The Charlottesville Planning Commission voted 4-1, with one abstention, to recommend denying a new housing development north of downtown Tuesday night but the vote seems headed to a City Council where a majority have expressed interest in its approval.
Three city councilors, Michael Payne, Brian Pinkston, and Juandiego Wade, constitute a majority on Council, and each voiced support for the project at Tuesday’s meeting, providing some revisions are made.
The three do not sit on the Planning Commission and did not vote Tuesday.
“I do think the Council will be working with staff to figure out how to make it work,” Payne said during the joint meeting of Commission and Council.
At issue is a property on St. Clair Avenue near the U.S. 250 Bypass that currently holds the sanctuary of Mount View Baptist Church. Without removing the church, developers want to place up to 72 apartments and a daycare center on the 3.4-acre site which largely consists of a grass field.
“This is a convenient location,” said Justin Shimp, an engineer who made the case for the development, as he noted the footstep proximity to Burnley-Moran Elementary School, to downtown, and to Northeast Park.
Shimp represents the church and two other developers, who are led by Craig Builders, a long-standing residential construction firm. Craig Builders, through an LLC, has already purchased an empty one third-acre lot adjoining the church property and adjacent to a Bank of America branch. The property is also located near the Riverview Center shopping center and a redeveloping car wash long known as All-American.
Shimp asserted that the development would provide needed housing supply in a city whose official housing policy urges infill.
But many nearby residents are opposed.
“It’s too much disruption to the neighborhood,” said Alex Russo, who lives on St. Clair and fears more traffic. He says he’s already had one car totaled by a reckless driver coming off the bypass. Standing by the site prior to the meeting, he points to a neighbor’s pickup truck, now adorned with yellow reflective tape, as another vehicle that’s been smashed on St. Clair.
“It almost seems ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ somebody’s car gets damaged if you park it on the street,” said Russo.
Back at the meeting, at least five neighbors criticized the increased levels of traffic and urged denial. But at least two supported the development, including former city councilor Kristin Szakos, who lives by the site.
“We need housing,” said Szakos. “During my time on Council and at Planning Commission meetings, I watched repeatedly in frustration as countless good proposals for denser housing in the city were denied because they were not perfect.”
She said the result of those years of denials and zoning that encouraged large houses on individual lots is today’s housing crisis, a shortage of housing.
“Developments have been pushed further and further out into surrounding counties to house people who work, shop, and play in the city,” said Szakos.
Shimp attempted to show how the total density of the development would be about 22 units per acre. That’s less than some of the unhappy neighbors’ parcels might be allowed under new zoning rules that seem destined to come out of the FLUM, the Future Land Use Map, approved last November.
The FLUM, so controversial that it’s facing the challenge of a civil lawsuit, would unleash a yet-unwritten upzoning code throughout the city in an effort to bolster housing supply and temper the rise of rents.
The problem, as Shimp learned Tuesday, is that his application is operating under today’s zoning code in an R-2 zone. That means that he has the right to put just two units on each typically-sized lot, so maybe just two or three dozen units. Thus his proffers.
In exchange for a rezoning, he has promised to build a shared-use trail to extend adjacent and now-stubbed Otter Street to reach nearby Landonia Circle, which would get widened. He also promised seven units of affordable housing, an approximate match of the 10% target that some city officials say they’ll seek in a future zoning code.
“We have one foot in each world, and we’re trying to muddle through,” said Philip d’Oronzio, one of the planning commissioners and the sole vote favoring Shimp’s plan.
Other officials noted disdainfully that the plan would let the affordable units convert to market rents after 10 years and get rented at market rates even sooner if a vacancy lasts longer than 90 days.
“The city is looking for a much longer affordability period,” said planner Alex Ikefuna.
For Shimp, it will be a gorgeous place with buildings designed by Vito Cetta, the architect of Wickham Pond, a Crozet-area development. Shimp showed that what appeared to be five rows of townhouses were actually flats and walk-ups of varying sizes.
But to neighbors, architectural cleverness took a back seat to the street situation, particularly the development’s admission that motor vehicle traffic may double and a plan to punch an entrance from River Vista Avenue, a relatively narrow and incompletely sidewalked street.
One neighbor worried that his 3-year-old child might be struck by a car. However, another said that a denser development will boost walkability.
One thing several neighbors criticized was the height of the structures. While Shimp countered that their three stories include walk-out basements and that site’s downward slope toward the Rivanna River basin would make them appear shorter in a neighborhood where single-story Cape Cods are the norm.
As the questions intensified, Shimp’s frustration appeared to grow, particularly after he was asked if the affordable units could be guaranteed to low-income renters for longer than 10 years.
“This is like a $200,000 donation,” said Shimp. “Could it be 11 or 12 years? Sure.”
As he suggested that officials were presenting him with moving targets, he reached for a rhetorical question.
“Are the folks in need of housing in this town better off or worse off if this is approved?” he said.
It’s a question that City Council may eventually have to ponder.
“What they was said essentially was to fix X, Y, Z, and that’s basically the process,” Shimp said after the meeting. “We’ll be making revisions over the next two weeks.”
Engineer Justin Shimp, inset, lauds architect Vito Cetta for creating density via townhouse-looking structures.
Mount View Baptist Church faces St. Clair Avenue near the U.S. 250 Bypass.
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Although near bypass-facing businesses, the site is surrounded mostly by residences.