Planning Commission endorses smaller stepbacks for 218 West Market Street

A previously approved building slated for the site of a single-story retail complex on West Market Street is likely going to be a little more massive. The Charlottesville Planning Commission held a public hearing on June 13 on a request from Heirloom Development to modify a previous approval. 

“The existing [special use permit] permits a mixed-use building with up to 240 dwelling units per acre and up to 101 feet in building height,” said Carrie Rainey, a planner in the Department of Neighborhood Development Services. 

The request is to reduce the requirements for stepbacks agreed to during the approval process. That’s an architectural requirement that the building’s size be reduced after 45 feet on the portions that face West Market Street and Old Preston Avenue. 

“The request would reduce the 25 foot minimum to a ten foot minimum along West Market Street and a five foot minimum along Old Preston Avenue,” Rainey said. 

Attorney Valerie Long argued that the modifications were required to allow all of the housing that has been planned for the site.  

“Among other reasons the request is important to help frankly the functionality of the building for residential development,” Long said. “It’s such a large stepback it cuts into frankly the buildable area, the building envelope, and makes it much more challenging to provide the number of units approved for for the site.” 

(image) A comparison between the required stepbacks and the requested stepbacks (Credit: Heirloom Development / Bushman Dreyfus Architects)

Long also looked ahead to the draft zoning code under review. 

“We do note that at least under the draft zoning ordinance it looks like there is not a plan to continue requirements for stepbacks,” Long said. “That being said the existing 25 foot stepback in this zoning district is substantially larger than in any other zoning district.” 

The building has not been fully designed and will need a certificate of appropriateness from the Board of Architectural Review. 

Three people spoke at the public hearing. One of them was the executive director of the Lighthouse, an educational nonprofit located next door. 

“The noise and debris from the build will prevent us from using our studios to teach, our theatre to screen, and our space to make the money we need to operate,” said Deeana Gould. “We have spent over 20 years growing our organization, buying and renovating the Vinegar Hill theater and adding new studios and we are concerned that the noise, debris and dangers of the build will severely disrupt our organization and threaten its financial stability.” 

Councilor Leah Puryear noted she was concerned about the impact on Lighthouse and implored the developer to put safety first. 

In his remarks, developer Jeffrey Levien reaffirmed that there would be pedestrian access throughout the site between Market Street and Old Preston Avenue. Former Commissioner Liz Russell asked a clarifying question.    

“Can you clarify is this pedestrian access something that’s open air?” Russell asked. “Is it like a covered alleyway? What is it exactly?” 

“I don’t think we exactly know,” Levien said. “I think right now that’s in our original voluntary condition it was in there as just pedestrian access through. That was it. Until we get into detailed design, I don’t know what that will be, whether it will be covered. Safety and security will be number one.” 

The Commission unanimously recommended approval of the changes in stepbacks. The public hearing satisfies the City Council’s requirement to hold one before they are asked to take a final vote. 

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 July 4, 2023 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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