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High cost of Stribling Ave sidewalk project continues to make future of controversial affordable housing development unclear

A proposed residential development on Stribling Avenue is on hold because the city would have to pony up $850,000 to build sidewalks.

And yet, because 15% of the 170-unit development would be set aside for affordable housing units, the city finds itself in a quandary. The development is enticing for city planners and leaders concerned about increasing the amount of affordable housing units in the city, but the costs of building sidewalks to ensure safety has led the city to put the brakes on the project.

A city analysis of the project presented on Oct. 18 showed an $850,000 gap between what the developer is willing to pay for sidewalks and what the actual project cost would be.

“We’re looking at the moment an $850,000 gap based on what the proffer that we have received is and what we have come up with our new estimate,” said Deputy City Manager of Operations Sam Sanders. “Because of the stresses that we face with the decisions that we have to make regarding schools, and all the various priorities that we have, it’s a tall order.”

The dilemma goes beyond sidewalks, some councilors said. It shows the difficulty of moving ahead on the city’s affordable housing goals when facing budgetary concerns and competing projects.

“But there’s a lot of complications … I guess my biggest concern is this delta [variant] and where we’re going to get the funds,” said Councilor Heather Hill.

The developer, Southern Development, has been trying since 2019 to gain approval for the project, which includes two single-family attached style units, approximately 69 townhome style units and three multifamily buildings.

Southern sought a critical slope waiver, which would allow the company to build on hillsides that are protected from development under zoning ordinances in both Charlottesville and Albemarle County. The City Council and Board of Supervisors are charged with deciding whether to grant waivers that would allow developers to build on these protected hillsides.

Southern was also seeking a change to the zoning district classifications of the property where the development would go, near the Fry’s Spring neighborhood. The company wanted the zoning to change from Residential Small Lot, to Planned Unit Development, or PUD.

According to the developer’s current proposal, the complex would include two single-family attached style units; about 69 townhome style-units; three multifamily buildings; central green space; a nature trail; four new city-standard public roads, pedestrian and vehicular access to Morgan Court and six new private roads built to city private road standards.

To align with the city’s requirements, 15% of the various housing units in the housing development will qualify as “affordable dwelling units,” or ADU.

The city defines an ADU as a residence reserved for occupancy by a household that pays no more than 30% of its gross income for housing costs, including utilities, provided that the annual gross income of the household/occupant is 60% or less than of the area median income, or AMI, for the city of Charlottesville. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development annually establishes this amount. For 2020, the city’s median household income level was $93,900, according to the department.

In the proposal, 30% or more of the required affordable units will be reserved for rental to low-income and moderate-income households for 10 years, and 30% or more of the required affordable units will be reserved for ownership by low-income and moderate-income households for 30 years.

Throughout the two-year process, however, dozens of residents have voiced concerns about increased traffic coupled with an existing lack of sidewalks to Planning Commission through emails and in public hearings.

Most of the opposition centered around increased traffic on the road and pedestrian and cyclist safety. The Fry’s Spring Neighborhood Association, adjacent to the proposed site, voted to support the project only if the developer would make improvements to Stribling Ave prior to development of the complex. This would include building a sidewalk along Stribling Ave.

At the Sept. 14 meeting, the Charlottesville Planning Commission voted to defer City Council approval of the rezoning application until the developer can address the critical issues, including the Stribling sidewalks.

At the Planning Commission’s joint work session with City Council on Sept. 14, commissioners applauded the affordable housing aspect of the project, but members had concerns about traffic, pedestrian safety, the local environment and funding of the larger development. Their most critical concern was the lack of sidewalks.

Commissioner Taneia Dowell suggested last month that the proposal be delayed until the developer can address the traffic and pedestrian safety concerns.

“Do we want to put the people at risk to give them affordable housing … is that really affordable housing?” she said.

City engineer Jack Dawson led a cost analysis for the sidewalks and related changes, coming up with the $2.85 million amount. Dawson presented his findings to City Council on Oct. 18, explaining that the city’s estimate was higher than the developer’s because of variety of additional expenses. This included right of way that would need to be purchased by the city, a new drainage system that would need to be built and the removal of on-street parking spaces and trees.

Dawson emphasized that costs could go up.

“This has not gone through community engagement and stakeholder meetings which can add significantly to a project as you may be aware,” Dawson said. “And then projects of this type are not insignificant undertakings nor are they cookie cutter in design typology or execution. A sidewalk is not just a sidewalk.”

Sanders, the operations expert, said Monday if the $850k investment for 170 units were approved, it would essentially jump ahead of other items on the Capital Improvement Program funding waitlist.

Councilors were equally concerned.

“This is hard … this is a priority area [for a sidewalk] even aside from the PUD. This is something this neighborhood has highlighted as an issue. I’ve walked it a few times, I can certainly understand why,” said councilor Heather Hill.

Mayor Nikuyah Walker said she, too, was concerned about putting this project before everything else the council still has to consider for funding.

“We have to factor in everything that is already sitting before us,” she said. “I understand the community may need something, but we’ve already discussed [addressing] unfunded items on the CIP (Capital Improvement Program) list.”

At this point, the future of the proposed development is unclear, given that Planning Commission’s approval was contingent on improvements including sidewalk development.

The issue will come before the commission again for a vote in the future, but that vote has not yet been scheduled.

One possible solution is that the Planning Commission could opt to approve the project and ask City Council to approve an agreement with the commission.

But there may be better ways to expand affordable housing options than funding this project, some councilors said.

Councilor Michael Payne suggested that investing the $850,000 in existing affordable housing projects, such as projects from the Piedmont Housing Alliance that the city has helped fund, could yield more affordable housing units than the number this development would produce.

“My thought is that realistically $850k is not really feasible in terms of being ahead of other priorities,” said Payne.


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