Slamming it as a "major departure" from Charlottesville’s urban goals, the University of Virginia is waging an attack on a private firm’s quest to build a 10-story apartment building near UVa’s Ivy Road "front door." The opposition came in a letter to Charlottesville Planning Commission, which will weigh a rezoning application Tuesday.
"The proposed building height of 130 feet/10 stories with minimal supporting pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure creates a mismatch with the corridor’s intended scale, traffic, and character, potentially affecting safety and neighborhood quality," reads the letter from two high-level UVa officials.
The Nov. 10 missive provoked a firestorm on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.
"This is embarrassing behavior by UVA," wrote Matthew Gillikin, co-chair of an urbanist advocacy group that pushes for more housing, better transit and improved walkability. "This is not their land, and they do not get to dictate what gets built there."
The group’s other co-chair, Steven L. Johnson, a UVa commerce professor, chimed in with some supply-and-demand analysis.
"This is blatantly anti-competitive," wrote Johnson. "UVa is the largest single provider of UVA student housing. Killing off a directly competing project would reduce student housing choices and increase student expenses."
Over recent decades, the university has quietly purchased most of the northern side of this stretch of Ivy Road in the city. Apartment houses, a bank, a restaurant, a shopping strip anchored by a camera store and, just one month ago, a 7-Eleven store have all closed their doors as the university has assembled tracts for its so-called Emmet-Ivy Corridor.
Stretching westward from Emmet Street to Copeley Road, the 14.5-acre expansion zone is what what UVa president Jim Ryan has called the university’s "front door." It promises to unite the historic Central Grounds with the North Grounds and athletics precinct while providing the footprint for about a dozen major structures including the under-construction Virginia Guesthouse hotel and conference center and the School of Data Science, which was propelled by a $120 million donation from local investor Jaffray Woodriff.
In their letter, university architect Alice Raucher and Senior Vice President for Operations Colette Sheehy asserted that UVa has exemplified human-scale development in the corridor by keeping its planned buildings along Ivy Road at just four stories.
"The scale of the proposed development is not in keeping with the University’s contextual approach," they wrote, "and we believe that the increase in traffic on the Copeley bridge from this development will only exacerbate an already stressed intersection."
A board member of the Lewis Mountain Neighborhood Association, Anna Askounis, recently voiced similar unease.
"We think it is important to acknowledge the concerns of the permanent residents who live in the neighborhood most affected," she said in an email to The Daily Progress.
However, Livable Cville contends that building more housing, such as this complex, will reduce pressure on many nearby neighborhoods, such as 10th & Page and Fifeville.
"There simply aren’t enough homes to meet our needs, and rent continues to rise," Livable Cville wrote to the city council and the planning commission.
Writing on X, UVa graduate Mike Parisi asserted that in assembling this tract of formerly commercial properties UVa has harmed the city tax base and should start paying property taxes.
"This corridor is being built by tax-deductible megadonations, which are in turn taking taxable property off the rolls," Parisi wrote. "This is power, working at a taxpayer discount on multiple levels, in a way that undermines this community."
A UVa professor named Brad Campbell noted that in the same letter slamming the apartment building for worsening auto traffic, UVa announced plans to construct a parking garage at the nearby intersection of Copeley and Massie roads.
"This a completely disingenuous letter," Campbell wrote on X. "Why can’t they just be up front about whatever they actually want?"
These debates echo a prior clash at a June Planning Commission meeting, when the 10-story proposal got its preliminary view. At least two commissioners then criticized the height, including UVa’s nonvoting member on the commission, William Palmer, who called the building "too tall."
However, at that same June 13 meeting, at least two other commissioners, including Rory Stolzenberg, celebrated the proposed structure for helping UVa accomplish its stated mission of transforming that area "from a low-density suburban condition to a vibrant street edge and threshold to the University."
"I think this proposal is very much in line with that," Stolzenberg said then.
The 1-acre site, now occupied by a single-story Truist bank with three drive-thru slots, is owned by Winston-Salem-based RMD Properties, which is working with Up Campus Properties, a Chicago-based developer. The group seeks a rezoning from "urban corridor" to "planned unit development," or PUD.
Such rezoning would permit, along with some ground-floor retail and underground parking for 164 cars, the group’s planned 634 bedrooms across 242 units. Without the rezoning, the site appears limited to just 21 dwelling units.
And while UVa blasted the proposal for allegedly "minimal" pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, the developers’ newest proposal reveals that, in addition to building a stretch of sidewalk along Copeley Road where none currently exists, they would construct 264 indoor and 28 outdoor bicycle spaces as well as 32 scooter spaces and a pair of car-share slots.
The developers note that the location is a half-mile from the university and 17 bus stops and would stand footsteps from an array of commerce including a well-known grocery store called Foods of All Nations, which UVa also owns, and will lessen residents’ desire to drive.
"You don’t need a car because you’re living in such a convenient location," owner’s representative Valerie Long said at the June meeting.
Livable Cville asserts that if the rezoning fails, then UVa will likely buy the property and that the developers’ planned $2 million contribution to the city’s affordable housing fund, a bolstered tax base and some needed housing will be lost.
"We hope UVA will withdraw this letter and support construction of housing in our community," the group tweeted. "Input from the whole community, not just one neighborhood or the whims of mega-donors, needs to shape UVA’s plans for development."
The planning commission meets at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 14 in council chambers at City Hall.
This story has been corrected to say the Charlottesville Planning Commission will meet on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023.