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Planners reluctantly back proposed high-rise on Artful Lodger site

Charlottesville planners have backed a proposed high-rise on the Downtown Mall despite frustration that the developer hasn’t provided concrete plans for the building.

The Planning Commission voted, 5-1, to recommend approval of a special-use permit for Heirloom Development at its meeting Tuesday. Commissioner Lisa Green cast the dissenting vote and Commissioner Gary Heaton was absent.

Developer Jeff Levien is seeking the permit to construct a 101-foot-tall, mixed-use building. He needs a permit to increase the allowable height and density for the project from 70 feet and 24 units to 101 feet and 134 units.

The proposed structure would sit on Market Street on the current site of The Artful Lodger, The Livery and other small businesses. If a building permit is approved, the existing buildings will be demolished.

The new building would have a mix of commercial space and studio, one-, two- and three-bedroom rental apartments.

Commissioners and Mayor Nikuyah Walker were frustrated, they said, because the developer didn’t give enough information about the number of units for the property or if any would be affordable.

“How am I supposed to make a clear and sound decision when I don’t have clear and sound information before me?” asked Commissioner Taneia Dowell, who begrudgingly voted in favor of the proposal.

L.J. Lopez of Milestone Partners, the owner’s representative for the project, said the numbers couldn’t be finalized because different oversight bodies can impose regulations that may affect construction.

The proposal under review doesn’t include any affordable housing units. In a letter to the city, the developer notes that units will be offered at “a variety of price points.”

“We should know at this point what we’re approving in terms of affordable housing,” Walker said.

Heirloom also is behind the proposed 602-616 W. Main St. complex and the under-construction 600 W. Main St. property.

Prices for the latter development range from $1,499 for a studio apartment to $4,090 for a three-bedroom unit.

“Frankly, I think it’s unlikely that we’re going to get any affordable units out of this,” said Commissioner Hosea Mitchell.

At a Planning Commission work session in September, Green voiced a desire to recognize the existing building’s history as one of the last remnants of the historic Vinegar Hill neighborhood.

The city razed the African American neighborhood in the 1960s to spur redevelopment, displacing scores of residents and businesses. The Artful Lodger building, constructed in 1938, and the adjacent home of Browns Lock & Safe are some of the few remaining structures from the original neighborhood.

Lopez said the developer has partnered with the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center to create historical displays and a marker on the site.

Walker urged the Lopez and Levien to go further than a marker.

“There would be nothing more appropriate than people who were displaced having somewhere to live and not just some kind of symbol,” she said. “Not having a plan beyond placing some kind of signage that would let the public know about that is what we’re trying to move away from.”

Green was also irked when Lopez proposed changing a provision of the permit that includes a protection plan for the building at 110 Old Preston Ave., which was constructed in 1949 and sits behind Lighthouse Studio and Vinegar Hill Theatre.

Lopez wanted to make changes between the Planning Commission and City Council votes to be specific to this property.

The provision is almost identical to a protection plan approved along with the permit for the second phase of 600 W. Main St. to protect the Holsinger Building at First Baptist Church.

“The conditions are not apples to apples,” Lopez said. “We’d like to enhance this language and make it more specific to the property conditions.”

The permit would require Milestone to create a protective plan for the building covering safeguards and monitoring procedures.

The plan must, at a minimum, include a baseline survey of the building, including written descriptions and visual documentation. It must include work with a third-party structural engineer.

Milestone must prepare a protective plan that includes seismic monitoring and any other measures recommended by the engineer.

The property owner must be given at least two weeks notice of demolition or construction activity at the site.

The report and plans must be submitted and reviewed by the Department of Neighborhood Development Services before any demolition or building permits are issued.

Deputy City Attorney Lisa Robertson said the commission could have tabled the proposal until those changes were presented.

“It is appropriate for this commission to be told what those requested changes would be so we can weigh in on them,” she said. “Even if it’s promised that changes will be an enhancement, it’s the job of this commission to review the application and the conditions so you can make a recommendation to council.”

Green said that if the permit is going to change, then the public deserves another chance to comment on it. Tuesday’s meeting was a joint public hearing with the City Council, which means the council wouldn’t need a public hearing when reviewing the proposal at its own meeting.

Green cast her vote against the permit because she felt it was too vague.

“Everything is unclear, unclear. … How are we supposed to make that decision?” she said. “There’s too many unknowns. Give me some idea. Commit.”

Heirloom is under contract to purchase the Lodger property, which is owned by Market Street Promenade LLC and valued at $3.2 million.


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