The Charlottesville Planning Commission saw a vigorous debate last week over a developer’s proposal for what could become Charlottesville’s tallest building. Commissioners volleyed over a 10-story apartment building that could climb as high as 142 feet at the corner of Copeley and Ivy roads by the University of Virginia’s highest-profile expansion zone.
“I don’t think it is really fitting within the sensitive context and location,” said Karim Habbab at the June 13 meeting. “This is going to be the first big building you’re seeing driving down the entrance corridor, and it needs to carry itself that way.”A fellow commissioner disagreed.
“I have no concern with it at this location,” said Carl Schwarz. “There’s always going to be a first building.”
Citing the cross-town example of two towers on Water Street, Schwarz mentioned Waterhouse, which opened in 2011, and the CODE Building, which was completed a decade later.
“One thing I’ve realized with the taller buildings downtown is the first one sticks up and looks a little funny,” said Schwarz. “You get a few more, it has a few friends, and it suddenly makes more sense.”
The 1-acre site is now occupied by a single-story, drive-through-equipped bank, and one commissioner worried about the retail businesses to the immediate west.
“Ten stories seems to be quite massive,” said Hosea Mitchell. “I feel bad for poor little Moe’s barbecue. Or Foods of All Nations.”
Commissioner Rory Stolzenberg, however, suggested that being located next to a tall building may be the least of Moe’s worries due to the recent purchase of the underlying land.
“I suspect that since UVa has bought it that Moe’s won’t be there for much longer,” said Stolzenberg.
UVa-based commissioner William Palmer tried to quash such worries by noting that the UVa Foundation, which bought the Moe’s Original BBQ site in October and the Foods of All Nations-anchored Ivy Square Shopping Center a year earlier, would honor its leases.
And while the UVa-employed Palmer critiqued the 10-story proposal as “too tall,” Stolzenberg took a moment in the meeting to read from UVa’s own study for the property that UVa does own.
“Given the surrounding commercial context, along with great exposure at Ivy and Copeley roads,” Stolzenberg read, “the western corner of the Ivy Corridor has the potential for transformative change from a low-density suburban condition to a vibrant street edge and threshold to the university.”
“I think this proposal is very much in line with that,” said Stolzenberg.
Having purchased the properties on both sides of the bank site, UVa would appear to have a more-than-passing interest in what happens there. UVa Foundation CEO Tim Rose referred The Daily Progress to a spokeswoman, Bethanie Glover, who did not answer specific questions.
“The UVA Foundation is the owner of an adjacent property and, as such, is interested in learning about the proposed plans for development,” Glover wrote in an email.
Over the years, UVa has amassed an approximately 14-acre tract along Ivy Road from Emmet to Copeley. This so-called “Emmet Ivy Corridor” promises to unite the historic Central Grounds to the newer North Grounds as well as the neighboring “Athletics Precinct.” UVa President Jim Ryan has called it UVa’s “front door.”
The first new structure was built 20 years ago, a 1,200-car parking deck. Now, two new structures are rising, the School of Data Science and the UVa Guesthouse, a hotel and conference center.
“As never before, members of our community will have the chance to connect with residents of Charlottesville, scholars, scientists, artists and speakers from around the world,” Ryan said at one of the project’s groundbreakings.
In the trapezoidal tract whose northern border is the former CSX railroad tracks, UVa also plans a performing arts center and as many as seven other major buildings. Running through it all is a spine of green space. Habbab on the Planning Commission found a 10-story terminus to that upsetting.
“It privatizes that into a pool on the second floor where you get a luxury view from your pool looking down UVa’s master-planned lawn area,” said Habbab.
Another amenity planned for the apartment building is a rooftop gathering area.
“The applicant expects that the project’s residents will consist mainly of UVA students, faculty/staff, and young professionals,” wrote the city planner handling the proposal.
The existing zoning would appear to allow only 87 dwelling units on the site, but the owner is seeking a change from the “urban corridor” zone, to “PUD,” or planned unit development.
“It certainly will be larger than things that are there now,” a representative for the owner, Valerie Long, told the commission, “but not out of scale with what the future zoning ordinance would permit in this location.”
Although not finalized, the future zoning ordinance haunted the Planning Commission meeting, particularly the pending document’s emphasis on affordable housing which appears to require 10% of all developments to be affordable. At the meeting, several commissioners demanded answers on how much affordable housing the project would provide.
“We know this an issue,” replied Long. “We’re hesitant to make commitments now.”
That prompted another objection by Habbab.
“If you’re using our new draft zoning, don’t just pick and choose what gives you most value,” said Habbab, “but go with the essence of what we’re asking you to do including the affordable housing aspect.”
Commissioner Liz Russell seconded that.
“If we’re gonna have 10 stories, it’s got to be with pretty significant benefits to the community,” said Russell.
Long asserted that the project will provide several community benefits including a more engaging streetscape than the Truist Bank and parking lot currently there.
“Obviously a very underutilized site at an important location adjacent to the university,” said Long.
Beyond its address of 2117 Ivy Road, the developer, Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based RMD Properties, hasn’t yet released a formal name for its proposed building. Long’s team has, however, provided images that show a multihued structure with a café and another shop space at street level. Inside, 160 parking spots occupy the basement and part of the first floor. The overwhelming bulk of the building, floors two through 10, would consist of as many as 287 apartments ranging from studio to four-bedroom units.
The less than 1-to-1 ratio of parking to apartments is far lower than recent norms, and Long said that’s deliberate.
“You don’t need a car because you’re living in such a convenient location,” she said.
Long said the developer would offer parking spaces for a car-sharing program, provide more than 2,000 square feet of ground-floor storage for bicycles and electric scooters, expand the sidewalk on Ivy Road and build a sidewalk on the western side of Copeley where none currently exists.
Last week’s meeting was intended to be preliminary to give the developer feedback before heading into a public hearing. But one signal of city interest came in January when a unanimous vote on City Council agreed to the developer’s request to lower the minimum size of a PUD from 2 acres to 1.
Long said after the Planning Commission meeting that a development application was submitted about month ago and that the developer hopes to see how city planners respond. She provided no timetable for a return to the planning commission.