City Council briefed on population figures

The Charlottesville City Council is holding a series of work sessions leading up to their December 5 public hearing on the Development Code. On October 11, the four elected members and the one appointed got an update on population trends for Charlottesville and surrounding areas.

Hamilton Lombard of the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service chronologically began his presentation around 1963, which is the last major time in which Charlottesville took control over land that had been in Albemarle County. 

The city’s population in the 1960 U.S. Census was 29,427 and increased to 38,880 in 1970 mostly because of the acquired territory. 

“If we looked at the population of Charlottesville over the last few decades, we had a very stable population in the city really beginning with when the annexation stopped,” Lombard said. “We had some infill. At the same time we had a lot of families leaving the city. The newer developments were out in the suburbs.” 

The population remained flat for the next 20 years with a 1980 count of 39,916, a 1990 count of 40,314, and a 2000 count of 40,009. 

“Then we had the rezoning 20 years ago which up-zoned some areas around UVA, particularly West Main Street,” Lombard said. “And that’s when growth resumed.” 

Lombard said that led to further growth with a 2010 Census count of 43,475 and a 2020 figure of 46,553. However, that one comes with a big asterisk. 

“We had the 2020 Census which was conducted on April 1, 2020 and that turned out to be about the worst time you could have because you have the pandemic, and UVA is closed,” Lombard said. “The Census count is about 46,000 people in the city. My office produces its own estimate for the city’s population and that goes into the state funding formulas and that was the city’s population of a little over 50,000 instead.” 

Lombard’s office predicts several more thousand will call Charlottesville home in the years to come. The Weldon Cooper Center projects a population of around 53,000 by 2030 if their assumptions are correct. 

Councilor Leah Puryear asked if Council’s upcoming vote on a new zoning ordinance will affect the rate of growth. 

“Do you perceive that the growth will happen with or without a zoning change, or do you perceive that because of a potential zoning change that will be the driver in the increase in population?” Puryear asked. 

Lombard said the Weldon Cooper Center uses the same methodology across the Commonwealth and doesn’t model their numbers based on land use decisions. A major factor in their calculations is the age of the current population. 

“What we’re looking at the past growth trends and really looking at age distribution,” Lombard said. “Charlottesville is relatively young and that means it has more births and fewer deaths. And that drives along growth regardless of some of these other factors.”

You can’t look at just one locality in isolation. In times when Charlottesville is not growing, Lombard said surrounding counties tend to pick up more of the population growth.

“Albemarle County’s population doubled from 1970 to 2000, and Fluvanna and Greene tripled,” Lombard said. “That’s spillover growth going out of Charlottesville into the rest of the area.” 

A chart depicting construction activity in Charlottesville from 1990 to 2022. Review the document here. (Credit: Weldon Cooper Center)

The UVA student population plays a big role in the city’s demographics, as demonstrated in the 2020 Census undercount. Lombard said enrollment increased by 5,000 or so since 2000 with half of that increase living in the city of Charlottesville. However, he said the region’s growth is more affected by being relatively close to bigger places.

“Overall when we look at Charlottesville’s growth compared to the rest of Virginia, a lot of it is being driven by its proximity to northern Virginia,” Lombard said. “There’s about a quarter million people who move out of D.C. year to year.” 

Lombard said that could be remote workers seeking a more affordable place to live that’s close enough to travel to the office when needed. 

Which raised a question. If the city upzones, will that create another population boom? And for whom?

“If you build it, they will come,” said James Freas, the city’s director of Neighborhood Development Services. “Well, it’s more complex than that… because they’re going to come anyway and displace the people who are already here.”

“Because they’ve got so much wealth,” said City Councilor Brian Pinkston. 

“They’ve got a million dollar house that they can sell and come in here and displace somebody else,” Freas said. 

Freas said building more places to live decreases the likelihood of displacement. 

Vice Mayor Juandiego Wade said that only a few entities will be willing to build the deeply affordable housing that’s recommended in the Affordable Housing Plan. 

“I’m just trying to put all of this together because I know we need a lot of different housing types but the majority of upzoning because there is not a lot of money going to deeply affordable housing, they’re going to build the half million homes so that the people of northern Virginia get a discount.”

Pinkston said the goal of the Medium Intensity Residential designation in the Future Land Use Map is for the “missing middle.”

“The missing middle is not for million dollar homes,” Pinkston said. “Hopefully it’s for people like my kids.” 

Freas said the city is hoping for a wider range of options, but that the market relies on what it can bear in rent or sales in order to justify new construction without subsidization.

“New construction is always going to be at the upper end of the market,” Freas said. “That’s just a fact. That’s how new construction works, but in the face of population growth, the more options we create the new construction is going to draw in the highest value and the existing construction then becomes available rather than that getting drawn into the high-end market.” 

Freas likened this to a game of musical chairs in reverse. 

Mayor Lloyd Snook pointed out that other communities set a target date in their Comprehensive Plans, but the Cville Plans Together initiative had not. For instance, Albemarle County is planning for a 20 year horizon in the AC44 process. 

“At some point, and maybe this is that point, we need to decide what we’re planning for,” Snook said.  

Snook said knowing what the population might be would be helpful but said it’s only an output.

Pinkston had this guesstimate.

“I would personally say 75,000 people will be here in 2050 based off of these rates,” Pinkston said.  

Wade said he could see those numbers coming into fruition. Puryear was not so sure. 

“I think that’s a little high,” Puryear said. “Don’t you, 75?” 

Puryear questioned whether there is enough space to build room for that many people even with the additional building space that will be allowed in the future after the Development Code is adopted. 

“The idea of the zoning map is to get as much as flexibility to get as high as possible,” Pinkston said.

“I don’t disagree but I’m saying that at a certain point, you’ve run out of land, even if everything you build between now and eternity is 15 stories, there’s only so much space,” Puryear said. 

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