Final day to comment on city’s approach to the zoning process

Today is the final day to submit an online comment on the latest round of public input for the current step of the Cville Plans Together initiative. People can comment on the Zoning Diagnostic and Approach Report either in English or in Spanish

The report states basic themes that will be included in a new zoning code that is being written to implement the spirit of the Affordable Housing Plan adopted in March 2021 and the Comprehensive Plan adopted in November 2021. The goal is to make it easier for developers to build more housing by allowing more residential density. 

Last week, the steering committee for the Cville Plans Together initiative met and got an update on where things are. That group last met in March and learned the details of an Inclusionary Zoning program intended to encourage, incentivize, or require more new units to be rented or sold below-market to those who can demonstrate lower incomes. 

“Over the course of the last couple of months we’ve been collecting comments and questions about this report,” said James Freas, the city’s director of Neighborhood Development Services. 

Download the presentation here

City Council and the Planning Commission will have a work session on September 27, but last week the steering committee had the chance to weigh in. Before they did, Jenny Koch with the firm Rhodeside & Harwell stressed that nothing is final. 

“In this document as you probably have seen we are not proposing a new zoning map yet or draft zoning text,” Koch said. “What this does is show how some of the residential land use categories will be translated potentially from the Comprehensive Plan to the zoning ordinance and starts thinking about some of the other changes to be made.” 

Staff with the firm Code Studio performed what they called “residential testing” to as a way of modeling what potential new housing types could be built on existing lots. That’s a first step to writing the rules for how new structures can be built in a city where there’s not much undeveloped land. 

“For the most part, Charlottesville is pretty built out and a lot of these housing types that are going to exist are going to be infill,” said Christy Dodson with Code Studio. “That means it’s going to happen sort of in and around where you have existing development.” 

Dodson said this level of review assumed the highest maximum level of density on each lot as a planning exercise. Actual results may vary.  

“So it doesn’t necessarily think  about the financial feasibility,” Dodson said. “There are financial and physical tradeoffs and constraints that would very likely limit and probably drastically reduce the amount of housing that we can fit on these lots.” 

There are at least two examples of this Council’s willingness to support additional density even without the new zoning in place. In April, Council approved a rezoning in Fifeville that will see 28 units on about two thirds of an acre. The Future Land Use Map adopted by Council shows that land on Valley Road Extended as General Residential. 

Council also approved 170 units on Stribling Avenue on about 12 acres in April. That land has been designated as Medium Intensity Residential. Council’s approval was contingent on a public-private partnership where Southern Development agrees to cover the upfront costs of building a sidewalk on Stribling. They’ll be paid back through breaks on the property taxes as the property increases in value. 

But both of those properties are currently undeveloped. Infill development will have to be on existing lots. Dodson said many of these in older residential neighborhoods are narrow, and may have issues getting access to the rear of the property. Wide lots have different constraints. 

“They’re not necessarily located in as walkable areas,” Dodson said. “You’d need to probably put in more parking because its a little bit more vehicle-centric in those areas and there are areas with topography.”

There are a lot of details in the report about housing types and what might fit where. There are a lot of potential variables but the process is seeking a way to eliminate the role that Council and the Planning Commission plays in approving additional density. 

As a start, Code Studio is recommending the creation of two zoning categories. One would be for “house-scale” districts for General Residential and General Residential Sensitive Communities. The other would be “medium-scale” for Medium Intensity Residential. The “sensitive areas” would have additional criteria. 

“So we want to make sure that the reduction of risk of displacement is something we’re thinking about,” Dodson said. “We know that zoning is a really limited tool for that but we want to make sure that we get it right with what we can do with zoning. So we’re setting the framework so that other policies can come along and support it.” 

Recommendations that came out of the residential district testing

Various members of the steering committee had the change to make recommendations, including the representative from Preservation Piedmont.

“We’d like to see on your map indications of the overlay districts which are our architectural design control districts, our historic conservation districts, and our entrance corridors,” said Jean Hiatt of Preservation Piedmont. 

Diane Dale represents the Neighborhood Leaders Group and said she was concerned about the use of incentives such as reducing parking requirements in exchange for providing below market units. 

“The need for the parking doesn’t go away,” Dale said. “It’s basically externalized onto the streets.”

Dale said some streets will be able to handle the additional parking but others will not. Freas acknowledged the issue.

“There’s a lot of different topics that have come up in zoning that we’re recognizing that the solution lies in just the zoning ordinance itself and parking, and really on-street parking, is one of those key ones. The other tool the city has in its toolbox is parking regulations on a given street.” 

Council currently has to approve the extension of parking zones in residential neighborhoods.

Carl Schwarz is one of the city’s new Planning Commissioners but he was on this call to represent the Bike and Pedestrian Advisory Committee

“I think it it is definitely a concern when residents can’t find a place to park their car because neighbors have taken your spot but at the same time I think as a city we need to make a decision at some point,” Schwarz said. “If we continue to require parking for every development— two cars per family, one car per family, whatever it ends up being—we’re still making it easier for everybody to have a car in the city and as long as its easy for everybody to have a car in this city, it’s going to be harder to improve our transit capabilities and improve our bicycle and pedestrian capabilities.” 

A representative of the city’s Tree Commission had this to say.

“The Tree Commission supports affordable housing and in-fill development and access to dense housing but we also need liable communities and livable neighborhoods,” said Tim Padalino. “We need environmentally sustainable and resilient residential neighborhoods especially with the effects of climate change and the increase of hotter temperatures and longer summers and longer stretches between precipitation.” 

The representative from the development community said she appreciates the work that went into the residential district testing.

“As you look through our existing zoning code it’s so clear that we don’t have any allowances for the missing middle housing types and what you have shown in this analysis I think really proves that there is a lot of room to carefully add smaller housing types throughout the city,” said Ashley Davies of Riverbend Development, representing the Charlottesville Area Development Roundtable. 

That’s just a small sample from the comments at that meeting. There’s been a lot of discussions and a lot of opinions. That includes a letter from a group of residents concerned that the plan will not result in additional affordable housing units. 

“Development will be left to developers’ priorities that have catered to more market-rate and upscale buyers with nominal addition of affordable units,” reads the letter. “After all, they are in business to make a profit. This has been the pattern with multi-unit projects for years, and it will do little for affordable units, but it will increase development.” 

There’s three weeks until the City Council’s joint meeting with the Planning Commission on this topic and plenty of time to get up to speed. I’m hoping to write more about this topic, but there’s the theoretical and the actual. My goal with Charlottesville Community Engagement is to keep track of both. I’m not sure other information outlets are covering this topic, but I’ll continue to do so. 

Before you go: The time to write and research of this article is covered by paid subscribers to Charlottesville Community Engagement. In fact, this particular installment comes from the September 6, 2022 edition of the program. To ensure this research can be sustained, please consider becoming a paid subscriber or contributing monthly through Patreon.

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