Project to build 245 units at East High Street detailed at site plan conference

It is fairly common for planned developments in the community to become controversial. A plan to build 245 units in three apartment buildings in the floodplain along East High Street is attracting a lot of opposition, including a filing on October 4 with the Federal Emergency Management Agency challenging a recent flood map amendment. 

Charlottesville’s Department of Neighborhood Development Services hosted a site plan review conference on October 5 to give members of the public the chance to have their say, even if the project is allowed under the city’s rules. 

“Our team is excited about the opportunity to create a high-quality, multifamily residence at this strategic location in Charlottesville,” said Gray Poole, a partner with the Selwyn Property Group of Charlotte, North Carolina. 

The project is a by-right development, meaning the current zoning supports that level of density. Selwyn Property is partnering with Southeast Apartment Investors on this project. 

“We’re also pleased to be partnering with our second project with Charlottesville-based Seven Development which has developed numerous properties in Charlottesville and Albemarle County,” Poole said. 

Some examples of the developers’ other projects throughout the United States

The project is being shepherded through the review process by Shimp Engineering.

“Essentially there is a field that is behind Caroline Avenue between the [Rivanna] River and the Rivanna Trail,” said Justin Shimp. 

The site plan is to construct the buildings at this site on fill dirt that will elevate the foundation out of the flood plain with a fifteen foot retaining wall.

“There will be anywhere between 15 and 18 feet of fill placed to elevate these buildings above the floodplain elevation. 

 The trail itself would remain and would be buffered by open space in the floodway. 

“The proposed access points for vehicular traffic would be through High Street and over on Caroline Avenue,” Shimp said. “On Caroline Avenue we will build a public right of way to our property.” 

The Rivanna River Company would be allowed to stay where they are located. Shimp suggested the apartments could provide new customers. 

“But the zoning has been in place for a long time for this particular type of use and we’re the development team that has come along now to construct it,” Shimp said. 

Shimp said this is a preliminary site plan so details such as final location of sidewalks and the exact stormwater infrastructure would be worked out through the final site plan process.

Many people took advantage of the opportunity to ask questions. The first got right to the point and mentioned a legal challenge being mounted by an opposition group known as the Free Bridge Floodplain Advocacy Group. 

“In 2021, FEMA issued a Letter of Map Revision on a request by Shimp Engineering that moved the floodway away from the proposed site of this development and further onto the Albemarle bank of the Rivanna,” said Lise Stoessel. “Neighbors have submitted a petition to FEMA for reconsideration of this change. It would be inappropriate for the city to approve this site plan while it is under legal challenge.”

That petition was filed on October 4 and claims that Shimp did not disclose a financial interest in a property that would be affected. (view the petition)

“FEMA subsequently deflected the City’s technical questions on the grounds that FEMA relied instead on the engineer’s professional, independent expertise,” reads paragraph 1 of the petition

Stoessel asked the direct question: How would this development be affected if FEMA was persuaded to grant the request. 

Shimp did not respond right away or at the end of the meeting.

(view the petition)

Next, group member and landscape architect Zoe Edgecomb said the development would make flooding worse on both side of the river, as well as other negative effects. 

“Increases in water pollution due to the high amount of impervious area and asphalt, traffic congestion, decreased air quality due to the increase in traffic, increased chance of personal injury or death due to inadequate infrastructure, displacement of wildlife, loss of tree cover contributing to climate effects, and diminishment of public space,” Edgecomb said.

Edgecomb requested the Charlottesville Planning Commission look at the site plan and the city explore all avenues to deny the project. She didn’t ask a question. 

More people asked similar questions and made similar observations expressing concerns. One positive voice in favor was Peter Krebs of the Piedmont Environmental Council who said there was a lot to like about the proposal. 

“Leaving aside the technical questions, I think it’s important to point out that this is a great place for housing,” Krebs said. “Now, those technical considerations are super important.”

Krebs said people from this location could walk to a grocery store, schools and transit. But he said the project could only reach its potential if connectivity between High Street and the Rivanna Trail is improved. He also had questions about the material that will be used to lift the buildings out of the floodway.

“What is the composition of this fill?” Krebs asked. “Is it going to be clean fill? How does it contribute to the nutrients, and general health of that surrounding soil scape?”

Disclosure: The Piedmont Environmental Council is a sponsor of the Week Ahead newsletter but they have no input into my editorial process.

The owner of a nearby business expressed concern about that much vehicular traffic would be on East High Street. She asked for a traffic study to be done. 

But nothing about this development would require one to be conducted because it is a by-right development.

City Councilor Michael Payne was almost on the call. He noted that the Thomas Jefferson Planning District has been doing a series of plans for the Rivanna River corridor for many years. Take a look at them yourself.

“Have you looked at this plan at all?” Payne asked. “Are you looking to incorporate the goals of that plan into this development in any way?”

A map from the Urban Rivanna Corridor Plan of the area. The TJPDC has been putting together the plan for many years. What does it say about this area? Take a look. (Credit: Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission)

Payne urged Shimp to reach out to City Council and staff.

“There are absolutely very real community concerns,” Payne said. “We are not looking to just put out any reasons out of thin air to deny any project that there is but there are some very real concern that I think can be worked on.”

Several dozen more speakers also had their say. 

Shimp responded to some of the concerns at the end and repeated many of them regarding sidewalks and traffic would be worked out in through the final site plan. 

“We certainly understand that there’s more traffic coming out of this development but there are measures in place to help control that, where entrances are, how they have to be built, there are limited right-in, right-out,” Shimp said. “These are all part of the city code already that will take us a year or more to work through.” 

Shimp said there would be net benefits to the city with this development by providing housing close in. 

But, he also addresses the Letter of Map Revision before the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He said any landowner has the right to ask for the review based on more accurate data than collected by FEMA during its general survey. 

More on this by-right development as more comes to be known. I’ll also soon have the rest of the September 27, 2022 meeting between the Planning Commission and the City Council about a zoning rewrite that when completed might see a Charlottesville where almost all developments would be by-right. 

You can review the site plan meeting on the city’s website. You’ll have to enter a passcode that’s provided in the title of the video. 

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 17, 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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