Charlottesville housing advocates were victorious Monday night, when City Council voted to approve not just a controversial rezoning of the city but two large apartment projects near the University of Virginia.
The latter was a blow to the university and neighbors, who have vociferously opposed the projects.
One, known as the Verve, calls for a 12-story, 550-unit complex at the intersection of Stadium Road and Jefferson Park Avenue. The other, known only by its address at 2117 Ivy Road, calls for a 10-story, 242-unit tower within UVa’s Ivy Corridor development area, the future home of a hotel and conference center, the School of Data Science and the Karsh Institute of Democracy.
Critics have argued the proposed projects are far too tall and large, out of proportion with the surrounding buildings. Some worry the increase in residents — likely students, as the properties are steps from UVa Grounds — will overwhelm infrastructure, creating more traffic while straining sewer and water services.
Their arguments appeared to gain some traction when City Council met two weeks ago to discuss developers’ plans. Councilors too voiced concerns about both 2117 Ivy and the Verve before voting to defer both projects, leaving their fates in limbo and eliciting a round of applause from the opponents in attendance.
That applause died on Monday. It was the city’s housing advocates who were celebrating.
But it was no sure thing earlier in the evening.
The Verve’s developer, St. Louis-based Subtext, came into the meeting at City Hall with only one change to its proposal: an $800,000 increase in their offer to the city’s affordable housing fund.
That had been a sticking point for councilors Michael Payne and Leah Puryear in previous meetings. Developers must either provide affordable housing units or make a payment into the city’s affordable housing fund. Payne and Puryear both felt that the $6 million offer in lieu of units at the Verve was too low.
It wasn’t clear that the updated $6.8 million figure would be enough to placate the two councilors Monday.
In fact, Puryear appeared to grow frustrated while discussing the $6.8 million offer with the developer’s attorney, at one point cutting the attorney short mid-conversation.
“You’re saying 6.8. You’re not going exceed 6.8, so let’s move on,” Puryear snapped.
Still, the increased offer apparently put councilors’ minds at ease, or at least made the Verve more palatable to the most skeptical councilors. After asking Subtext to eliminate the “up to” $6.8 million language and guarantee a $6.8 million payment, council voted unanimously to approve the Verve.
Both Payne and Mayor Lloyd Snook voiced concern about the size of the building, with Snook wishing it was shorter than 12 stories. But he acknowledged that the developer had previously addressed a number of concerns about the building’s size and shape.
“You all were willing to negotiate, and I want the message to go out there that we’re not going to let perfect be the enemy of the good,” Snook said before casting his vote.
The size of both buildings was the primary concern of UVa.
“We do believe it makes sense to think about how the development of that scale will fit in with the existing surrounding properties, and specifically with the historical properties across the street,” UVa architect Alice Raucher told council during public comment two weeks ago.
Raucher sat in the audience again on Monday night, as Snook expressed some hesitance about the Ivy project.
“I really feel that this is an effort to pack too much stuff into too small a site. Whereas, with the Verve, they were willing to reduce it by 10 to 15% the amount they were trying to pack into too small a site, there’s apparently been no significant movement on this particular parcel,” Snook said.
Snook was hoping the developer, Chicago-based Up Campus Properties, would move the tall building farther away from the street.
“I think when we design roads and design a streetscape that has buildings that close to the road, we end up creating a canyon effect that I don’t think we really want, and that continues to concern me,” he said, adding that he was unsure how he would cast his vote and that he may vote in favor of it “reluctantly.”
That reluctance was visible as the votes lit up the tally board in council chambers Monday night. Four councilors voted for the project rather quickly, but Snook’s decision took a few seconds more. Eventually, his vote fell into the yea column.
“Jesus Christ,” muttered Raucher from her seat after it became clear the vote was unanimous. She and two of her UVa colleagues left the meeting shortly after.
Natalie Oschrin, who will replace Puryear on council in January, had a very different reaction. Oschrin, who graduated from UVa in 2011, previously called both the Verve and Ivy projects “no-brainers.”
“I remember the lack of choice that led people to sign leases before they were ready, with people they didn’t know or in areas they weren’t comfortable with and in housing that wasn’t up to scratch,” she told The Daily Progress of her college days. “So I’m excited to see those get approved and to see what effects they’re going to have on the regular neighborhoods.”