In a rare moment, the Charlottesville Planning Commission was met by a vigorous round of applause on the night of Aug. 8.
The typically poorly attended meeting saw an unusually high number, as some 30 people remained at CitySpace on the Downtown Mall well past 11 p.m.
Many of those that braved the six-hour proceeding did so to give a full-throated endorsement of a proposed mixed-use development with affordable housing units and thousands of square feet of commercial space at 501 Cherry Ave., the former site of Kim’s supermarket across from Tonsler Park.
“We are coming to you today with a development that is 100% affordable housing, including many units of the deeply affordable housing that our community has been begging for,” Sarah Malpass, vice president of the Fifeville Neighborhood Association, told commission from the podium.
“We’re a neighborhood built by Black people, and the people who built this neighborhood and the new generations who continue to build it today, deserve to set a Northstar for what our community should be,” Malpass said.
By the end of the night, the commission had voted to recommended that City Council approve a rezoning and special use permit for a development that has been years in the making.
The decision was welcomed by a crowd that had waited hours for the vote. Cheers and applause erupted from the room before many people filed out, excited about the possibility of what could come.
“Thank you. We normally don’t get applause. It’s a nice change,” commission Chairman Lyle Solla-Yates told the audience to laughter.
“That is not normal,” Solla-Yates later told The Daily Progress of the applause. “Normally, a lot of angst and a lot of resentment and frustration would be more typical emotions at planning commission meeting.”
That was true of the dozens who turned up at the same meeting that night to voice their opposition to the expansion of the Dairy Central mixed-use development, a Stony Point Development Group project.
But the response to the Cherry Avenue project is different. Perhaps because the proposal for the Cherry Avenue project is different.
While neighbors often have fears and doubts when a developer proposes a new building, in this case many of those neighbors — after many discussions between them and developer Woodard Properties — feel like they were included in the conversation.
If all goes well, the proposed structure would include not just 118 housing units, but a new home for donation-based resale boutique Twice Is Nice, the Music Resource Center nonprofit after-school program and a grocery store that Fifeville residents have wanted since Kim’s Market closed four years ago.
The final product is to be a unique collaboration between a developer and a neighborhood that many feel could be a model for how housing can be built in the city going forward.
Much will still have to fall into place before that dream is realized, and City Council will not vote on the project for at least one more month.
But Council Member Michael Payne seemed very keen on the project. To him, the proposal is proof that high-density housing can be built in Charlottesville without upsetting the neighborhood in which it’s built.
“You can resolve those tensions, but requires a real partnership with the city and community as well,” he told The Daily Progress. “It’s not something that’s going to magically happen on free market.”
Malpass and others in the neighborhood association have been reaching out to community members to make sure their input is heard and valued, she said.
“We want to hear your concerns, and we would like to partner with you and advocate on your behalf to get your concerns addressed in good faith,” she told audience members.
Payne said that originally Woodard had plans to build a mixed-use development that would be taller and have no affordable units. But they met with community members early in the process, learned how important affordable housing was to the neighborhood and made changes to the plans accordingly.
“Months and months of work led to what we got last night,” Payne said on Wednesday.
But there is reason for caution.
For one thing, federal funding will have to be secured to subsidize the affordable housing. That is no guarantee. And if the city were to experience a budget crisis, it would may not be able to afford the units.
The grocery store is the most tenuous portion of the proposal, Solla-Yates said. While the Music Resource Center and Twice Is Nice have secured funding, the grocer has not.
“There’s nobody that wants to do it to my knowledge,” Solla-Yates said. “The Woodard team says they’re talking to people and that there is some interest, but it’s a challenge.”
Still, the commission approved the proposal because it feels there’s no harm in allowing it.
If it all does come together, it could mark an important moment in the city’s long struggle to build more affordable housing.
“It’s so much more different when you have developer working with the neighborhood from the beginning as opposed to saying, ‘This is the plan and we’re just letting you know,’” Payne said.