The Charlottesville Planning Commission heard a litany of voices Tuesday urging denial of a rezoning that would allow a three-story structure at 624 Booker St. to operate as a three-unit apartment building.
“The integrity of the building that has already been built on Booker Street does not reflect the community at all,” said Pastor George Gohanna, president of the Rose Hill Neighborhood Association.
Booker Street is a cul-de-sac that runs parallel to Rose Hill Drive but has not opened onto Preston Avenue since that road was widened in the 1960s.
Neighborhood Investments-RH LLC, owned by developer Richard Spurzem, purchased the property in November 2015 and inherited a stalled development.
The previous owners had begun work on a structure that is technically allowed under the city’s zoning code, but the proposed use as three apartment units is not.
“The original building plans for the project were for a 7,000-square-foot, single-family detached residence,” said city planner Brian Haluska.
He said the previous owners had been notified by the city’s Neighborhood Development Services about the mismatch. He recommended denial of the corrective rezoning.
Spurzem was not present at the meeting but was represented by Mark Kestner.
“We’re not the original architect or the original developer,” Kestner said. “Mr. Spurzem thought it would be good to finish the project.”
All but two of 21 speakers argued against the rezoning at the public hearing.
Evelyn Yancey Jones, who lives behind the property at 629 Rose Hill Drive, submitted a petition with more than 800 signatures against the rezoning.
“We’ve been there for 100 years, and much of the property in the area was gifted so minorities could own their own homes,” Jones said. “The structure is there and we can’t do much about that, but we would like the zoning to remain.”
Jones and others asked commissioners to work with the neighborhood to try to maintain both its character and the relative affordability.
“We believe the rezoning may very well cause our neighborhood atmosphere to die,” said Claressia Witcher Bell, who attended the public hearing with her two sisters. “The Rose Hill neighborhood is our childhood neighborhood, and it is safe for children today.”
Gohanna said approving the rezoning would set a precedent with echoes from the past.
“We have felt and seen what happened to Vinegar Hill, and most of you are all sitting on this commission did not,” Gohanna said. “We have seen what that has done to this community.”
Spurzem has purchased other properties in the area, including a house next to Jones on Rose Hill Drive that was demolished this April. In an interview with Charlottesville Tomorrow in May, he said the properties were blighted.
One resident of Charlton Avenue disagreed with that opinion.
“He would tear down my house,” said Steve Ivory, a teacher at Cale Elementary School. “I teach school. That’s all I can afford.”
“We’ve had a lot of commentary from the neighbors, and we understand your concerns,” Kestner said. “There was never any intent to damage the neighborhood or do anything else other than finish the project and to move on.”
The commission’s discussion was relatively swift.
“I feel like the community has spoken,” said Commissioner Taneia Dowell. “What other discussion do we need?”
Commissioner Lisa Green said she is concerned that the previous developer was able to take advantage of the city’s zoning code to build something out of scale with the neighborhood.
“If we don’t take tighter enforcement city-wide, then it doesn’t matter what zoning we have,” Green said.
After the unanimous vote to recommend denial, council chambers erupted in applause.
“What makes Charlottesville Charlottesville is not the high-rises,” Commissioner John Santoski said. “It’s the people who live here.”
City Council did not have a quorum at the meeting, which means it will need to hold its own public hearing of the item before taking action. That is scheduled for July 5, according to planning manager Missy Creasy.
Contacted after the hearing, Spurzem said he will continue with his zoning application.
“I’m not pleading any hardship,” he said. “I knew what the zoning was and what was possible.”
Spurzem maintained he felt he wants to do the right thing by finishing the building.
“It’s a simple plan that has activated the neighborhood to talk about a lot of other issues, but they aren’t terribly relevant to the property,” he said. “I think that’s great.”
In other news, the Planning Commission unanimously recommended denial of a rezoning on 209 12th St. NE to allow for the eventual expansion of T&N Printing. A single-family home is currently on the property. 207 and 208 12th St. NE already are zoned for industrial use.
Commissioners deferred action after a public hearing in May to request additional information.
T&N Printing currently has no plans to proceed with their expansion, and several people argued at a second public hearing that they should have them before the city continues a rezoning.
“There is not a need or a justification for the zoning at this time,” said Commissioner Corey Clayborne.
“We should not let more residential areas erode by allowing in more industrial,” said Commissioner Jody Lahendro.
The item also will go before City Council on July 5.