The Charlottesville Planning Commission has asked the City Council to consider more creative ways to construct a planned downtown parking garage.
The commission requested the council consider changing the zoning of the Market Street parcel to give potential developers more flexibility during a joint work session on Tuesday.
The garage is part of an agreement with Albemarle County to keep county courts downtown and to construct a new co-located General District Court.
The garage will be constructed at Seventh and Market streets on property currently home to the Lucky 7 convenience store and a Guadalajara Mexican restaurant.
As part of the agreement, the city purchased the county’s ownership in the parcel for half of the appraised price, which was $2.56 million.
Initial proposals for the structure have included 300 parking spaces and 12,000 square feet of retail on the ground level. The preliminary cost estimate for construction is $8.5 million. During Tuesday’s meeting, officials indicated a possibility of including housing in the structure.
Per the agreement, 90 parking spaces would be dedicated for county use. The city is required to start construction no later than May 1, 2022, and have the spots available by Nov. 30, 2023.
If the city doesn’t meet deadlines, it must provide 100 dedicated spaces in the existing Market Street Parking Garage. The county will then pay the city to regain ownership of its half, minus half of back rent for the time the city owned it, and have sole use of the property.
In December 2019, the commission voted to partially abandon the planned structure while reviewing the fiscal 2021 Capital Improvement Plan. The vote was to seek a more robust mix of uses in the structure than what was proposed.
The council later approved the CIP to include the originally proposed $4.9 million for the city’s commitment to construct the structure.
Commissioner Rory Stolzenberg initiated discussion of the proposed zoning change because the required setbacks on higher levels are prohibitive in the current designation due to the narrow nature of the parcel.
The property has a downtown zoning, which allows buildings to be 45 to 70 feet tall by-right and up to 101 feet with a special-use permit. However, the designation requires a 25-foot setback on the building above the 45-foot mark. The requirement would make it difficult to get much usage out of higher levels.
The parcel is .41 acre with an area of 17,650 square feet, according to real estate records.
Stolzenberg proposed changing the parcel to a downtown extended zoning. It allows many of the same uses, but the height and setback requirements are less onerous. The designation allows up to 101 feet on mixed-use buildings and only requires a 10-foot setback on 70% of the structure above the 50-foot mark. The setback would apply to the portion facing the street.
The commission passed a motion to ask the council to consider other zoning designations to allow flexibility in design. The motion did not specify any particular zoning district.
The parcel is also in an architectural control district and subject to approval from the Board of Architectural Review. However, Acting City Attorney Lisa Robertson said the city could exempt itself from the requirements of the district and rezoning because it is the entity making the zoning rules. She said such an action would cut down on the time needed for approval.
Robertson did not have specifics on how the exemption process would work because it hasn’t been done in the city and officials at the meeting didn’t jump at the opportunity to skirt regulations. In fact, Commissioner Jody Lahendro said the BAR and historic preservation staff should be involved in the discussions.
Councilor Heather Hill and Mayor Nikuyah Walker, the only councilors still in office who negotiated the agreement, said initial discussions for the structure indicated more uses in the building could be cost-prohibitive.
Councilor Lloyd Snook supported increasing flexibility so the parcel wouldn’t be wasted solely on parking.
Walker has requested Lucky 7 and Guadalajara have the opportunity to move into the new building, while acknowledging additional challenges to constructing restaurant space.
“Anything that we can explore to make a better use is definitely something worth exploring,” she said. “If we can do this better, I think all of us in the community could benefit from that.”
Robertson reminded the council, commission and public that when the city seeks proposals for the structure, it won’t be asking developers to determine the best use for the property. The city will indicate what it wants on the property and developers will just propose how to do it.
City staff are planning to seek proposals in the coming months. The council plans to quickly consider its options so the design timeline isn’t derailed.
Stolzenberg said changing the zoning wouldn’t necessarily require developers to propose something radically different on the site. He said it would only provide flexibility to be more creative with a taller building than allowed under the current zoning.
City staff plan to reach out to Albemarle County officials to reinforce Charlottesville’s plan to construct the structure. Officials want to emphasize the city is only exploring flexibility and does not plan to renege on the agreement.
While the commission briefly discussed adding residential space to the structure, a memo included in the council’s packet for a Thursday CIP work session says the concept might not be financially feasible.
In a memo to Economic Development Director Chris Engel, Interim City Manager John Blair wrote that a conceptual design study shows the site can support a four-level structure with 300 parking spaces and 12,000 square feet of commercial space by right under the current zoning designation.
The memo offers additional concepts for the structure, with each maintaining the 12,000 square feet of commercial space. The first is 222 spaces and 12 residential units. The second is 214 spaces and 24 units and the third is 199 spaces with 36 units.
The memo says mixed-use commercial garages are more common than structures incorporating residential. Adding residential use would increase cost because it would require additional structural reinforcement and other needs, the memo says, potentially increasing the cost by $5 million before any units are even constructed.
The memo says the cost of adding the units would likely impact any decision on residential use.