Category Archives: Placemaking

Ash trees are in a “state of emergency”

(This article originally appeared in the May 11, 2021 edition of Charlottesville Community Engagement)

The Charlottesville Tree Commission got an update on several topics at its meeting on May 4, including an update on several projects planned for Charlottesville’s McIntire Park. 

“In McIntire Park there are three projects going on that are really private-public partnerships,” said Peggy Van Yahres, a member of the Tree Commission.

Van Yahres is part of one project to install a memorial grove in McIntire Park to commemorate people who have been awarded the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce’s citizenship award. 

“We wanted to preserve the landmark oak trees  on the top of McIntire Park on the east side,” Van Yahres said. “The other objective was just to enliven the park and make it a better place for people to go and sit underneath these beautiful trees.” 

The memorial would be a stone terrace on which the names of the past and future award winners would be displayed. 

“There will be a beautiful lawn, people can play, a walkway, and of course, a lot more oak trees to continue the tradition,” Van Yahres said. 

Van Yahres said the grove has been added to the schematic design for the Botanical Garden of the Piedmont. That’s the new name for the nonprofit that entered into a memorandum of agreement with the City of Charlottesville to operate in the northeast section of McIntire Park. She said the grove will hopefully be installed by this fall. 

A rendering of the proposed Grove in McIntire Park. Learn more on the Chamber and Grove website.

As for the garden, Jill Trischman-Marks is executive director of the newly renamed organization. There was a naming contest.

“We had over two hundred responses and selected Botanical Garden of the Piedmont because it was precise and concise,” Trischman-Marks said. “It not only identified where the garden is located but it also talked about the trees and other plants that will be highlighted in this garden.” 

The nonprofit is on the hook to raise funds to pay for infrastructure and to install the garden.

“The city of Charlottesville has dedicated the land to this project but that’s where the taxpayer burden ends,” Trischman-Marks said. “All of the funds that are needed to design, construct, and maintain the garden will be privately raised but once it is built just like any other city park, the Botanical Garden will be free and accessible to all.” 

Trischman-Marks said the plan for the garden is to utilize native species and demonstrate the ecosystem of our area. You can weigh in on a survey they have listed on their website

“And share the survey with your friends, families, and neighbors because the more feedback we get, the better this garden will be,” Trischman-Marks said

Trischman-Marks will update the Charlottesville Planning Commission at their meeting on Tuesday.

The third project is a more low-key initiative from the Charlottesville Area Tree Stewards to plant new specimens. 

Later in the meeting, the Tree Commission got an update on plans to fight the Emerald Ash Borer from the city arborist, Mike Ronayne.

“The Emerald Ash borer is an invasive insect from Siberia and it will be killing all of our untreated ash trees in Charlottesville,” Ronayne said. “And now it seems like it’s come through other parts of Virginia like northern Virginia and now we’re really just starting to deal with all the dead ash trees that we’re finding in Charlottesville.”

The goal is to protect 31 individual trees in the city, and have sought additional funding from City Council for the purpose and to remove the dead trees. About one to two percent of trees in the city’s parkland are ash trees. A draft cost estimate to remove the trees over five years is $480,000. That does not cover the cost of planting replacements. The cost to annually treat those 31 trees will be $8,425 a year. Todd Brown is the city’s director of parks and recreation.

“Basically this is a state of emergency situation,” Brown said. “These trees are dying. Ninety-nine percent of them are going to die and right now we’ve been hitting at a tiny fraction of them. For everyone we’re doing, there are ten more that need to be done and ten more that die. We’re chasing a moving target that’s eventually going to stop and eventually we are going to have to catch up to it.” 

Brown said that presents a safety issue and more and more limbs become prone to falling. For more on the Emerald Ash Borer, take a look at the Virginia Department of Forestry website. The agency is offering a cost share program for individual removals. (learn more)

The woods shroud this dead Ash tree near Crozet. The homeowner took advantage of the Virginia Department of Forestry cost-share program to help treat some of its fellow specimens, but this one was too far gone. (Credit: Grace Reynolds)

Council seeks additional information on West Main Streetscape

The prospect of the West Main Streetscape being implemented is still alive as City Council still wants more information about how the project could be salvaged. The project was split into four phases in order to secure funding from the Virginia Department of Transportation, but staff has recommended not fully funding the project. 

Council has not made several final decisions about the proposed $160 million Capital Improvement Program for the next fiscal year and the four years that come after it. That amount also includes $8 million for a 300-space parking deck as well as a $50 million placeholder for reconfiguration of the city’s middle schools. 

“There certainly is a lot of unknowns when we think about going into the future of the CIP especially when we think about schools and not knowing the scope of what they’re going to be [doing],” said City Councilor Heather Hill. “And also thinking about the parking deck situation and what options we may have.” 

Councilor Lloyd Snook said he felt the city was at a point where it should proceed with West Main Street in a fashion similar to Council voting to proceed with the pedestrianization of East Main Street in 1974. 

“The more I have thought about it, the more I have thought the future of the city is going to be along the axis between downtown and the University and we ought to be spending our time, our energy, and our resources on that area,” Snook said. 

Snook said he was less inclined to support the parking garage. 

Mayor Walker said budget staff have been clear that the city is running into its debt capacity and the city should proceed cautiously. 

“I just don’t know how we are rating West Main Street and still thinking that is a must and that it must continue at this time when we’re talking about things like housing and schools,” Walker said. 

Snook said he has been persuaded by arguments that at least $3 million in maintenance improvements are needed on West Main Street. 

Councilor Hill said believed the city has made an investment in West Main and should see the project through. 

“The biggest thing is just the other dollars coming from other sources that are not the city, and there’s not a lot of projects where we find those opportunities,” Hill said. 

Those external sources include $5 million from the University of Virginia and the potential $10.8 million in VDOT Smart Scale funds for Phase 3 of the West Main Streetscape. Phases 1 and 2 require a local match in order for the city to draw down Smart Scale Funds and revenue-sharing funds already approved.

“I’m really struggling with just closing the door on this,” Hill said. 

The draft CIP contains a placeholder of $50 million in FY24 for the school reconfiguration.

Walker said would prefer to keep some of the debt capacity available for future needs. 

“If we okay West Main at this point, we are limiting schools to an amount because we are boxing ourselves in,” Walker said. “And then everything else that comes up as a result of this pandemic and how long we’re in it, then we are also restricting ourselves there.” 

Councilor Michael Payne said he supported the vision of the West Main project, but could not support prioritizing that over schools or affordable housing. He said he would support the city paying for the bare minimum and losing some of the Smart Scale funding due to the debt capacity issue. 

“We’re in the same situation where we could eliminate our city funding of West Main Street, and the parking garage, and we still even then wouldn’t be that close to getting our CIP budget on a sustainable level,” Payne said. He also said he would like to continue conversations with the School Board about the reconfiguration project due the large amount of money required to pay for the capital costs. 

A firm is working with the school board to further refine the cost estimates for school reconfiguration. There was also interest in getting more information about various scenarios for West Main, including incorporating some of the results of a recent value engineering study.  Councilor Snook had this idea.

“One of my thoughts is that we have a brand new city manager, and let’s let him put his creative thoughts to work and see if he’s got some ideas for us,” Snook said. 

City Manager Chip Boyles said he would have a conversation with VDOT about when Phase 1 and Phase 2 need to get underway to stay within the six-year deadline required of Smart Scale. Jack Dawson, the city engineer, said the right of way phase is expected to begin this July to keep the project on VDOT’s schedule. 

“There is some urgency about what direction we think we may need to go in, sooner or later, for sure,” Dawson said. 

Vice Mayor Sena Magill said she would support reducing the scope of the project.

“What can we do with just the revenue-sharing match?” Magill asked. “There’s a lot extra that is on top of what we need for our revenue-sharing match.”

Council agreed to wait on a final decision on West Main until they have more information on options. David Brown is the city’s public works director.

“We do have some time to where we can look and evaluate to make a determination,” Brown said. “For the project, we can evaluate and make an assessment, rescope the project that still meets the requirements of the funding sources so we still have that opportunity.” 

Boyles said he would prepare options for Council to consider. 

“We can get enough information to come back to you with some concepts and maybe even some recommendations and staff can continue to keep working forward,” Boyles said. “It won’t be that much wasted effort based on whatever your decision is in later March or April.”

The FY22 operating and capital budget will be presented to Council on March 1. The first public hearing is scheduled for March 15. Budget adoption will be roughly a month later. 

(This article was first posted in the February 22, 2021 installment of Charlottesville Community Engagement)

Charlottesville’s draft capital budget includes $50 million for middle school reconfiguration

The Charlottesville City Council will be presented with a $160 million five-year capital improvement program (CIP) that anticipates spending $50 million on a reconfiguration of middle school education. 

Council and School Board will meet Thursday, January 28 at 5 p.m. to discuss budget preparations. (meeting info)

Staff has not recommended new funding for the West Main Streetscape in Charlottesville’s proposed capital improvement program for the next fiscal year, though the first phase of the project is fully funded. The future of a second phase is not certain at this time.  

“The current CIP draft reflects priorities raised by City Council in previous budget work sessions,” said Charlottesville Communications Director Brian Wheeler. ”The inclusion of a $50 million placeholder for the City Schools reconfiguration project means other projects have to be reconsidered.”

The draft capital improvement program for FY22-FY27 is ready for review

While capital improvement budgets look ahead for five years, Council will only adopt an actual budget for fiscal year 2022, which begins on July 1. The proposed budget for FY22 is for $35.4 million, with $26.8 million anticipated to come from the sale of municipal bonds. 

The draft CIP also continues the city’s $10 million investment in a new parking structure at the corner of Market Street and 9th Street. The project’s purpose is to support a new General District court to be used by both Albemarle County and Charlottesville. 

The five-year budget anticipates a total of $13.5 million in investment in new construction of Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority including $1.5 million in FY22. 

“This funding is the second year of a original City projected commitment of $15 million for the redevelopment of the public housing sites,” reads a summary of projects.  In October, Council signaled they would approve a performance agreement governing the use of $3 million to help finance the Crescent Halls redevelopment and the first phase of redevelopment at South First Street. 

The draft CIP restores several budget line items that were zeroed out for the current fiscal year. Instead of spending about $6.7 million of general fund revenue for certain items that could not be paid for through the sale of bonds, Council agreed with a plan to put that money aside in case of a shortfall. 

For FY22, the draft budget restores funding to “non-bondable” items such as “city-wide traffic engineering improvements”  and “bicycle infrastructure,” as well as funding for parks. 

The draft budget also includes $800,000 a year in funding for the Charlottesville Affordable Housing Fund, for a total of $4 million. The specific use of those funds would be determined later.  

Another significant project that would be paid for with cash is $2 million for infrastructure at Friendship Court. That’s separate from $394,841 for the first phase of Friendship Court redevelopment and $750,000 for phase two. Council approved a performance agreement for that funding in October

School reconfiguration

The basic details of a plan to reconfigure Charlottesville’s middle schools were presented to the City School Board in December 2018. Michael Goddard is a project manager with the city who addressed Council at a work session on November 20, 2020.

“The plan is to utilize existing public properties so no land acquisition would be required,” Goddard said. “We would like to expand the pre-school and provide best-in-class wrap-around services, move 5th grade back to the elementary schools, reduce middle year transitions. By adding the 6th grade to Buford, we would make that a three year school.” 

Both Walker Upper Elementary and Buford Middle School were built in the 1960’s. Goddard said another goal is to eliminate students needing to go outside to transfer between buildings.

Presentation from December 19, 2018 Charlottesville School Board meeting

The project has a placeholder cost estimate of about $55 million based on work conducted by the firm VMDO. In the fiscal year budget for 2020, Council authorized $3 million for design and pre-engineering.

“What we expect to see from our architect as part of this initial phase is a visioning document which gives us a general idea of what we can do, a goals and objectives document which lays out exactly what it is we intend to accomplish,” Goddard said. 

West Main Streetscape

The firm Rhodeside and Harwell has been paid at least $2.8 million to develop design and construction documents for the three-quarter mile stretch between the University Corner and the Downtown Mall.

A value engineering study intended to reduce the costs will be shared with Council on Monday. 

A slide from the September 30, 2020 City Council work session on the West Main Streetscape. (preview story) (summary story)

A total of $12.95 million was requested for the West Main Streetscape project in FY22 , but was not included.  The project was split by Council into four phases in October 2017 in order to help secure funding. Phase 1 spans from West Main’s intersection with Ridge Street and McIntire Street to 6th Street NW. 

“Phase 1 remains funded from prior CIP allocations,” Wheeler said. “The local allocations to Phase 1 are $3,162,045 spent and $13,422,860 available.” 

The city received $3.2 million in VDOT revenue-sharing funds for West Main Phase 1, and the city will still spend $13.4 million in city funds. 

Phase 2 travels between 6th Street NW and 8th Street NW. The city received $2 million in VDOT revenue sharing and $2 million in VDOT Smart Scale funding for this phase. The city had anticipated spending $7.1 million in capital funds but that is not reflected in the current CIP. 

“We expect City Council to provide additional feedback on both phases in the budget discussions,” Wheeler said. 

City staff had not budgeted spending any city money on West Main’s Phase 3, which spans from 8th Street NW to Roosevelt Brown Boulevard. Last year, Council agreed to submit a $10.38 million request to the VDOT’s Smart Scale process. Last week, staff recommended funding of this project. 

As of last September, the city had not identified a funding source for Phase 4 which has a preliminary cost estimate of $8.7 million. 

A former chief operating officer at the University of Virginia said in a March 2018 letter to Council that UVA would allocate $5 million for the city to use on the West Main Streetscape. The offer still stands. 

“The University remains committed to its funding pledge for the West Main Streetscape project,” wrote UVA spokesman Brian Coy. “Per discussions with the City, our intent is to focus on safety and security improvements towards the western end of Main Street, supporting both students and the broader community.”

Jackson P. Burley High School now listed on National Register of Historic Places

(this story was originally posted in the December 1, 2020 edition of Charlottesville Community Engagement)

The high school established by Albemarle and Charlottesville in the middle of the 20th century for Black students is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Jackson P. Burley opened in 1951 on Rose Hill Drive, eleven years after the city had built a new school for whites only. Jimmy Hollins of the Burley Varsity Club alumni group said Burley also was for Black students from Greene and Nelson. 

“Burley was a big part of the Black community back in those days,” Hollins said. “When they played sports, football or basketball games, those games was crowded. Pretty crowded.  And we not only had Black fans, we would have white fans that would come and stand outside of the gates and look at the games.”

Hollins said that’s because Burley was the only school in the area with a winning record. The National Register of Historic Places is an honorific designation that recognizes the historic significance of a property. (read the nomination form)

“The building represents a rare instance in which two localities—Charlottesville and Albemarle County—sought to achieve “separate but equal” educational facilities during segregation—and at a time when successful legal suits underway elsewhere in Virginia challenged the unequal and overcrowded conditions in black schools,” reads the page for Burley on the website for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

The two localities built the school in order to justify continued segregation of students by race, a practice that was declared unconstitutional in 1954 in the Brown vs. the Board of Education case. Burley did not close until 1967 after all surrounding counties had lost their fight to keep schools separate. 

Albemarle County now owns the building and operates as one of their middle schools despite being within city limits. All across Virginia, the majority of Black schools like the Christiansburg Institute and Dunbar High School in Lynchburg were closed rather than become desegregated themselves. That’s one reason Hollins says this designation is so critical.

“Originally in the state of Virginia, they had as far as Black high schools, they had 115 of the Black high schools,” Hollins said. “Now out of those 115, there are only three that are still high schools today that are working high schools.” 

Many of the alumni from those schools today continue to meet under the auspices of the Virginia Interscholastic Association.

Hollins graduated from Burley in 1965. 

“Personally I never through Burley would close,” Hollins said. “I always thought Burley would stay open as a high school.’

Hollins said when the pandemic is over, there will be an occasion to celebrate the listing. 

Credit: Virginia Department of Historic Resources

Design panel shows tentative support for mural for Starbucks on West Main

The Charlottesville Board of Architectural Review has indicated at a preliminary review that it would support a mural on the side of 1001 West Main where Starbucks wants to open a new pick-up only franchise.   

“It’s one of our latest new formats of a store that we’ve been rolling out,” said Ena Yang, a designer with Starbucks. “We have three stores that are open. Two in New York City and one in Toronto, Canada. This particular store we do not have any seating. Our lobby space is only 300 square foot where the customers are encouraged to pick up their order and be on the go.” 

At issue before the BAR was whether the east-facing wall that slopes down 10th Street should be adorned with a colorful mural. The building in question is a former auto repair shop that is a contributing structure in the West Main Architectural Design Control District. Historic preservation planner Jeff Werner said there were some restrictions 

“Anything within a mural that is interpreted as a Starbucks related or coffee related could be interpreted as a sign so be very careful with the artwork so that it doesn’t come across as ‘come in here and buy coffee,” Werner said. 

Yang said there would be no images to promote coffee. Chair Carl Schwarz said he supported the preliminary design of the mural. 

“This is an interesting part of town where you can have a lot of color and excitement and it’s not going to distract from anything historic,” Schwarz said. 

Werner encouraged representatives from Starbucks to reach out to the community and to be ready for comment. Yang said they would do so. 

“I understand it is a very prominent location and it’s a very busy intersection,” Yang said. “We don’t want to offend anyone. We are Starbucks. We are a global company. We want to make sure that what we put on a building of this size and at such a prominent location could be messaging that represents Starbucks. As to getting some of the community involvement, I would love your advice and guidance on what are some of the steps we can take to ensure this mural really speaks true to the community.”

Yang said the next step is to continue working with the artist in a way that will not cover up any of the existing windows. 

Credit: Concepts Studio at Starbucks

Public housing projects move forward after Council talks on CRHA financial sustainability, CCDC property tax liability

On October 19, 2020, Charlottesville City Council signaled they would approve a performance agreement for direct city investment of $3 million in public housing renovation and development. The funding will be used for the Charlottesville Redevelopment Housing Authority’s nonprofit to renovate Crescent Halls and new units at South First Street.

CRHA currently is authorized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to operate 376 public housing units, and many units were built in the 80’s and have not been well maintained. Brenda Kelley is the director of redevelopment for the city, and she presented Council with an ordinance to grant the CRHA $3 million in city funds to help finance the work.

(read the staff report including the draft ordinance)

“CRHA and its partners have been engaged in robust resident-led redevelopment planning efforts,” Kelley said. 

One of those partners is something called the Charlottesville Community Development Corporation, which is actually the CRHA Board of Commissioners, a body appointed by Council. The CCDC is a nonprofit entity that is eligible to receive and distribute Low Income Housing Tax Credits which help to subsidize the projects through private investment. 

“The funding will be disbursed as a grant to CRHA, CRHA will provide the funds to the CCDC, whereby the CCDC will lend the funds to the project as an interest-free 30-year loan,” Kelley said. “One hundred percent of the units constructed will be provided for rental by low and moderate income persons having household incomes at or below AMI. No fewer than thirteen units will be public housing units at South First Street phase one, and no fewer than 53 units will be public housing units at Crescent Halls.” 

AboveProject cost breakdown for South First Street Phase One

CRHA would not own the properties, but will continue to own the land and operate the buildings, but the CCDC will own the structures. That means they will be responsible for paying taxes. We’ll come back to that in a bit. 

These details are worth documenting. 

“The private sector project owner has an investment member and the investment member has a right to sell its interest in the project prior to the end of the 30-year LIHTC term,” Kelley said. “If the investment member’s interest cannot be bought out by CRHA, this could potentially result in termination of an extended use agreement after year 15. So year 15 may be a significant milestone whereby CRHA has an option to purchase the project. This raises unknowns also including how much this purchase price would be and where will CRHA obtain the funding.”

Council’s discussion centered around two issues. 

One is a clause in the resolution that compelled CRHA to complete a financial sustainability plan that was requested by Council in February 2019. CRHA has to complete that plan anyway as part of a plan with HUD. The federal agency considers CRHA to be a “troubled” agency and the local authority must document how they can hit performance measures. 

The ordinance before Council required that plan to be in place in order for the CRHA to get a third payment from the $3 million. 

CRHA Executive Director John Sales said that requirement would prevent the project from breaking ground by the end of this year. 

“It’s going to be really hard for us to close on both loans with that requirement in there because we won’t be able to show a bank that we’ve satisfied that requirement in order to close, so that could really put both projects at a point where they would not go forward,” Sales said. 

Council discussed a financial sustainability plan for CRHA in February 2019. Since then, it has gone through a leadership change, and Sales just became director in August. 

Councilor Heather Hill said she wanted the sustainability plan to be completed. 

“I want to know that by the time we get to that third draw which is our intention that we’re seeing real progress made to a reasonable end to the sustainability study because I just think that the longer this goes on, it’s not to our advantage,” Hill said. 

Councilor Michael Payne said he would be willing to drop the requirement

“I’m certainly willing to be flexible,” Payne said. “Our intention is not at all to have this jeopardize any funding or jeopardize these projects.”

Council agreed to require the plan to be produced by the time a second phase for South Street moves forward. 

The other issue regarded the taxes. The CCDC will not be exempt from local taxes. 

Sales said the existing resolution did not give a guarantee that future Councils might stop paying an annual subsidy “equal to the dollar amount of the real estate taxes assessed and billed to the new project owner.” Currently the CRHA makes an annual payment to the city in lieu of taxes. 

Jeff Meyer at the Virginia Community Development Corporation said the project will not attract investors if there is the potential for future liabilities that are not built into their proforma.

“No one is going to go forward with lending money or investing money into the project if we understand from the very beginning that they are not economically feasible because they have to pay the full liability for property tax,” Meyer said.  “The concern would be that a future city council could overturn what’s written in the ordinance here.” 

Under Virginia Law, elected bodies cannot appropriate funding beyond one fiscal year. 

“You can budget for payment of your obligations from one fiscal year to the next but you can’t enter into binding obligations over a long term that aren’t subject to what we call a non-appropriations clause,” said interim City Attorney Lisa Robertson. 

Robertson said there was no legal way for the city to waive the property taxes CCDC has to pay on the buildings. The CRHA will still own the land. 

One solution would be for the city to pay the next fifteen years of property taxes in one lump payment that could be put into an escrow fund that the CCDC could draw down from. 

Council chose to not go with that option. 

“Our budget picture is pretty brutal and there’s still substantial uncertainty about what the impact of COVID will be this budget cycle,” said Councilor Payne. 

Mayor Nikuyah Walker asked Meyer if the project would be halted if Council could not cover the cost of paying the next fifteen years of property taxes in advance. 

“I think we’ll make every effort to go forward the with project but I can’t say something won’t come up once the language in the ordinance becomes something that our other partners and the others funders are going to read, and everyone who is going to review all of the documents,” Meyer said. 

Walker pointed out that three current Councilors will serve until 2023. Payne said he would continue to support the city’s annual subsidization of property taxes for CCDC. 

“It’s not difficult fiscally for us to fund that each year and maintain that but to put it all up front in one year, especially at this time, is a challenge,” Payne said. “I certainly get the uncertainty but I think the community and the Council has a 100 percent commitment to this.”

As this was only the first reading of the resolution, staff will take a look at potential ways to address Meyer’s and Sales’ concern. One option is a line item in the capital improvement program.

“It would set forth the idea that there is a plan and the intent is that you are going to fund this over the five years,” said Krissy Hammil, Senior Budget and Management Analyst for the city of Charlottesville.

Speaking broadly about public investments in housing, Walker said it was important to understand what these complex arrangements will mean for future Councils.  Later in the meeting they took action on $5.545 million request for Piedmont Housing Alliance for the first phase of the Friendship Court redevelopment. 

“It’s important for us to understand what we’re setting future councilors up for and when you talk about commitment to housing, then we have to say that this is our commitment to housing,” Walker said. Walker is a member of the CRHA and CCDC Boards. 

Walker said Council also had to remember there would be future requests from CRHA and PHA for future phases.

“I just think if there’s a vote in favor of this, and I think both of these projects are very important, and I think the other Councilors agree, then we need to understand our limitation on doing other major projects while we figure out these two projects,” Walker said. 

Council to discuss future of $49 million West Main Streetscape

This article is the kind of in-depth article made possible through subscriptions and Patreon contributions. It was originally posted on the Charlottesville Community Engagement newsletter page. Coverage of the September 30 work session will be posted shortly.

The cost estimate for a multi-phase project to add wider sidewalks, bike lanes, and other urban amenities on West Main Street has climbed to $49 million, up from a figure of $31 million anticipated three years ago. 

The funding would go to implement a streetscape plan in development since 2013 that seeks to fulfil turn-of-the century visions of a West Main that would bring in more tax revenues through additional economic activity enabled through bigger buildings. 

“The corridor’s long promised overall redevelopment has been beset by fits and starts, with only a modicum of benefits to show for decades of effort,” reads page 70 of an influential study from December 2000 that set up a rezoning in 2003 that set the stage for several multistory buildings that now define the corridor. 

The current City Council will be briefed on the status of the project at a work session that begins at 4 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon.  

“No other corridor in Charlottesville has been studied as well and as often as West Main Street,” the 2000 Corridor Study continues. Local planners refer to as the “Torti Gallas” study after one of the planning firms hired to do the work.

It has now been a fifth of a century since that document was published. In the past ten years, several developers have invested in the city by building well over a million square feet in building space on West Main. 

But what about the public realm? 

The view from the middle of West Main Street, September 28, 2020

Background and context for community engagement

No other roadway in the past ten years has transformed as much as West Main Street, which has seen construction of more than a half-dozen multistory buildings in the past eight years. There are hundreds more apartment units and hotel rooms, bringing more people to sidewalks, and bike lanes. 

To understand all of the changes on West Main, refer back to the 2001 Comprehensive Plan and page 3 of the urban design chapter. That plan copied language from the 2000 Corridor Study verbatim.  

“The West Main corridor is the most important link between downtown Charlottesville and The University of Virginia, between ’Town and Gown’. West Main Street links extraordinary physical, social and economic variety. The corridor ranges from a physically intact retail street to open parking lots and abandoned auto-oriented, service facilities. Though originally part of a continuous route into downtown Charlottesville, modern highway engineering and 1970’s urban renewal has cut West Main Street off from what is now Downtown. There is near universal appreciation in the community for the recent pedestrian streetscape improvements and the reconstruction of the Drewary Brown Bridge. However, the corridor’s long promised overall redevelopment has been beset by fits and starts, with only a modicum of benefits to show for decades of effort, the bridge not withstanding.”

In September 2003, Council rezoned West Main Street to allow for higher density as a way of increasing property tax revenues. This was done as an alternative to reversion to becoming a town in Albemarle County, which had been discussed in the late 90’s as a way to reduce the city’s financial obligations. Instead, the Torti Gallas report pointed the city in the direction of becoming more populous. It was understood there would need to be infrastructure to support more people.

To guide that infrastructure, a conceptual plan had been created by the firm LPDA in 2010. In October 2012, then-NDS Director Jim Tolbert told the PLACE Design Task Force that this document was not intended for direct implementation. They recommended a new study.

2010 LPDA plan

Rhodeside & Harwell is an Alexandria-based landscape architecture, planning, and urban design firm hired in the summer of 2013 to conduct a full review of the street at a time when the city was anticipating construction of several large-buildings. They began work in October 2013. City Council endorsed the preliminary design schematics in May 2017

Despite years of planning to make the street a more welcome place for pedestrians and cyclists, no new public infrastructure has been built on West Main Street until this year when a long-planned water line along Roosevelt Brown Boulevard was replaced at a cost of $1.16 million. 

That project is separate from the multimillion West Main Streetscape which was split into four distinct geographical phases in October 2017 in order to help secure funding from the Virginia Department of Transportation to complete financing for the project. 

Now, a relatively new City Council will hold a work session Wednesday to better understand what is going on with the streetscape project, which was last before elected officials in November 2019. 

The previous Council voted to remove the Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea Statue at the intersection of West Main, Ridge Street and McIntire Street. Such an idea was anticipated in the conceptual plan put together by Rhodeside & Harwell.

Wednesday’s meeting

The objectives for Wednesday’s meeting are “to provide a high level overview of project history, current status, [and] associated costs (project development, construction and maintenance).” 

The materials clearly state the event is “NOT intended to discuss design details.”

Another objective is to seek direction from Council on their continued support for the project, budget input, and the future of the statue. Another topic is value engineering, which is a process that seeks to reduce costs by substituting materials and finding other ways to provide the same function at a lower price. 

A new update on the project was made available this week. Prior to that, information about the West Main Streetscape has been hard to come by. The front page of a dedicated website for the project has not been updated since May 2017.  Elsewhere in the site, there is a reference to when the schematics went to the Board of Architectural Review for a presentation in April 2018.

Slide from April 2018 presentation to Board of Architectural Review

Tracking the progress to date

Until the packet for this week’s meeting was available, the most recent update available is from the Department of Neighborhood Development Services, which has traditionally managed transportation projects in Charlottesville. In April, a project update list described the status of the West Main Streetscape. 

“Scope being finalized for Phase 1,” reads the ‘status’ section of the update for the project. “Value engineering scope also being finalized for Phases 1-4; pre-application for Phase 3 has been submitted to VDOT for Smart Scale funding.”

Smart Scale is the name of the Virginia Department of Transportation’s main funding process, which ranks projects across the state by how they would meet a series of criteria. In the first-ever round, the city was successful in securing funding for three streetscape projects. 

In the second round, the city applied for $18.3 million in state funding and pledged $11.7 million in city funds to cover the $29,968,42 cost estimate. This application provides a glimpse into the overall vision. 

“West Main Street is an emerging, mixed-use corridor, which has seen significant private reinvestment in recent years,” reads the project description. “To keep pace with the evolution of the street and the adjacent neighborhoods, the City has recognized the need to create a new vision for the corridor- one that captures the needs of both today and the future. This vision has been translated into a plan that will improve the economic vitality of the City, improve the environmental sustainability of the corridor, and provide multi-modal connections to surrounding areas of the City.”

However, the project was not funded. 

In October 2017, Council agreed to split the project into four geographical phases to improve the chance at securing funds. The Smart Scale system favors smaller projects as well as projects that can demonstrate money from other sources. 

For the project’s first phase, the city applied for funding through a revenue-sharing program VDOT offers. They were successful in securing funding for Phase 1, which would run between Ridge Street and 6th Street. VDOT’s database breaks that down as $588,000 for preliminary engineering, $500,000 for right of way, and $11.5 million for construction.

In the third Smart Scale round, Charlottesville was awarded $2 million for the second phase of the West Main Streetscape, which covers 6th Street NW to 8th Street NW. The project has a total cost estimate of $12.7 million according to the VDOT database. The city also received $2 million in revenue-share funding for this phase. 

The city recycled elements of the first application in making the second, repeating the need to “keep pace with the evolution” of the street. 

“West Main Street provides a critical transportation linkage between the University of Virginia and the City’s Downtown,” reads the application for VDOT Smart Scale funding for that phase. “A community-focused design process has yielded solutions that improve the safety, efficiency, and aesthetics of the street.”

As a reminder, that community-focused process was the one led by Rhodeside & Harwell, with a public process that last had a dedicated meeting on December 18, 2016. 

Image included in public handout on West Main Phase 3

In the third Smart Scale round, the city was successful in an application for $12.7 million for Phase 3 which has this technical description. 

“Reconfiguration of West Main Street between 6th Street NW and 8th Street NW to widen sidewalks, improve bicycle facilities and increase safety for all users through this corridor,” reads VDOT’s Smart Scale page on the project. “Also included – landscaping/street furniture/historic interpretation.”

This August, the city formally submitted an application for $7.9 million for Phase 3 between 8th Street NW Roosevelt Brown Boulevard/10th Street NW. The current Council sanctioned that request. 

“To address increased travel demand/capacity, on-street parking will be reallocated to improved bicyclist/ pedestrian facilities, bus shelters added, pedestrian crossings improved, the latest ADA standards met, while improving aesthetic and safety of this important corridor,” reads an informational sheet on the application. “The signal at Roosevelt Brown Boulevard will be replaced, street furniture added, historic interpretive signage included as well as enhanced landscaping.”

Various city applications refer to a community-led process but the Rhodeside & Harwell work is not named or described. None of the current elected city officials were part of that experience or the decision to split the project into four phases. 

Construction takes place 

At the time of the first Rhodeside & Harwell tour of West Main Street in October 2013, there were several large buildings in the planning process that had not yet been built. 

Since then, the Draftsman Hotel, Battle Building, Flats at West Village, The Standard and the Lark on West Main all have been built on the western side of Drewary Brown Bridge where Phase 3 and Phase 4 will eventually be undertaken. 

The eastern side of the bridge has seen construction of the Marriott Residence Inn and Six Hundred West Main, Earlier this year, the Hotel Quirk opened and Council recently approved another apartment building at 612 West Main Street.

Several buildings along West Main have been built without the benefit of utility relocation. A good chunk of the $49 million estimate is to place these lines underground.

Recall that the Smart Scale application for Phase 1 and Phase 2 stated the goal is to keep up with development.

 “This vision has been translated into a plan that will improve the economic vitality of the City, improve the environmental sustainability of the corridor, and provide multi-modal connections to surrounding areas of the City,” reads the application.

Some infrastructure in this area has recently been replaced. A $1.16 million project funded by utility ratepayers that replaces an older cast iron water line was completed this August.

“This project will eliminate a problematic railroad crossing on 9th St NW, as well as improve the connectivity to the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority’s Urban Water Line at the intersection of 9th St NW,” reads that project’s description on the GIS viewer. 

The size of the line increases water capacity to handle a growing population. 

“The second phase of the water line project will be installed ahead of the West Main Streetscape and will move forward regardless of whether the streetscape happens,” said Lauren Hildebrand, the city’s utility director late last year.

Hundreds of pedestrians now live in large apartment buildings that have been constructed in this section of West Main Street.

The water main replacement has been anticipated for years, as was the construction of the apartments. Yet infrastructure under the planning control of the city’s NDS Department won’t be built for some years to come, with completion currently not anticipated until some time in the 2030’s. 

According to a staff email sent on December 10, 2019, Phase 3 is not scheduled to be advertised for construction until 2030. Phase 4 is not intended to be advertised for construction until 2035.

Further cost increases

The estimates for the West Main Streetscape were last shown to public officials during the last budget cycle. Since then, costs have increased. 

Materials provided for the meeting have raised the estimate for Phase 1 to $16.7 million, up from the $13.9 million presented during the development of the last budget. The preliminary engineering is now listed as $1.7 million, $863,835 million is set for right of way acquisition, and $4.3 million is allocated for utility relocation. The Construction estimate is now $9.8 million. The city has obtained $3.27 million through the revenue-sharing program and there is a locally required match of $13.4 million. 

The second phase now has a cost estimate of $13.5 million with $1.2 million in preliminary engineering, $383,488 in right of way acquisition, $4.6 million in utility relocation, and nearly $7.3 million in construction. Another $2 million in revenue sharing has gone to this project, as well as the $2 million in Smart Scale funds. The local match is $7.1 million. The materials state that another $2.4 million in funding needs to be identified. 

Phase 3, for which the city states it has asked for $10.4 million in Smart Scale funding, will surely have a cost increase in the future. That’s because the line item for utility relocation has not been filled out yet. Construction for this phase is estimated at $8.6 million 

Phase 4, which currently does not have any identified funding source, has a total estimate of $9 million. This is the section from Roosevelt Brown Boulevard to Jefferson Park Avenue. However, the budget is more precise than Phase Three. Preliminary engineering is estimated at $1.4 million, right of way acquisition is at $574,808, utility relocation is at $1.27 million and construction is estimated at $5.8 million.   

Local funds have gone to pay for a master plan for the overall corridor, which includes design development and schematic design. 

UVA involvement?

The materials include a March 2018 letter from Pat Hogan, then executive vice president and chief operating officer at the University of Virginia, committing support to the project.

“In the interest of supporting progress toward a safer and more bike and pedestrian friendly community, the University has set aside up to $5 million in support that we are prepared to provide to the City for its projects adjacent to the University Ground,” Hogan wrote.

Earlier that year, UVA had requested the Council convey property to allow for the construction of new infrastructure to support new buildings on Brandon Avenue, including two new dorms and a new student health facility. However, Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker asked they pay the fair market value of the property. 

“If Council decides to seek payment for Brandon Avenue (with a fair market value of $539,000) we are able to cover that purchase price from the funds that we have previously set aside,” Hogan wrote. “The remaining portion of our $5 million funding commitment will remain available for the West Main Streetscape project.” 

Habitat breaks ground on Southwood

(This story was originally posted as part of the September 21, 2020 edition of Charlottesville Community Engagement)

Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville has broken ground for the redevelopment of the Southwood Mobile Home Park off of Old Lynchburg Road in Albemarle County. Habitat purchased the site in 2007. Dan Rosensweig is president and CEO of Habitat.  

“See, thirteen years ago, this community was facing a deeply uncertain future,” Rosensweig said. “Like a lot of trailer parks in the nation, it’s underground infrastructure had basically passed its useful life.” 

Rosensweig said there was also development pressure on the property and residents asked the owner at the time to sell to Habitat. The organization was working on redevelopment of the Sunrise Trailer Court in Charlottesville. Now Habitat has been working with Albemarle County on a multiphase effort to redevelop the site without displacing residents. 

“We came up with a plan of development that within the next ten years or so is going to turn this wonderful community of people into a wonderful community of people who are here, new people who are joining the community, new homes, and a little downtown core,” Rosensweig said. 

Albemarle Supervisors voted on a rezoning last year that paves the way for the first phase, which will take place along Old Lynchburg Road and does not involve any of the existing trailer homes. Scottsville District Supervisor Donna Price was not on the board when the rezoning happened, but she is supportive of the funding Albemarle has committed to the project. 

“When I think of Southwood, I think of the core values of non-displacement and sustainability,” Price said. “When I think I see Southwood, I see a representation of an essential public-private partnership that will produce a neighborhood consistent with Albemarle County’s Comprehensive Plan.”

The ceremony was held on September 18, 2020.

RealCrozetVA – Crozet Master Plan serves as test conversation for “missing middle” housing

All across the country, advocates of affordable housing have been combing through zoning codes to find ways to increase the number of homes in urban areas. 

One idea is to increase the number of duplexes, town-homes, triplexes and other types of housing that allow for more people to live in an area. Many zoning codes across America prohibit these so-called “missing middle” homes. 

“They’re called missing because these aren’t being built very often right now,” said Rachel Falkenstein, a senior planner with the county. “Often times we see both ends of the spectrum but you don’t see the middle housing types being built, primarily because these are prohibited by a lot of local zoning ordinances.”

Read the rest of this story at RealCrozetVA.

Council moves forward with application for Preston/Grady intersection

The Charlottesville City Council has agreed to proceed with a funding request to redevelop the intersection of Preston and Grady, along with three other transportation projects. This happened despite concern from some that the city has not yet done enough to prepare for development on the Preston Avenue Corridor. 

City Council voted 3-2 on Monday, July 20, on a motion to proceed with applications, which are being made under the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Smart Scale program. This is the fourth round of the program, which ranks candidate projects according to a series of metrics, including how they will improve public safety. 

The first phase of the Dairy Central project is nearing completion, and on July 22 a section of 10th Street NE is closed to facilitate construction (Credit – Sean Tubbs)

The projects are:

City engineer Jack Dawson told Council said these will compete with other projects in VDOT’s Culpeper District for an available $20 million. 

“Some projects may also qualify under the high priority projects program which allows these projects to compete for another pool of funds if they provide capacity on a corridor of statewide significance or a regional network,” Dawson said. “However it is unlikely that our projects would be competitive for that.” 

The Preston Avenue Grady project was submitted in the third Smart Scale round in 2018, and was eventually suggested for funding after another project in the Culpeper District was canceled. City officials decided to submit the application again. 

“We started from a list of projects that had originated in our department from the various transportation planning documents, and most of the projects had been previously scored by VDOT so we had a good feeling for their likelihood of receiving funding this time,” Dawson said. 

He added that the city’s Streets That Work and new Standards and Design Manual also played a factor in what got selected.

In this round, the third phase of the West Main Streetscape was the city’s first priority, followed by the Preston / Grady intersection. That project was briefly selected in the last roud but the city opted to use the funding for another project at Elliot Street and Ridge Street. The two other projects are on Emmet Street and Ridge Street. Dawson said the Preston / Grady project is conceptual, but safety concerns played a role in having it be chosen again. 

Several nearby residents had asked for the Preston/Grady project to move forward at this time. Vizena Howard is the president of the 10th and Page Neighborhood. She said she and others in nearby neighborhoods collected nearly 300 signatures opposing the project. 

“I believe that rerouting the traffic through Grady Avenue is an error with which a high volume of traffic would create additional congestion issues for residents on the adjacent side of the street,” Howard said. ” I believe it is important more than ever that those in positions of power to be listening to residents who have long lived in this neighborhood,” Howard said. 

The application concerned some who thought the design should be informed by a more comprehensive look at the entire Preston Avenue corridor

Dawson said the application being submitted is just a concept and that the exact parameters can change. 

“If we get these funds, we won’t be able to use these funds at least until 2025 without a special deal with the state about how we’re going to use them,” Dawson said, adding it is a matter of securing money now for eventual use in the future. 

“What we’ve given to VDOT in this application is a description, more of a narrative description of what we’d like to do in the intersection with regard to safety improvements, multimodal, pedestrian crossings,” Dawson said. 

City traffic engineer Brennen Duncan explained he did not think vehicles would be pushed onto Grady Avenue because many want to get elsewhere. 

“Each individual spot whether it is the hospital or the university acts like a magnet and draws traffic to it, it wants to go to where it wants to go,” Duncan, adding people going to Barracks Road not likely to go down Grady Avenue. He said future development on Preston Avenue as well as the redeveloped Dairy Central require the intersection to be reconfigured. He said the current configuration is flawed.

“We know the history of it and we know that when Preston happened it did separate the historically African American community of 10th and Page from Washington Park,” Duncan said. “Reducing this back down to one intersection and one light where we can control pedestrian crossings I think is a huge benefit for trying to reconnect that community to the park that was historically theirs.” 

Duncan said there would be full public participation in creating the actual design, but the budget, project boundaries and narrative would have to stay within the scope of the application. Councilor Lloyd Snook said the drawing as submitted didn’t give that impression.

“What I’m looking and what I’ve seen doesn’t really designate a perimeter, but if we designate a perimeter that goes far enough to the east, at least until the eastern end of Dairy Central, it would seem to me that would provide more room to do more stuff,” Snook said. 

The developer of Dairy Central, Chris Henry, asked for the project to be stopped for now. 

“The current VDOT-centric approach misses the forest for the trees, leaving many other factors of place-making, urbanism, economic development, sustainability, and equity out of the equation,” Henry said. He called for a small area plan to be conducted, similar to the one Council approved in November 2018 for the Starr Hill Neighborhood. 

“This application for Smart Scale funding for the Preston Grady intersection is being pushed through despite robust grassroots opposition from adjacent neighborhoods, property owners, and environmental advocates,” Henry said. 

City Councilor Michael Payne said the Smart Scale process itself needs to be reviewed. 

“I think it tends to promote urban sprawl, it is a flawed process, granted it is out of our control, and this is the kind of thing where if we were to approve it tonight it’s still ten years until anything even begins to happen and  if we didn’t approve it that could be fourteen or fifteen years maybe even longer than that,” Payne said. “My concern is about what happens with the institutional inertia of this process and outside out of our intentions about the future of the corridor, what will actually happen.” 

Payne said he would support a small area plan and supported not submitting this proposal forward.

Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker said she was concerned that Henry and others were trying to stop the process so they could control the intersection in the future. 

“I’ve heard more from, minus Ms. Howard’s comments, more about people trying to control what they think this intersection should look like, and then using the fear of individuals in the neighborhood to sell that narrative that they are channeling versus their actual concern about ensuring that the neighborhood is protected,” Walker said. “They’re already doing things that are not protecting the neighborhood and the people who have lived in the neighborhood.” 

Walker said she was concerned that a small area plan would lead to further gentrification on Preston Avenue.  Payne said the street is one to watch.

“There’s going to be an explosion of development on this corridor if my memory is correct. At least portions of this corridor are going to be part of a proposed tech innovation district and I think the Dairy Central is going to accelerate that process and this corridor is going to change substantially over the next decade plus in a way that to the extent we are able to I hope we are proactive to shape it as best we can to fit the desires and needs of the corridor.” 

Council adopted a resolution supporting all four of the city’s submissions for funding through the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Smart Scale program. The scoring will be made public next February.

« Older Entries Recent Entries »