What could be the largest student apartment complex in Charlottesville passed its first major test earlier this week.
City Council had already approved the demolition of a 96-year-old landmark house standing in the way of the Verve, a 12-story, 1,500-unit building abutting the University of Virginia. On Tuesday, the city’s planning commission recommended rezoning the property for the new construction in a 5-1 vote.
“I think we need to make some space for 12-story buildings in the city if we want buildings that make financial sense, buildings that make structural sense, buildings that can provide affordable housing and decent living,” said Commissioner Lyle Solla-Yates. “And I cannot think of a better place than here.”
The 800,000-square-foot structure would face UVa’s Kerchof Hall on a 3.3-acre site where Emmet Street bends and becomes Jefferson Park Avenue. Currently home to nine residential buildings comprising 62 units including the Woodrow Apartments, the tract would contain as many as 550 residential units as well as some retail space and structured parking.
“My concern is the massing,” said the lone opposing commissioner, Karim Habbab. “The long wall of solid almost nothing and the 12 stories goes beyond anything we have in our draft zoning.”
A neighbor, Ann Benham, likened the look to a drive through New York’s Bronx borough: “a bleak and ugly landscape.”
They were not alone in complaining about the massing. Commissioner Rory Stolzenberg called one black and white wall swath of the Verve “pretty awful,” but he lauded the project for bolstering the supply of student housing in the city.
“The more you corral them in, the more they empty out of other places,” said Stolzenberg.
The willingness of students and their parents to pay premium rents is one factor that has been cited as a reason for Charlottesville’s relatively expensive housing market. The nonvoting, UVa-based member of the commission, William Palmer, provided some numbers of major on-Grounds student complexes to put Verve’s 1,500 beds into context:
Alderman Road residences house 2,000.McCormick first-year dormitories house 1,600.Lambeth Road houses 800.And the halls on Brandon Avenue house 900 students.
“So this puts a lot of beds in one place,” said Palmer.
And while most commissioners seemed eager to see the Verve, some neighbors did not.
“This project is not of equal or higher quality than other student high-rises that have already been approved,” said Ellen Contini-Morava, who like Benham has filed suit to stop a nearby development. “Its huge scale, excessive height and unattractive appearance make it lower in quality.”
By contrast, Matthew Gillikin, co-chair of Livable Cville, welcomed the Verve.
“This is an exciting opportunity for the city,” said Gillikin, whose group advocates for affordable housing. “This is exactly where student housing should go.”
The developer is Subtext, a St. Louis-based firm that is the contract purchaser of the parcels. The land is a “topographic bowl” which, according to Neil Reardon, a partner at Minneapolis-based ESG Architecture & Design, helped the architects lessen the apparent heights of the building, particularly on its southern edge facing Montebello Circle.
“We wanted to concentrate the height at the north and west of the site,” said Reardon, asserting that the shorter height of the Montebello-facing side would rise just 3 1/2 stories above the cars on that one-way street.
City Council will have the ultimate say on the rezoning, and one city councilor attending the meeting expressed dismay that the Verve plans to provide just 400 parking spots, about one space for every four residents.
“That’s not even realistic,” said Leah Puryear. “As much as you want Charlottesville to be a walkable city, as much as people are concerned about the carbon footprint, we need to be realistic.”
Project attorney Valerie Long replied.
“The hope is that it will be very attractive to students who do not have a car or who do not want to have a car or cannot afford to have a car,” said Long. “They can live there and walk to their classes, can walk to the grocery, the hospital and lots of other places.”
When Puryear continued her parking complaint, fellow councilor and Mayor Lloyd Snook chimed in that his two sons attended UVa carless. So did the woman who is likely to replace Puryear on council: Democratic nominee Natalie Oschrin.
“Like Lloyd’s kids, I did not have a car during my four years at UVa,” said Oschrin. “Most people remember college as the best four years of their lives, and perhaps that’s because it’s the only time they live in a truly walkable community.”
One transportation improvement the developer is offering is a raised bicycle lane. Another gift to the city is about $4.2 million for the affordable housing fund, about twice what’s demanded under the current zoning ordinance.
Besides the rezoning recommendation, which could convert the property from “R-3” to “Planned Unit Development,” the commissioners took three other votes Tuesday, each of them unanimous, pushing the project toward approval. These were votes recommending the following: removing the already doomed Stone House property from the city’s list of individual protected properties, removing some conditions on the long-ago vacated Woodrow Street and waiving adherence to the city’s critical slopes ordinance.
The fate of the approvals rests with City Council, which might consider the matter as soon as December.