Council approves 119 units on JPA after developer increases “donation” to affordable housing fund

With one member absent, the Charlottesville City Council has unanimously approved a special use permit for additional density and height on Jefferson Park Avenue. They did so despite concerns from three Councilors that did not rise to the level of a “no” vote. 

Aspen Heights is a developer of student housing projects across the United States based in Austin, Texas. They needed the special use permit for additional density and to increase the height from 45 feet to 75 feet. There were other changes as well, according to city planner Matt Alfele. 

“Reduce the rear-yard setback from the required 75 feet to 36 feet and reduce the on-site parking by 22 percent from what is required by code,” Alfele said. “These modifications to a by-right density and form are being requested in order to build a 119-unit multifamily building.”

The public hearing had been held in May. At that time, Aspen Heights was offering $500,000 toward the city’s affordable housing fund rather than build units that would be required under the city’s existing rules to set aside some units for below-market rentals. Those rules are currently being rewritten to include an Inclusionary Zoning provision that could require units to be built onsite.

In May, the Planning Commission voted 4-3 to approve the permit. 

“The overall takeaway from the public hearing for both the Planning Commission and the City Council was that a by-right project on the subject property would not meet the city’s needs but the [special use permit] request should be adjusted to create a better development,” Alfele said. 

The developer’s representatives, Mitchell Matthews Architects & Planners, made very few changes between the May public hearing and Council’s vote. 

“We did agree to change the site plan to have a three foot buffer along Jefferson Park Avenue followed by a seven foot sidewalk, those updates are not reflected in the site plan that you’re looking at,” said Erin Hannegan with Mitchell Matthews. 

Those changes have been made as part of a way to reduce the massing, according to Kevin Riddle of Mitchell Matthews. 

Acting as the Entrance Corridor Review Board, the city’s Planning Commission voted 7-0 in May that the project would have an adverse effect but could be mitigated. 

“The building that we’ve proposed so far could adopt certain revisions that would bring the massing and scale to something that the ECRB could agree is something appropriate for the neighborhood,” Riddle said. 

Another change announced Monday night altered the calculus for Council. Hannegan said Aspen Heights agreed to now increase the contribution to the affordable housing fund. A donation letter she referred to was not in the packet for the meeting. 

“Our client has offered an additional donation to the Charlottesville Affordable Housing Fund to reflect the difference between [the city’s] current affordable housing policy based on an 80 percent [area median income] and the anticipated future policy at 60 percent AMI,” Hannegan said. “This brings the total contribution to over $1 million.”

The project had the support of Councilor Brian Pinkston.

“The slides that they took us through are indicative of thoughtful ways that professionals would work to take a building this size and harmonizing with the neighborhood,” Pinkston said. “Obviously this is going to be a big building.”

The slides Pinkston referred to were not available in the Council packet.  

Vice Mayor Juandiego Wade said he would support it, but still had concerns about the massing and the affordability. He said he would still prefer the developer to build the units onsite. 

“I recall from previous presentations that it would take our nonprofits about $200,000 to build an affordable unit and if we’re looking at eight to ten units, a million doesn’t quite get there,” Wade said. 

The cost to construct each unit would be about $350,000, according to a representative from Aspen Heights. 

City Councilor Michael Payne initially said he had a hard time voting yes due to the fact that the Cville Plans Together process is not yet complete. If it was, this project would not be consistent. 

“The concern I have with the project is just the gray area where we haven’t yet finished our Future Land Use Map or the Inclusionary Zoning program,” Payne said. “Under our Future Land Use Map this would be mixed-use urban corridor which is up to five stories except for key intersections which would be up to eight. Staff determined that this would not be a key intersection so it would be five stories rather than eight.” 

Payne voted for the project despite his concerns. 

“I don’t think this is ideal as we would want if we’re thinking about the goals of how we’re going to implement and evaluate projects as part of our future rezoning and Comprehensive Plan update,” Payne said.

Charlottesville Mayor Lloyd Snook said every infill development has problems that will affect neighbors.

“And the question is, can we hold those negative impacts down to a reasonable level?” Snook asked. “Can we mitigate the impacts that are going to come? The one that I find I wonder whether there is something that’s possible to do something about, is whether there is some way to do something to widen the roads on either side.”

Snook was referring to Washington Street and Observatory Avenue. He asked if the developers would give up three feet for right of way. Hannegan said that would change the entire project.

“The next question I would say is, are you going to ask all of the other properties on the street for the same distance so that it’s equivalent?” Hannegan asked.

“Nobody else is asking for a special use permit,” Snook said. 

Still, Snook said he was generally in favor of approval. 

The Planning Commission will have to approve a Certificate of Appropriateness before the project can proceed. City Council would have no further involvement. 

Pinkston made the motion to approve the special use permit, and said it would take at least a year for the Cville Plans Together process to be wrapped up. 

“And we have a real need for housing now like everyone acknowledges,” Pinkston said. 

Pinkston said the materials Hannegan showed to Council during the discussion helped persuade him. These materials were not made available for the public review before Monday night. 

“I have confidence that the professionals involved as well as the professionals that we have put on the Planning Commission will be thoughtful in the sort of final design that’s put forth on this project,” Pinkston said. 

City Council and the Planning Commission meet on Tuesday for a work session on the draft Zoning Diagnostic and Approach Report. More details either in the next Week Ahead or in a future installment of Charlottesville Community Engagement

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 23, 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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