Charlottesville’s “summer of zoning” ends with long discussion of next steps

Last week, the Charlottesville City Council and the Charlottesville Planning Commission gathered in CitySpace to provide guidance for the next phase of the Cville Plans Together initiative. 

“The overview question for you tonight is are we on the right track as far as adopting zoning that will advance us into implementation of our Comprehensive Plan and affordable housing plan,” said James Freas, the city’s director of Neighborhood Development Services. 

Over the summer, members of the public have had the chance to review and comment on a study known as the Zoning Diagnostic and Approach Report. In August, an Inclusionary Zoning report was published which suggests ways to incentivize and encourage the development of units that must be sold or rented below-market.  (review the presentation for the September 27, 2022 meeting)

“It also included an analysis we’re calling the rate of change analysis which is looking at in particular how the housing market might respond to this new zoning within the General Residential and Medium-Intensity Residential districts,” Freas said. 

Freas said feedback demonstrates there is widespread support for increasing the number of below-market units, even among residents opposed to the additional residential density permitted under the Future Land Use Map. The rewrite of the zoning is intended to make that happen by allowing more units per lot, depending on a series of factors. For the purposes of illustration, a projection of the market assumed the maximum level of development. 

“We know there are always going to be physical and financial considerations that will limit any individual lot in the real world as it were,”  Freas said. 

The zoning rewrite is an update to serve the needs of Charlottesville in the third decade of the 21st century when Freas said most of Charlottesville is already built out. A new zoning code is intended to be much easier to use and understand. 

“Overall what’s very clear is that our existing zoning ordinance is really built on a greenfield development model,” Freas said. “It’s geared to that development and responds well to that. But as we know most of the development we here in the city is redevelopment and infill and we really need a zoning ordinance that is geared toward that type of development.” 

Existing rules on tree conservation and historic preservation will remain in place, though other sections of the zoning code will change. One of them is parking and perhaps reducing requirements in exchange for affordability provisions. Here’s a broad overview of what the zoning rewrite is intended to accomplish:

  • Allow more units on every lot zoned for only a single unit today
  • Allow more rental and ownership options
  • Identify and create zoning incentives for increasing affordability
  • Adopt an inclusionary zoning policy as part of the ordinance
  • Create a toolkit to avoid displacing at risk communities

That inclusionary zoning ordinance would kick in if there are more than ten units in a development, and ten percent would have to be targeted at 60 percent of the area median income for a term of 99 years. 

“And that those units must be effectively indistinguishable from the other units within the project,” Freas said. 

A slide depicting some of the scenarios in which the city’s inclusionary zoning ordinance would come into play (Credit: Cville Plans Together) 

Before three specific questions were asked, Councilors had the change to ask questions.

First, Councilor Sena Magill wanted to know how the city would make sure the affordability provisions actually work. 

“How are we going to enforce that?” Magill asked. “If these are rental properties in particular. It’s easier to enforce that when it comes to sellable properties because that’s a one time set amount, but if we’re looking at rental properties, we are going to have to have people in place to make sure that it’s being enforced.”

Philip Kash is with HR&A Advisors and he said the city will need to monitor the rentals to make sure the terms are being met. But there are limits. 

“Any time the city is investing money in affordable housing, someone needs to be monitoring that,” Kash said. “Now a lot of times, there’s somebody else investing in the property so you can have agreements and share the monitoring, but for inclusionary zoning you won’t be able to do because these are private transactions.” 

A slide from the Inclusionary Zoning analysis (view that document)

Over 10,000 parcels were studied as part of an analysis done for the inclusionary zoning work. The initial findings are that less than two percent of those parcels would be market viable for redevelopment and even fewer would be actually redeveloped. 

“When you upzone like this and there is a creation of additional value, there’s not a huge shift in homeowner behavior,” Kash said. “Homeowners aren’t economically rational. They are making decisions based on when their kids are graduating from school or if they’re going through a divorce.”

Other changes would decrease the power of City Council, such as moving the city’s protection on critical slopes to a staff decision. Planning Commissioner Hosea Mitchell disagrees with that move. 

“The worry is that most of the development that we’re going to do is going to be in really difficult places to develop and I would rather leave it to elected officials to make the final decision about what we do in such critical areas of our community,” Mitchell said. 

Councilor Sena Magill wants to write it into city code that landlords can’t conduct credit checks on people using federal housing vouchers. 

“I think this is an opportunity that we can look at some of that,” Magill said. 

City Councilor Michael Payne wants to tie inclusionary zoning directly to housing vouchers in order to reach households with very low incomes. That’s similar to a new policy in New Haven, Connecticut written by HR&A Advisors. 

“That would just have a huge benefit of getting the [Area Median Income] level of who’s benefiting from this down to zero to 30 percent,” Payne said. 

Question 1: Reduce parking requirements? 

One way to theoretically bring down the cost of housing is to not require as many parking spaces. The Commission and Council were asked whether they would be willing to eliminate parking minimums, which could also require the city to play more of a role in enforcement.

“It is, I am going, to say a bit of a pseudo-science,”  said Lee Einsweiler of CODE Studio. “One of the things that truly happens with parking is that as it gets tighter people make alternate choices. At what rate, at what pace, and in what kinds of ways, not quite certain what would happen here.” 

Einsweiler asked the group if they would be willing to change the way parking is handled in Charlottesville. 

“I’m going to suggest that no matter what we decide about this issue, the management of parking from the public front needs to be increased,” Einsweiler said. “We are going to have housing in places where we don’t currently have housing. We’re going to perhaps have more housing than we expected in certain portions of the community and therefore we need to think about parking management.”

That means charging for parking in more locations. Charlottesville tried that in Downtown Charlottesville in the summer of 2017 but public outcry ended a sixth-month pilot. 

Commissioner Hosea Mitchell said he would support reducing parking minimums for new development, but added that Charlottesville is a destination.

“We need to think about the business needs of Charlottesville and their parking needs,” Mitchell said. “They really are our tax base.”

New Commissioner Phil d’Oronzio said the community needs to change its behavior and drive less. 

“How we take care of and house people is somehow going to be driven by how we take care of 4,000 pounds of Chinese steel that’s burning hydrocarbons,” d’Oronzio said. 

Commissioner Karim Habbab supported reductions, but did not support a move to paid street parking. 

“It will intentionally burden our lower-income residents disproportionately,” Habbab said. 

New Commissioner Carl Schwarz said he believed developers of large complexes will provide parking because they know residents will demand spaces. 

“A larger developer is going to be smart enough to know that if they need a certain amount of parking they’re going to put it on their site,” Schwarz said. “It’s more of a concern for people living in the neighborhoods that might lose a parking spot that’s right in front of their house. Are we going to do citywide permit parking or something in all of the residential neighborhoods?” 

And if so, who would do the enforcement? Commissioner Liz Russell asked how much that would cost?

Commissioner Rory Stolzenberg also supports eliminating parking requirements. 

“I’m not really under any illusion that people are going to stop putting as much parking as they can fit into their buildings but I think everyone agrees that we want to move to a city where more people get around without a car,” Stolzenberg said. 

Bill Palmer is the non-voting representative from the University of Virginia, which unlike Charlottesville has a transportation demand management plan in place to help manage parking. (read the 2019 plan)

“There a lot you can do with technology these days that wasn’t there five years ago so I think taking a close look at that, and it would be a lot different then what people have in their minds,” Palmer said. 

Councilor Sena Magill said she would also support reducing parking minimums. 

“I do see people working to get rid of vehicles more,” Magill said. “It’s going to take time though and we also have to address the fact that we have significant infrastructure issues to support non-motor transit. We also have to face the fact that we are the urban center for a large rural area.”

Magill supports creation of park and ride lots on the outskirts of town accessible via transit. 

City Councilor Michael Payne supports eliminating parking requirements for projects that are one hundred percent below-market.

“The only thing that gives me a little bit of hesitancy which is the final question about completely eliminating parking requirements city-wide is just in making that decision I feel like I would be flying a little blind in terms of not understanding what the practical effects of that to be,” Payne said. 

Payne said biking, walking, and public transportation don’t work for everyone. 

“Particularly if they need to get to work on time and can get fired if they are ten minutes late, much less an hour late because the bus system isn’t reliable,” Payne said. “And we’re at least ten or fifteen years out until I think we have implemented a regional transit vision plan and until we have bike and pedestrian infrastructure that’s fully connected.” 

Charlottesville Mayor Lloyd Snook said some basic questions needed to be addressed.

“So the premise of eliminating parking minimums for residential property has to be that a significant number of the occupants can make do without access to a car either because there is transit available, because it’s a close enough of a walk to where they would need to get to, or because e-bikes or whatever,” Snook said. “I will say as someone who has ridden bikes in Charlottesville for more than 60 years that the hills can get real daunting. They were daunting when I was and they are daunting when I am 68.” 

Snook said eliminating minimums makes sense in places on transit lines, but less so in areas that are not on a bus route. 

Vice Mayor Juandiego Wade said he was supportive of looking at the issue, but he said he’s concerned that people won’t get out of their cars. He said he’s aware of what’s happening in other larger communities.

“We have to remember that Charlottesville is ten square miles,” Wade said. “We don’t have a lot of options to do different things and most of the property is already used. We have to kind of keep that in mind when we’re using different examples that Charlottesville is ten square miles.”

Wade works as a mentor and said he asks the people he works with what their transportation options are. He said having access to a car can open up more possibilities. For now, he said the zoning should be flexible and adaptive. 

“One of the things in talking to Mr. Freas is that he said that once this is done it’s really not done because it’s dynamic,” Wade said. “It’s not set in stone so I think we’re going to have to be willing that whatever we decide, people ain’t more than likely going to like it and we’re going to have to be willing to say okay, this is not working out the way we thought it would be so let’s go back and change it.” 

There were two more questions from the meeting, and I’ll get to those in a future edition of Charlottesville Community Engagement. These are detailed conversations, and eventually I will get through this so you can know what was said, and know what to expect as the process continues. 

Next steps

Freas said the goal is to have a draft zoning code and map ready for public review in January, followed by a public hearing on the final work next spring. While you wait for the next story, here are some additional things to read: 

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 October 4, 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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