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Controversial plans for new apartments on old circus grounds in Rivanna flood plain advances

One of Charlottesville’s mostly hotly contested developments, a plan to perch 245 apartments on a former circus grounds in the Rivanna River floodplain, appears headed for a showdown at City Council early next month, according to Mayor Lloyd Snook.

“I’m not a fan of the project for broader reasons, but if the law is being followed I will hold my nose and vote for it, even if it’s a bad project,” Snook told The Daily Progress.

Snook made a similar comment publicly, and his stance concerns Becca Reilly, a neighbor who has been fighting the proposal since its announcement last fall.

“It’s not my favorite thing that I’ve ever heard him say,” Reilly told The Daily Progress.

The battle over this project — alternately called Riverside Multifamily and 0 E. High Street — brought out a chorus of critics, including some singing seniors, last month when the Charlottesville Planning Commission tried to determine whether proposed street extensions into the project were consistent with the Comprehensive Plan, the city’s blueprint for growth.

For walkability fans, the project would provide density in a mixed-use part of the city, a place within footsteps of schools, shops, restaurants and a grocery store. However, on Aug. 8 when the planning commission met at CitySpace on the Downtown Mall, fans were absent, and critics were bold.

“The single dumbest idea I’ve heard is building in the floodplain,” said neighbor David Swanson, who called the proposal “certifiably insane.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has declared much of the 23-acre site a “Special Flood Hazard Area,” commonly called a “100-year flood zone.” Controversially, before going public, the developer pushed FEMA to alter its flood map, a move that let it build in this flood zone. Construction would involve erecting retaining walls and backfilling them.

“Installing public car parks and wider roads in proximity to the Rivanna River as a means to provide access to the river isn’t good planning practice,” said former Charlottesville Planning Commission member and neighbor Bill Emory.

A group of seven women calling themselves the “Green Grannies” sang a modified version of “Down by the Riverside,” a pacifist folk classic.

What about the Rivanna River Company, the canoe, kayak and paddleboard livery that currently operates from a portion of this flood plain?

Company co-owner Gabe Silver declined comment for this story, but four neighbors claimed at the August meeting that the development would displace Silver’s company by pushing it into the woods against a car dealership.

“I don’t think that’s going to work,” Sam Gallant told the planning commission.

State code seems to disallow connecting new streets to the existing grid until approval from a planning commission “as being substantially in accord with the adopted comprehensive plan.”

At the end of the August meeting, the commissioners voted that certain aspects of the project do not mesh with the city’s Comprehensive Plan. On Sept. 12, they bolstered that position with a 5-1 vote and a written criticism of the access streets as dead ends. Dissenting commissioner Rory Stolzenberg said they’re dead ends for cars but provide walkability.

In an interview, former Charlottesville Planning Commission chair and current commissioner Lyle Solla-Yates asserted that his group may be powerless to halt the project.

“If it’s allowed by zoning, it’s allowed,” Solla-Yates told The Daily Progress. “They just have to meet the site-plan requirements.”

He said that access seemed like the main sticking point. However, several recent plan modifications seem to have boosted the access.

New plans filed by Seven Development, which is led Edward “Bo” Carrington, show that Seven would widen parts of nearby Fairway and Caroline Avenues and construct sidewalks into the development.

A bolder change is Seven’s new method of connecting to High Street. Instead of attempting to insert a slim mid-block street next to a pub called Hogwaller Brewing, the developer has acquired the site of the Double Horseshoe Saloon. The new plan would demolish that building to make way for a wider access road aligning with an existing public street called Willow Drive.

City records show that Carrington’s Rivanna Rider LLC purchased the saloon site, 1522 E. High St., on Feb. 24. The saloon closed its doors on the last day of August.

“It sounds like if they knock down that building, then they have access,” said Solla-Yates.

Additionally, the developer has claimed that the planning commission waited too long for its votes and that the body thereby approved the proposal by default.

One glimmer of hope for project opponents would be a purchase of the land by the city. To explore that option, City Council commissioned an appraisal in February. However, City Manager Sam Sanders, who has not disclosed what the appraisal found, said that Seven’s recent property purchase has altered the value.

“The city is still in its due diligence phase and no negotiations at this time,” Sanders wrote in an email to The Daily Progress.

One new amenity the developer is offering is giving the public a 44-space parking lot on an acre of its flood plain land. Adjacent to the popular Rivanna Trail, this lot would bolster river access for recreation fans.

Neither Carrington nor his engineer, Justin Shimp, would discuss the project with The Daily Progress. However, their appeals of the commission’s votes appear headed to City Council on Oct. 2.

The former chair of the planning commission said the city’s impending zoning overhaul is creating a countdown for the developers.

“They’re running out of time,” said Solla-Yates. “The new zoning is coming. The Comp Plan, if you give it a look, does not show high-density zoning in that area.”


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