As expected, the Charlottesville City Council moved forward on Monday with a plan to spend nearly $6 million to acquire purchase contracts on nearly 24 acres of former circus and carnival grounds on the banks of the Rivanna River near Free Bridge. The move kills a controversial proposal to place an apartment complex there and bolsters hopes of increasing public access to the river.
“We are a city on a river,” said city councilor Brian Pinkston. “This will give us even more of a connection to the river.”
The purchase would doom local developer Seven Development’s plans to construct 245 apartment units atop fill in the river’s 100-year floodplain.
“We do need housing, but not to the detriment of the environment,” said councilor Juandiego Wade.
Neighbors had been steadfast in opposing the apartment complex, which was widely described as “by-right” because it did not require a rezoning or special-use permit. Instead, it had to meet only technical requirements such as utilities, landscaping and stormwater management. Just when it appeared that the project met the technical specs, both the Charlottesville Planning Commission and City Council declared that its proposed access streets were too short and that a free public amenity in the form of a 44-space parking lot didn’t accord with the city’s comprehensive plan.
City Manager Sam Sanders said those votes didn’t necessary halt the prospect of some floodplain development.
“Another project can be proposed,” said Sanders. “The best way for the council to actually step in and be sure they have control over what happens would be a purchase.”
Sanders said the $6 million price closely tracked with what an independent appraisal reported.
“I want everyone to understand that the value of the property is not associated with the action that council took when they made it impossible for that project to move forward,” said Sanders.
Monday’s vote to acquire the property came as a unanimous 5-0, but the deal will require a second vote at a subsequent council meeting to approve the appropriation to fund the deal. To evaluate options for the tract’s future uses, Sanders promised to launch “a really robust public engagement process,” but he declined to give a timeline.
Ironically, one person who could still exercise some control over access to the tract is its erstwhile developer, Edward “Bo” Carrington. In February, one of Carrington’s companies acquired a parcel that was most recently home to the Double Horseshoe Saloon, an East High Street watering hole that was shuttered at the end of August. As recommended in a year 2000 city-commissioned study by the urban design firm of Torti Gallas + Partners, Carrington saw that site as the place for a new access road. Carrington retains ownership of that property.
Another irony may have been named by councilor Pinkston, who suggested that housing could still come to the riverfront site.
“Maybe it will at some point,” Pinkston said. “I don’t know.”
Carrington’s concept would have clustered apartments in three structures near Caroline Avenue, and his plans allowed nearly 80% of the nearly 24-acre tract to remain undeveloped to continue to hold a stretch of the Rivanna Trail, a popular pedestrian path.
Still, councilors speaking Monday were fervent in asserting that they saved the land, with Michael Payne calling the tract “a really defining public space” and Pinkston emphasizing it as a public good.
“I don’t always suggest that we spend $6 million on a piece of property,” said Pinkston. “But I think this is one that we view for the whole community as an investment.”