The Charlottesville City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to deny a request to rezone 624 Booker St. to allow for a recently built structure to be used as a three-unit apartment.
“It’s our job to think about the bigger community,” said Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer. “It’s our job to think about the fabric of Charlottesville.”
Booker Street is a small cul-de-sac parallel to Rose Hill Drive that for decades has been home to African-American families.
“The Rose Hill neighborhood is our childhood neighborhood and it has always been a safe haven for children,” said Claressia Witcher Bell. “The Rose Hill neighborhood is one of the few in the city that have many of the original homes still owned by the original families.”
Developers Timothy Nessen and Sheldon Cohn purchased 624 Booker St. in the fall of 2012 and obtained a building permit for a three-story structure in August 2013. Inspectors with the city’s Neighborhood Development Services notified the pair that the building appeared to be intended for three separate units and would be in violation of the zoning code.
Developer Richard Spurzem bought the property, as well as 626 Booker St., last November after Nessen and Cohn abandoned the project. He was advised by NDS to seek a rezoning to allow for the property to operate as three apartments.
Spurzem said he wanted to combine the two Booker Street lots into one.
“Each existing single-family lot can presently have a single-family dwelling, plus an accessory apartment, for a total of four units,” Spurzem said. “My proposal is to combine the two lots together and have a maximum of three units and to have one of the lots be used as green space.”
Spurzem said he made his first investment in Charlottesville 35 years ago when he and fellow developer Blake Caravati purchased a home in Belmont.
“Since that time I have owned 345 separate parcels of the city,” he said. “In Belmont alone, I renovated 41 houses and developed 150 lots that allowed hundreds of people to achieve their dream of affordable home ownership.”
Spurzem encouraged councilors to grant the rezoning in order to give a sign that private investment is welcomed in Charlottesville.
Councilor Wes Bellamy said he believed there are others who are capable of building in Charlottesville.
“You’re not the only investor in town nor do I see this one particular instance as a decision in which you should feel you want to leave the city,” Bellamy said. “I find your comments somewhat disrespectful.”
Witcher Bell and her sisters own property in the area and are all opposed to the rezoning because they said it would be disruptive to the neighborhood’s health.
“A city such as Charlottesville should embrace neighborhoods and have houses that are in character with each other,” Witcher Bell said.
Steve Ivory, of Charlton Avenue, said his family moved to the Rose Hill neighborhood following the razing of Charlottesville’s largely African-American neighborhoods of Vinegar Hill and Garrett, which were razed in the name of 1960s-era urban renewal.
“Now it looks like we’ll eventually be displaced again if this zoning change is granted,” Ivory said.
After the public hearing, Councilor Kristin Szakos made a motion to recommend denial of the rezoning, an action that does not require a vote at a second meeting to take effect.
“Often, we find when a development comes into a neighborhood — and especially when the developer has not gone ahead and talked to the neighbors before beginning the project — we get a lot of opposition,” Szakos said.
City Councilor Kathy Galvin said the incident shows that a long-awaited review of the zoning code is overdue.
“I hope we redouble our efforts and move forward to get our zoning much better in line with our vision,” Galvin said.
Signer said he would deny the rezoning to preserve a single-family neighborhood.
“I know that we want people of different races and ethnicities to feel comfortable in all neighborhoods in Charlottesville,” Signer said.
Szakos said Spurzem took a gamble by purchasing the property, but council had to say no.
“My hope for this property is that a family will move in there,” Szakos said. “You do have a beautiful neighborhood, and I hope that if a family does move into that house, you will welcome them into your neighborhood.”
Spurzem told Charlottesville Tomorrow on Wednesday that he will look for tenants who can occupy the building without a rezoning.
“I will start looking for a large extended family that could use a house with up to 10 bedrooms,” Spurzem said.
Spurzem also owns two properties on Rose Hill Drive that are zoned for business.
Sean Tubbs reports for Charlottesville Tomorrow, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (434) 260-0763.