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City planners commend New Hill plan at work session

Charlottesville planners on Tuesday said they support a development company’s vision for the Starr Hill neighborhood with the caveat that they think the plan still needs work.

The Planning Commission held a virtual work session Tuesday to discuss New Hill Development Corp.’s vision plan for the neighborhood.

New Hill was created in 2018 as a community initiative to spur investment in the Starr Hill area and Vinegar Hill, a historically African American neighborhood that was razed by the city in the 1960s.

In November 2018, the council gave the corporation $500,000 to create a small area plan and community vision for the Starr Hill neighborhood.

New Hill presented its 80-page plan last November, centering much of Starr Hill’s future on redeveloping City Yard, adding housing and enhancing the Jefferson School City Center.

Afterward, New Hill and city officials decided to pursue a vision plan instead of a small area plan. In March, the council set an Aug. 31 deadline for a public hearing on the plan.

“My problem with this project is I love it too hard and I fear I’ll crush it,” said Commissioner Lyle Solla-Yates. “This is important. This is really important.”

City documents say that a vision plan is not as intensely focused on land use as is a small area plan. A vision plan would provide a set of principles to guide decision making, but would not provide “the detailed examination of zoning and land use planning contained in small area plans.”

The Starr Hill neighborhood is 47.7 acres and home to about 235 people. The plan focuses on an area bounded by Preston Avenue to the north, Ridge/McIntire to the east, the CSX railroad to the south and the Norfolk Southern railroad to the west.

One of the plan’s focus points is the redevelopment of City Yard, a roughly 10-acre public works lot off Preston Avenue near downtown.

“This is just conceptual,” said Shelli Brady, project manager. “It gives you an idea of what could be done.”

The plan says that the revamped property could hold 685,000 square feet of commercial and residential space plus 132,000 square feet of parking. It also says it could hold 82 to 255 townhouses and apartments affordable to those who make 50% to 80% of the city’s median income.

The concept also calls for rooftop venues for restaurants and entertainment and a focus on workforce development.

According to the plan, construction on the massive redevelopment could support 790 jobs and bring $38.4 million of investment. The finalized property could support 615 jobs and $32.5 million of investment.

The plan doesn’t provide a plan for the city to vacate the property, estimates for the redevelopment or how to secure financing.

Neighborhood Development Services Director Alex Ikefuna said moving from City Yard would cost “millions of dollars” on top of any environmental issues at the site.

“Funding is going to be critical,” he said. “Funding is going to be a major element of consideration in terms of City Yard.”

New Hill CEO Yolunda Harrell said that the city would need to work with community partners on top of increased tax revenue through investment in other parts of the neighborhood.

“We knew that it could have a hefty price tag and if we’re going to get the type of affordability we want to have, we’re going to have to get a different kind of capital into the mix,” she said.

Harrell said that as the country continues to focus on equity in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, people are ready to invest in predominantly Black neighborhoods like Starr Hill.

“There is such a movement in our nation to take a look at how do we help move our Black community, how do we address all the wrongs that have been done?” she said. “All we have to do is seize the moment. But if we say we’re going to wait five or 10 years down the road, we would have missed the opportunity. The time is now. … We can’t do it by ourselves and we shouldn’t do it by ourselves.”

The plan also focuses on Brown Street, which the plan says could hold 10 to 46 residential units. The plan emphasizes that the city or other organizations should contribute financing to encourage homeownership in the neighborhood.

Brady said that to get more units, the city needs to create a zoning designation that uses smaller lot sizes along Brown Street.

Commissioners largely supported the plan while saying that more work was necessary to hammer out specifics. Commissioners commended the focus on increased pedestrian opportunities and connectivity in the neighborhood.

“As a young African American in Charlottesville it is refreshing to know there is going to be a dedicated space for me,” said Commissioner Taneia Dowell.

Commissioners Jody Lahendro and Hosea Mitchell were concerned that First and Ebenezer baptist churches weren’t prominently featured. Lahendro said the churches have historically “been the center of African-American life there.”

“These are still vital institutions. They provide incredible community services,” Lahendro said. “They are the core of the spiritual life for the neighborhood, their parishioners, and they need help. Because of the displaced population they serve, there’s no place for people to park when they come to church on Sunday. To not include them in the placemaking and legacy part of your vision is just unbelievable to me.”

Harrell said the churches weren’t omitted from the plan and would actually benefit from other portions of it. She pointed to a plan to enhance the community park, which has been an important locale for church after-school programs.

“There’s nothing that encourages youth programming in the area,” she said.

Mitchell and Lahendro recognized the possible benefits to the churches and asked that they be more prominently featured in the plan.

Another tenet of the proposal is improvements to the Jefferson School to “amplify” its presence as an African American cultural hub, increasing its number of tenants and events.

It proposes a redesign of the school’s public park, surrounding art installations and an outdoor amphitheater. Under the redesign, the school’s parking deck would be expanded by two levels and 105 spaces.

New Hill will continue to fine tune the plan before bringing it back to the commission. A future meeting on it has not been set.

In other business, the commission received a report on community engagement in the ongoing process to update the city’s Comprehensive Plan and zoning code.

The plan, which is a guide for local land-use decisions, was last updated in 2013. The zoning code hasn’t been substantially revised since 2003.

Rhodeside and Harwell Inc. is leading a consultant team to revise the plan and received a $926,000 contract for the update. The company also is working with Brick & Story, HR&A Advisors and Code Studio.


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