Will the city be able to build the infrastructure residents to allow for a more dense development on Stribling Avenue? At their meeting on September 14, 2021, the Charlottesville Planning Commission pondered this question and a public-private partnership could be worked out to cover the costs that a cash-strapped city cannot afford.
Southern Development seeks a rezoning to Planned Unit Development to build up to 170 units on about 12 acres of wooded land. That came after a directive at an earlier work session for the firm to increase the units in the development.
“The Planning Commission told us very clearly that you wanted to see something less dense and more suburban,” said Charlie Armstrong, vice president at Southern Development.
Last year, the Fry’s Spring Neighborhood Association voted on a resolution to support the rezoning if sidewalks and other infrastructure on Stribling could be built to handle the additional traffic. The current Comprehensive Plan designates the land as low density residential, which is one reason a sidewalk there has not been prioritized in the city’s limited Capital Improvement Program budget.
Southern Development’s proposal would set aside 15 percent of those units for either rental or homeownership to households making below 60 percent of the area median income. They also worked with the city’s economic development team to come up with a financing structure to pay for the roadway improvements on Stribling. However, this novel approach points to a potential disconnect in the process.
Armstrong negotiated an agreement with the city’s Office of Economic Development to where Southern Development would make a $2 million loan for the city to build those improvements. The city would then pay Southern Development back over a period of years out of the increased property taxes that it will receive.
“I do want to be clear that this agreement is not part of the rezoning request but it does impact the area nearby and certainly of interest to many in the neighborhood,” said Economic Development director Chris Engel. “In its simplest form this agreement that the developer provides up to $2 million in funds to construct the needed improvements in a timeframe that is likely contemporaneous with the PUD development.”
The cost estimate provided by Southern Development for the upgrades is around $1.6 million. City Engineer Jack Dawson only saw the agreement or the two days before the hearing and said that amount would not be enough because it did not contemplate the full extent of work required.
“My concern is that probably that estime is a little light, to probably very light,” said Jack Dawson. “It isn’t just a sidewalk. It’s essentially a streetscape because when you touch a road you need to bring it up to code.”
Code requires a 20 foot right of way which Dawson said would likely require the taking of private property for curb and gutter drainage, which would add to the cost. Dawson cited an internal estimate created within City Hall of $2.9 million.
However, Armstrong bristled at the cost estimate provided by Dawson.
“That’s not a number that I’ve ever seen published or have ever heard and we’ve been talking with the city and been in this review process with the city for months and years so I would have hoped that might have come up,” Armstrong said.
Under the terms of the agreement, the city would have to pay anything in excess of $2 million but finding those funds will be difficult.
Earlier this month, Council opted to transfer funding allocated for the West Main Streetscape to the $75 million reconfiguration of Buford Middle School. Budget staff said when added to the existing capital improvement program, reconfiguration will require a 15 cent tax increase next year, or less depending on how the 2022 property assessments come in.
“Right now, every penny we are going to have in capital funds until we figure out something else every penny is going to get allocated for school reconfiguration,” said City Councilor Lloyd Snook.
The co-president of the FSNA appreciated the work that went into the agreement but said it was not yet enough to satisfy his concerns.
“There is a potential to find a solution here but there is a big but,” said Jason Halbert. “It’s about safety on that street and the JPA intersection.”
Halbert said the agreement had not been fully reviewed by the appropriate staff. He asked for the project to be delayed while the details of the agreement are worked out.
Commissioner Hosea Mitchell said he liked the project over all but agreed it might not be ready.
“I think it could use a little more baking,” Mitchell said. “There would be value in sitting with the engineers and the economic development people and working out the details and logistics so that we know exactly what it would like before we’re going to move on it.”
Another commissioner suggested the city has to do a better job of communicating better internally about coming up with innovative ways to support density.
“It’s endlessly frustrating to me the degree of dysfunction within the city where the economic development is negotiating this agreement and isn’t even telling [the city engineer] about it literally two days ago,” said Commissioner Rory Stolzenberg.
The issue comes at a time when new city management is just finding its feet. Deputy City Manager Sam Sanders has been on the job less than two months, and new planning director James Freas has been in his job for less than two weeks. At the same time, the city is debating a new Comprehensive Plan. The current draft encourages more density across the city.
“There’s no way to support this project without having a firm grasp of how we’re going to provide these infrastructure improvements to the neighborhood,” said Councilor Heather Hill.
But which comes first? The rezoning or the infrastructure? And whose cost estimate is to be believed? Southern Development’s $1.6 million, or $2.9 million from the city engineer?
City attorney Lisa Robertson had this advice.
“Leadership needs to put their heads together and talk about what’s realistic in terms of whether or not from inside City Hall a number can be developed that builds upon the work that Mr. Armstrong’s team has done, or clarifies it,” Robertson said. “Another function that really needs to be updated is the process by which we develop the city’s capital improvement program.”
Robertson said the CIP cannot be a wish list of aspirational projects. More developed projects with more concrete estimates would provide more certainty.
At the hearing, the question was whether an updated performance agreement could be completed to further scope out the project. Armstrong asked for an indefinite deferral while the agreement is worked out.
What’s happened in the past two weeks?
“The City is continuing to discuss the project with the developer while looking to confirm the cost estimate for the sidewalk project,” wrote Brian Wheeler, Charlottesville’s Communications Director.