not be reviewed by the Albemarle Planning Commission.

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