Albemarle Planning Commission encourages more height and density at proposed apartment complex on U.S. 29

A Chicago-based developer appeared before the Albemarle Planning Commission last week and heard something not often said within the county. 

“Make this the model project so that others can see we have high density areas where we need which will help us with other areas that we want to preserve,” said Luis Carrazana, the at-large member of the Planning Commission. 

Thesis Living has not yet submitted a rezoning for a 3.27 acre property on the east side of U.S. 29 just north of the city’s border with Charlottesville. The property is zoned Commercial and within the Places29 master planning area. 

“There’s a wide range of uses that surround this parcel, most of them are non-residential,” said Cameron Langille, a county planner. “There are some retirement and assisted living homes to the northeast.”

View the presentation here (Credit: Albemarle County)

Langille stated this was the former site of Cville Oriental, but that business is still in operation, as is a automotive repair facility. One of the questions for the Commisson related to whether the proposed use was consistent with the Places29 designation of NS for Neighborhood Service Center, which is the smallest of the ‘centers” in that document.

“The master plan recommends a maximum building height of three stories for any structures that are in a Neighborhood Service Center,” Langille said. 

This application is for a five-story building and the request would be to rezone the property to Neighborhood Model District.

“The actual form of this development would be a single structure that would be primarily multifamily residential dwellings,” Langille said. “It’s 275 units is what this development is looking to do.”

Langille said that would come up to 85 dwelling units per acre, which is much higher than the highest possible figure in the county’s master as well as the 20 units per acre depicted for Neighborhood Service Center. He wanted to know what Commissioners thought of the height and the additional density. 

Attorney Valerie Long with Williams Mullin represented Thesis Living of Chicago, a real estate firm that describes itself as ‘data-driven.” 

“They are very interested in investing in the county and helping to address the shortage of housing and multifamily housing in particular,” Long said. “From an urban planning perspective, we think it makes so much sense and they think it makes sense from a market perspective.” 

There would also be about 7,400 square feet of commercial space. 

Long said Thesis Living wanted to have a sense of the Commission’s temperature before filing a formal rezoning that’s in excess of the county. She noted that the parcel immediately to the south is within the city of Charlottesville and is designated as Urban Mixed Use Node in the 2021 Comprehensive Plan. That could allow up to ten stories. 

“They haven’t gotten into density levels in their Comprehensive Plan there is speculation and signals from their drafts that it will probably be higher density on their side as well,” Long said. “Maybe even no limits on density.” 

A view of the massing for the project looking east with U.S. 29 being the roadway at the bottom of the picture. To the right is the Hibachi Grill in the city of Charlottesville. To the left is the proposed Wawa in Albemarle County along Greenbrier Drive (Credit: WDG / RMD Properties)

Major redevelopment in the city area would mean the relocation of the U.S. Postal Service facilities two parcels to the south, as well as the redevelopment of the Hibachi Grill and Buffet. A WaWa gas station and convenience store is under review for the parcel to the north. 

One Planning Commission asked if the retail indicated in the pre-application was necessary.

“We’ve probably all seen retail backfire where you have this desire to bring life to the street and in fact you can’t find anyone to fill the retail so you just have a dead space in front of your building,” said Fred Missel of the Scottsville District. 

Examples include several empty storefronts on student housing buildings built on West Main Street in Charlottesville that are required by zoning to have commercial uses. The Flats at West Village opened in August 2014 with three retail sites, one of which has never opened and another containing a restaurant that folded sometime in 2019 with no activity since. 

In this case, the representative from Thesis Living said the proposed retail could be converted to residential if the commercial viability was not there. 

Negotiations would have be worked out to allow for access to Hillsdale Drive over land owned by the Virginia Institute of Autism. Long said this would not be intended to be the main entrance because VIA hopes to use their space as overflow parking. 

The units themselves would be a mix of one and two bedroom units with some studios. 

Another comment from the Commission was to consider installing a green roof on the top of the parking garage. 

Commission Chair Karen Firehock noted that this application comes at a time when Albemarle is perhaps a quarter of the way through the Comprehensive Plan review. She noted that may one day provide incentives that would allow greater density.

“But we’re not there yet so we don’t have these things to present to you as here are the ways you could get additional density or do those kind of things,” Firehock said. 

In general, though. Commissioners were in favor of the density at this location.

“I think it meets our goals from the Comprehensive Plan,” said Lonnie Murray of the White Hall District. “I think this is the kind of density that we’re looking for.”

Murray also liked the idea of an internal parking garage. 

Commissioner Julian Bivins said he supported the building height and suggested the location might support more building space.

“I actually would try and go taller because there’s nothing there,” Bivins said. 

Bivins said he suspected the United States Post Office property will eventually be sold because the real estate is too valuable. He also noted that portions of the Seminole Square Shopping Center will soon be redeveloped as multistory multifamily.

“What I think we are doing with this project is helping to sort of establish what the parameters for this part of U.S. 29 might be and we can do it on our terms,” Bivins said. He said would also like to see more office space in this general location.

Firehock was also supportive of a larger building but she also suggested the developer should make use of the roof. 

“We don’t want to just say ‘Yay! Yay! More density!’ and that’s it,” Firehock said. “We really want you to do something innovative here that’s less polluting, provides more opportunities for a unique outdoor experience.” 

More on this development as it comes forward. 

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 November 1, 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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