Natalie Oschrin, Charlottesville’s newest city councilor, is a proud advocate for walkability, improved transit, housing affordability and Charlottesville’s recently adopted zoning ordinance aimed at achieving all three of those goals.
And she isn’t just empowered by the courage of her convictions; Oschrin has the mandate of the people after receiving more votes than any other candidate in both the Democratic primary and general election last year.
She joined council earlier this month replacing interim councilor Leah Puryear.
The 34-year-old Democrat is a longtime Charlottesville resident, a graduate of both Charlottesville High School and the University of Virginia. Today, she is a wedding sales manager at Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards.
She recently sat down with The Daily Progress to discuss her policy plans, passion for accessibility and hopes for the city’s future.
The interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
What can residents expect from you regarding your policy priorities? What’s going to be your focus for this term?
Now that the upzoning has passed, the next big thing that the city has to focus on is our transit system. We have to have a healthy network of protected bike lanes and better public transit, because we need to make sure that the density that the new zoning is going to allow doesn’t automatically mean that everyone now has more cars and there’s more traffic and there’s increased congestion and decreased safety. We must build useful, connected, protected bike lanes and make sure that the transit system runs in a way where you don’t have to plan your whole day around catching the bus; we need to invest heavily in frequency and coverage.
I’ve heard from people who don’t feel safe biking in the city, and I 100% agree with them. That’s because the roads we currently have are designed for cars, so biking is dangerous and scary. A lot of people don’t see themselves as potential bike riders because there isn’t that network that makes them feel like they could do it safely. A protected bike lane is something that is separated by barriers. The painted lines that we have now in some places don’t cut it.
Building protected bike lanes might require building into someone’s property, would it not?
There’s something called a road diet, which is instead of taking property off the road, you take some from the road. Johns Hopkins University just released a study that showed that narrower road widths between 9 to 11 feet will cause cars to drive slower and therefore safer. A lot of the roads we have in town are cushier than that. A lot of the roads in Charlottesville do have that extra width that we could borrow. It’s not necessarily that the first thing we have to do is take someone’s land for right-of-way.
We did just get a right-of-way acquisition post filled, someone who’s going to be full-time working on figuring out the solutions there. That’s exciting to see. But I don’t think that’s necessarily the first option we have to use, because we have wider roads we can narrow, we have parking spaces we can repurpose. The tipping point eventually will be that there’s enough people using bikes and fewer cars on the road that we don’t need as much infrastructure for those cars.
Your campaign focused on investing in transit, making the city less car-centric, more accessible, and you supported the upzoning plan. There are a lot of people who disagree with you on these things, but you have a lot of conviction. Where does that come from?
I think you’ll hear from a lot of urbanists in my generation that we all got started with "Sim City," the urban planning game, when we were kids.
My family moved to Charlottesville when I was a baby, so my dad could go to the University of Virginia, and he got his master’s in urban planning; it was always a vernacular in our household. When my brother and I were 10, we knew about the particulars of zoning and building codes. Our family trip wasn’t to the beach; it was to a neo-urban development in Florida that Andrés Duany had built, because that was related to my dad’s work at the time. So that kind of urbanism was always something that our family had in mind.
And I have done the reading. I didn’t get an urban planning degree myself, but there’s a lot of really good books and podcasts and movies and short videos that explain a lot of the design and economics behind the accessibility arguments that I’m working towards. During the campaign, I met voters who would feel very strongly in their convictions about not changing the dynamic of the city. Their feelings were where they stopped. I wanted to encourage people to look up facts. I even built a resources page on my website that included books that I’ve read and podcasts about the history of curb cuts and bike lanes. Keeping up with the latest on that is something that I have been doing in my spare time. And quick shout out to Liveable CVille, which is an organization in town that has been advocating for a lot of this over the past several years. They have put out some of the materials that I cite on that page, including a great webinar about the missing middle.
What do you say to folks who have lived in Charlottesville for generations, who remember when urbanists supported "urban renewal" projects that razed entire neighborhoods?
I think where we’re taking a more critical approach to the facts that we’re using nowadays is that we have the lens of hindsight to help us. Back in the 1960s, a lot of the policies for urban renewal were decided along racial lines. We’re more conscious of that now. That’s not something that we are using as a priority to decide where we should build a highway. There’s a great book called "The Color of Law" by Richard Rothstein where he outlines the history of zoning and redlining, and how that was the goal. I think you can clearly see the difference between the changes we want to make now and the changes that they were trying to make then just because who is having their voices counted now is much different than who was having their voices counted then.
Do you think that your views on this align with most of the council? Do you think you’ll be able to get most of these things done?
I think what’s nice is that all of council is working together and mostly going in the same direction. Where we might have differences is in the margins. We want to go in the same direction, but where we might differ is how far do we want to go in that direction or how fast we want to get there.
We all understand we have to improve transit, support our schools and work to address housing insecurity. We have to take in all the different voices for people who have different ideas about how we address those, but knowing that those are things that we need to work together on is this good.
How do you feel about the city’s relationship with UVa? Do you think that the university is doing enough to support the city?
I am a proud Wahoo. I know the university is a huge part of our community. I think what is nice is that there’s common ground between the city and the community. We all want more affordable housing, better transit options, stellar schools for our kids. Our community makes up UVa. What’s good for the community is also good for UVa. I want to have open, constructive dialogue with the representatives from UVa as soon as possible to have a good, constructive, productive conversation about how we can get there to achieve our goals. We can have a mutually beneficial relationship.
My perspective is that if we can have affordable housing in the city so that the people who work at UVa can afford to live in town and not commute from outside counties, that’s good. If our school system is excellent, and there’s affordable housing, then UVa can attract staff and faculty that are able to live in the community where they work. I know that firsthand. I had cousins who were doctors who got offered jobs at the UVa hospital and couldn’t find what they thought was affordable enough housing. They ended up going to a different state.
Jefferson’s university is also a landlord and developer. It is the largest landholder in the city and pays no taxes on any of it. Is that a concern of yours?
Of course that’s a concern, because we are landlocked; we cannot expand. By state law, we’re not allowed to annex any of the county, so every time we have our size reduced when UVa purchases property, that’s a concern. Because it does take it off our tax rolls, and they’re not obligated to pay us taxes because they get part of their budget from the state. That is something that I know the other councilors and I are going to have conversations about coming up.
We can’t compel UVa to give money to the city. But I want to approach them with ideas about how it could be good in several different ways for them to contribute that willingly. We’re not the first city to come up with this plan, there are several other universities and cities that do this. And it can be dedicated towards a specific thing; it doesn’t have to go to the general fund. I want to think of it more as a "Commonwealth Contribution," not a PILOT [payment in lieu of taxes] program, because that can get some people confused about, “Oh, it’s just for now. It’s temporary.” So I’m going to work on reorganizing the language around that.
But I think there’s room for UVa to spend what is a small amount of their budget to help our community, because again, what is good for our community is good for UVa. We have to be careful about the land that we lose to them for sure. But they do contribute to what makes Charlottesville a great place to live. So we have to have an open dialogue about how we can work on that together.
Do you think Charlottesville is a company town?
I think there’s a lot of things that draw people to Charlottesville and make people enjoy Charlottesville. I know UVa is what brought my family here. But it’s not what kept us here. We have a diverse group of residents. We have interesting economies. Like I’m in the wine industry; that’s huge for our area. Tourism is a big part of our economy, not just the university. We’ve got great hospital systems. There’s a lot going on in town; I don’t think that we are just one thing.