A portion of a riverfront meadow that once played host to circuses and carnivals could become home to 245 apartments.
But some neighbors see the proposal as a freak show because it would infill hundreds of tons of dirt in order to build asphalt parking lots and four-story buildings inside the Rivanna River’s 100-year floodplain.
A local firm called Seven Development LLC gave its first public presentation of the Free Bridge-area project Wednesday morning with city planners over Zoom.
“There are some very real concerns,” City Councilor Michael Payne said during the preliminary site plan conference. “Quite frankly, I was surprised to see anything proposed. I thought it was in flood plains.”
“A flood plain is anything that gets wet,” explained Rebecca Quinn, a Charlottesville-based water engineer who also participated in Wednesday’s meeting. Quinn says that FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the city regulate what can be built in the SFHA, the Special Flood Hazard Area, more commonly called the 100-year-flood zone.
Practically the entire site of the proposed apartment complex lies within that flood zone, named for the concept that it will likely flood once per century. But that designation doesn’t mean that all building is banned. The developer’s engineer, Justin Shimp, explained how he’d do it.
He spoke of building a 15- to 18-foot wall, backfilling, and then constructing an asphalt parking lot and a trio of four-story structures of one- and two-bedroom apartments atop the newly-elevated, mostly business-zoned land.
“This is a by-right site plan,” said Shimp. “The zoning for this particular use has been in place since, I think, the 1970s.”
That means the development can be stopped only on technical grounds, and Shimp gained one official stamp of approval in March. That’s when FEMA activated his Letter of Map Revision, indicating that this development would not increase the height of Rivanna floodwaters by more than a foot, which is the standard.
However, the letter won’t go unchallenged. Five neighbors recently filed a petition alleging that Shimp’s engineering was impure and that he can’t be trusted due to his financial interest, presumably in getting paid by the project.
“He did not disclose this economic conflict of interest,” write the petitioners.
“Through this subterfuge,” they continue, “the developer and then the engineer now are claiming development by right on the property, seeking to lock in their plans by gaining city approval of their preliminary site plan in order to immunize themselves from any changes in the zoning ordinance that could occur as early as six months from now.”
The new comprehensive plan calls for general residential zoning in this area. Shimp did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment on the allegations, but during the site plan conference he claimed that Charlottesville’s 100-year flood zone has never been breached even during the catastrophic remnants of 1969’s Hurricane Camille. That deluge killed over 150 people in nearby Nelson County.
At least one neighbor scoffed at Shimp.
“I don’t know what he’s talking about saying the 100-year-floodplain has not been breached,” said Rebecca Jones Reilly, a petitioner and resident of adjacent Caroline Avenue. “That’s just absolutely not true.”
She said that a 2018 flood proved Shimp wrong. “We had literal feet of feet of water up to our back fence, which would encompass this entire building plan,” said Reilly. “I have many pictures and videos to prove it.”
Not everyone speaking Wednesday denounced the proposal.
“Charlottesville needs more housing,” said Natalie Oschrin. “Anything we can do to increase supply will increase affordability.”
“This is actually a great place for housing,” said Peter Krebs of the Piedmont Environmental Council. “This is a rare site where people would be able to walk to grocery stores, to schools, parks and transit.”
Yet both Oschrin and Krebs listed an array of technical concerns including access to the river and pollution.
The site plan shows that 77.5 percent of the 21-acre tract would remain open, including most of the meadow that holds a stretch of the Rivanna Trail, a popular pedestrian path along the river. Shimp asserted that the retaining wall would be set back 140-200 feet from that trail.
This site has a history in leisure. In the early 1900s, it was part of a golf course, whose memory remains in the names of nearby streets such as Fairway and Short 18th. According to an article penned by UVA professor Daniel Bluestone, a 23-acre piece of the course was purchased by a longtime employee of the nearby Charlottesville Woolen Mill in 1928 for $3,000. John Wesley Bagby, who died in 1968, would lease the land to travelling carnivals and circuses.
“When the three-ring Barnum and Bailey circus visited in 1954, the enormous circus tent pitched on the banks of the Rivanna, just south of Free Bridge, would accommodate 10,000 spectators who came to see elephants, tigers, clowns, and high-wire gymnasts perform,” according to Bluestone’s article.
An archival Daily Progress story shows that in October, 1959, dozens of carnies were left homeless when a sudden storm washed their trailers into the Rivanna.
The site’s current owner is a company controlled by Wendell Wood, the octogenarian notable for having a role in such developments as Barracks Road Shopping Center, Fashion Square Mall, the Doubletree hotel, Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, and the Hollymead Town Center. His son, Hunter, declined to specify the contracted sales price of the former carnival grounds.
Commercial recreation continues today with the Rivanna River Company, a canoe-and-kayak livery and touring service established in 2016 and whose boats occupy part of the site outside the planned construction zone.
“There’s no intention of pushing them out,” said Shimp. “We hope they’ll stay.”
This long-time industrial/commercial area has shown recent signs of a residential boom. The Hudson, a four-story apartment building with one retail space, opened earlier this year on nearby River Road. Across the street, a 3.7-acre property, now home to several firms including Foothill Fence Company, has been targeted for redevelopment by Seven and Shimp.
There they envision an L-shaped, 77-unit residential building atop parking with about 2,000 square feet of office space.
At the carnival grounds, Shimp’s site plan shows 320 motor vehicle parking spaces largely adjoining the backyards of the houses on Caroline Avenue, which would serve as one gateway to the complex. The other entrance/egress would be on High Street adjacent to the now-shuttered branch of a downtown bakery called the Pie Chest.
A national engineering manual claims the apartments would generate 1,334 daily trips, and several neighbors speaking out Wednesday expressed traffic concerns. The developer says 123 indoor bike parking spaces would be provided.
The new buildings would have a total footprint of 322,000 square feet, or nine percent of the total site and would occupy the terrain, new as it may be after the retaining wall and infill, facing the Rivanna River and a smaller waterway called Meade Creek. Tucked between the two largest and most river-adjacent buildings is a swimming pool and deck.
The complex would fell hundreds of trees and disturb seven acres of land but none of the site’s critical slopes.
Charlottesville is a city that has its own 95-page Climate Action Plan, and already this development is dividing people. It appears to boost walkability, but will it harm the Rivanna?
Former Planning Commissioner Bill Emory asked the City Council on Monday to end the debate by condemning the land and buying it under the concept of eminent domain for a new park.
For Quinn the water engineer, she wants to more closely examine the documents in City Hall before rendering an opinion on whether it would hurt the river.
“We know that Mother Nature doesn’t read FEMA’s maps,” she says, “especially at a time when the climate is changing.”
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