Residents of one of the largest housing developments in Albemarle County on Tuesday came out in force to decry a proposed apartment and townhouse development near Forest Lakes on U.S. 29.
After hearing from residents and commissioners expressing their own concerns, the Planning Commission supported a deferral at the request of the applicant.
Commissioners had concerns about the amount of greenspace, transit stops and affordable housing, and wanted more information in general about the project.
The development could be fixed, said Commissioner Karen Firehock.
“I just think that we need a much more quality development with more green space, more attention to fitting in with the character of the neighborhood, public transportation,” she said.
Commissioner Rick Randolph said the proposal was too dense and needed more green space, and to be “not just a place where you warehouse people during the day.”
“The question I would pose is, 20 years from now, what will this development look like?” he said. “Will it be another project [like] Cabrini-Green in Chicago or Passyunk Homes in Philadelphia, where in this era of our concern with construction of more affordable housing units we parallel the logic of the New Deal in the 1930s to provide housing for relocating African Americans to cities like Chicago, or in Philadelphia … so that GIs returning to the states would have housing units available at low cost.”
He said those projects “didn’t satisfy the need of a community to have a soul.”
“There is my concern here — I can’t find a soul to this project,” Randolph said.
Commissioner Corey Clayborne said the affordable housing was “admirable,” but he said they were charged with looking at “projects holistically and how that impacts our community.”
He said he was concerned about school enrollment, that there weren’t proposed transit stops on the plan and he wanted to see more renderings.
“A proposal should be looked at holistically, even though affordable housing is great — we certainly need it, nobody’s arguing that — we want the best project for all of our citizens,” he said.
The developer — RST Development — is requesting a rezoning of the 19.51 acre property at the intersection of U.S. 29 and Ashwood Boulevard from R-1 residential to Planned Residential Development and wants to build 254 apartments and 108 town houses.
More than 20 speakers from Forest Lakes, Hollymead and Ashland had organized, created a PowerPoint and spoke for well over an hour outlining concerns about traffic, density, the character of the area, schools and property values.
Forest Lakes Community Association Board member Scott Elliff, who spoke at least three times during the public hearing, said the communities are not opposed to development, but want it to be done “responsibly and appropriately.”
“We asked that you deny this application based on so many deficiencies,” he said “It really needs to go back to the drawing board and start this all over in our view.”
After the organized speakers finished, other speakers said they are in favor of the project, including Crystal Passmore, who said she rents a home. She said she wants to have affordable homes and for people to be able to live in the community where they work.
“I would also like to point out that there are 370, if not more, people, plus 85 children who aren’t represented tonight,” she said. “Those are the people who would benefit from this being built … I wish 370 people who want affordable homes could be here to talk to you guys, but they literally don’t have these homes right now.”
The property, which is currently home to Ridgewood Mobile Home Park, was purchased by Virginia Beach-based RST Development last year for $6 million.
The proposal is for a net density of 19.89 units per acre, and a gross density of 18.97 units per acre.
In Albemarle’s Places29 Master Plan, which is part of the county’s Comprehensive Plan, most of the property is shown on the future land use map as urban density residential, which recommends density of between six and 34 units per acre. A small portion of the property along U.S. 29 is designated as open space.
Albemarle’s Comprehensive Plan includes a policy to focus development into development or growth areas, while maintaining the rest as rural areas. That results in about 95% of Albemarle kept as mostly rural land and 5% of the county for growth.
If the property is developed under the R-1 zoning, it could have approximately 30 units, if it received bonus factors.
County staff said they were “unable to recommend approval” of the proposal, citing additional student enrollment and the proposed height of the apartment buildings. Staff also said the proposal’s “neighborhood model principles” could be strengthened and amenities could be improved.
They were also “unable to recommend approval” of a special exception request to reduce stepbacks on some of the buildings. The county requires a minimum stepback of 15 feet for each story above the third story.
The apartments are being proposed to be in five buildings close to the front of the development, while the townhouses are proposed to be two-over-two units, with two two-story townhouses on top of each other, in eight buildings in the back of the property.
Since a community meeting in July, some changes have been made, including the amount of affordable housing.
In the application, 50% of units, or about 181 units, were proposed affordable to those making 80% of AMI.
Current area median income for this area for a family is $93,900, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
On Tuesday, Valerie Long, an attorney with Williams-Mullen who is representing RST Development, said 75% of all apartments would be affordable, or about 190 units, in the 30% to 80% of AMI range, for 30 years.
“We were hesitant to make too much commitment, we also were a little hesitant to, frankly, get out in front of the community about what we were able to do, but given some of the questions that we’ve received in just the last few days, RST asked that we go ahead and make it clear to all of you that they’ve enhanced the affordable components substantially, and as a result we can commit tonight that 75% of all of the apartments on site will be affordable,” she said.
In an interview ahead of the meeting, Scott Copeland with RST Development said they are planning on using low-income housing tax credits to bring additional affordability to the project.
“It’s a mixed income property, which we have found, in our experience as a developer, as being a really critically important part of the overall success of any project that we’ve been involved in,” he said.
Copeland said the townhouses will be priced between $275,000 and just under $300,000.
In terms of the mobile home park currently on the site, Copeland said there is only one resident left who has not found new housing.
By state law, RST was required to give at least 6 months notice to residents, and gave 12 months notice originally, Long said.
According to the staff report, the height discrepancy between the proposal and the master plan — which the county sees as a “factor unfavorable” — is the five-story apartment building, not the four-story, two-over-two townhouses.
The design of the proposed buildings is not yet final, and the project will go before the county’s Architectural Review Board, as it is along U.S. 29, which is an entrance corridor.
The county school division estimates that the project could house about 47 elementary students, 14 middle school students and 21 high school students.
Of the schools the students would attend, Albemarle High School is currently overcapacity, Hollymead Elementary School is near capacity and it’s expected that Sutherland Middle School will “still remain under capacity for at least the next several years,” according to the county staff report. The school division estimates that both Hollymead and Sutherland will exceed their capacity by the 2029-30 school year with the addition of the units from this development, excluding other development.
Currently, Hollymead mostly serves students living in the Forest Lakes area.
The additional student enrollment at area schools with this proposal is listed as a “factor unfavorable” by county staff.
Other recent developments have given the county land for schools to offset capacity concerns.
Brookhill, a development currently under construction to the south of the site that was approved in 2016, is giving the county land that could be used for a future elementary school and about 60 acres on the other side of U.S. 29 for a future high school or other county use. North Pointe, a development currently under construction further North on U.S. 29 that was approved in 2006, is also giving the county land for a school.
In 2017, instead of supporting a fourth comprehensive high school to address capacity needs, the Albemarle School Board decided to move forward with “high school centers” and upgrades at the current comprehensive high schools in the county.
The first high school center opened in 2018, and the division has plans to build a 400-student high school center off Galaxie Farm Lane near Monticello High School.
The RST property would have a right-in, right-out entrance on U.S. 29, and its main entrance would be on Ashwood Boulevard. The developer is proposing to build private roads, but would have a public access easement on the roads so the public could use them.
The Virginia Department of Transportation still owns a sliver of land between the property and Ashwood Boulevard, but in a letter, VDOT outlined how right-of-way would be obtained.
According to the county staff report, a traffic study recommended lengthening the left-turn lane from U.S. 29 onto Ashwood Boulevard to accommodate the increased traffic, and RST is proposing to install the expanded turn lane. A left turn lane on Ashwood eastbound is also proposed to be built.
Charlottesville Area Transit does not currently service this area, but the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission recently received funding for two planning studies — the creation of a regional transit vision plan and a transit expansion study for Albemarle. The county’s expansion study will look at three areas, including along north U.S. 29.
The section of U.S. 29 where this proposal would be located was widened in 2017 as part of a $230 million project package to help reduce congestion on U.S. 29. As part of that project, a shared-use path was added along the east side of U.S. 29 from Polo Grounds Road to Hollymead Drive, and a crosswalk at the Hollymead Drive intersection allows pedestrians to cross U.S. 29 to a sidewalk on the west side that extends north to Towncenter Drive.
A public hearing for the proposal before the Board of Supervisors has not yet been scheduled.