The city of Charlottesville is poised to kill a controversial plan for an apartment complex on the old circus grounds within the Rivanna River flood plain. The city’s plan — to buy the underlying 24 acres itself, including a popular stretch of the Rivanna Trail, for roughly $6 million — will face a vote Monday.
The move would doom the planned 245 apartments in a city that is facing what its own government has characterized as a “housing crisis” since at least 2009 and where the median price tag for a house hit an all-time high this summer, according to the Charlottesville Area Association of Realtors.
“It’s great,” said former Charlottesville Planning Commissioner Bill Emory, who advocated for the purchase. “It’s the citizens’ favorite trail and area to recreate in the city.”
The planned vote will come from the same body that blocked the development Oct. 2, unanimously declaring that some of its components didn’t mesh with the Charlottesville Comprehensive Plan. While the legalistic language uttered by a lawyer for the development seemed to presage a further fight, the purchase appears to end the dispute, and papers assembled for Monday’s vote include a “mutual release of claims,” a document that precludes either side from suing.
What council’s vote will trigger is spending nearly $6 million to assume purchase contracts arranged by a company called Seven Development on five parcels totaling nearly 24 acres. The money would flow from the city’s capital improvement contingency account, a move that the city manager represents as aligning both with the city’s vision statement and strategic plan.
“Funding this acquisition will fulfill the City Council’s vision to prevent development which includes public facilities which are not in substantial accord with the City’s Comprehensive Plan and to acquire environmentally sensitive property which is suitable for passive recreational purposes,” reads a report submitted to the council by City Manager Sam Sanders.
While a typical slate of neighborhood concerns — noise, traffic and tree loss — were part of the opposition, what put the developer on the defensive was the fact that most of its buildings and parking would have stood inside the Rivanna River’s 100-year flood plain, an overflow zone that would have seen the construction of backfilled 15-foot walls.
Adding to the oppositional fervor was the fact that the development’s engineer won a change to the federal flood maps shortly before the project’s year-ago announcement.
Emory, the former planning commissioner, said the land should have been acquired long ago.
“Fifteen years ago it would have been a lot cheaper,” said Emory. “But better late than never.”
However, Mayor Lloyd Snook disputes the notion that the city is overpaying for the land or, as Emory previously suggested, that the city should have simply taken it by eminent domain. That latter process would have led to a legal battle, said Snook, who is an attorney.
“We would have years of expenses and years of delays,” he said.
The bulk of the land was zoned for business in hopes, Snook said, of allowing the carnivals and circuses that historically occupied the space to continue to operate there. Snook noted that an independent appraisal the city commissioned pegged the property at roughly the same price it is prepared to pay.
“Once it was clear that it wasn’t going to remain a vacant field forever, the value went up,” said Snook. “The fact that it had business zoning made it much more valuable.”
As for what the city will do with the land, Snook said that he envisions the launch of a public process to gather specific ideas, but for now he has some general ideas.
“We want to have substantial access to the river,” Snook said. “We’d like to open up the river to more public use and more enjoyment.”
The Rivanna River and the adjacent Rivanna Trail are hidden and affordable gems, according to Emory.
“A walk along the Rivanna Trail is one of the few experiences in Charlottesville where you don’t have to pull out your credit card,” said Emory. “And you don’t have to pay to get wet in the Rivanna; you just walk in. And now there’s land that you can do that from.”
Two leases assigned with the purchase indicate that the city will become a landlord in the area. The documents show that the government will soon be serving as the landlord of a rental house on Caroline Avenue and a business in the flood plain, the Rivanna River Company, a canoe, kayak and paddleboard livery and tour service.
The Daily Progress’ efforts to reach the developer, Edward “Bo” Carrington, a principal at Seven Development, were not successful.
But for all its environmental warts, the final iteration of Carrington’s proposal would have provided some public benefits. Besides leaving most of the tracts undeveloped and dedicating such land for public use, including the Rivanna Trail, the developer offered to create an acre-size parking lot as a gateway for people outside the neighborhood to visit the river and the trail.
Another attribute commissioned by Carrington was a new road that would have provided direct access from East High Street to the parking lot. Had the city been willing to accept it as a public road, that street might later have provided access to the backside of the nearby auto repair and towing shops that have long been eyed for redevelopment.
Conspicuously absent from the city’s proposed purchase is that parcel. Located at 1522 E. High St. and long home to a watering hole called the Double Horseshoe Saloon that closed at the end of August, the site was purchased in February by a company controlled by Carrington.
A public murmur of dissent over the city’s planned buyout came from University of Virginia professor Steven L. Johnson.
“There is no Passive Recreation crisis in Charlottesville,” he posted on X, formerly Twitter. “There is a housing affordability crisis that can only be addressed by building more housing.”
Johnson is co-chair of Livable Cville, an urbanist advocacy group that pushes for more housing, better transit and improved walkability in the city.
Snook recalled how a longtime Charlottesville planning director, who went on to become the mayor, Satyendra Huja, would urge planners in the 1980s and early 1990s to take inspiration from the San Antonio Riverwalk, a river-hugging playground that has been energizing the urban areas of that Texas city for more than eight decades.
“I’m sure we will come up with some good ideas,” Snook said. “But it’s not going to be 245 units in the flood plain.”