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Council sends West Main density question back to Planning Commission
View looking west on West Main Street, July 19, 2016
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Many are concerned that historic buildings will become dwarfed by new construction
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Sean Tubbs | Tuesday, July 19, 2016 at 9:03 p.m.

The Charlottesville City Council has once again sent a rezoning proposal for West Main Street back to the Planning Commission.

In March, council adopted a rezoning for West Main Street that eliminated the ability for developers to seek additional height through a special-use permit. The action established maximum heights of 75 feet west of the Drewary Brown Bridge and 52 feet on the eastern end of the street.

At the time, councilors considered dropping the provision for a special-use permit for additional density above the 43 units per acre currently allowed in favor of a higher maximum.

“The original thing that we evaluated was to raise the by-right density on the corridor to 200 dwelling units per acre,” said city planner Brian Haluska.

However, City Council could not vote on that change in March due to public notice rules, and so the matter was referred to the planning commission for another public hearing.

“The Planning Commission heard this at their June 14 meeting, and their [unanimous] recommendation is to keep the corridor at 43 dwellings units per acre,” Haluska said.

Jean Hiatt, president of Preservation Piedmont, urged council to uphold the Planning Commission’s recommendation.

“We ask for a council priority to be preservation of the remaining historic buildings on our Main Street,” Hiatt said. “Allowing such high density encourages developers to demolish our historic buildings in order to construct very large, new buildings.”

Planning Commissioner Genevieve Keller is on Preservation Piedmont’s board of directors. Speaking as an individual and not as a commissioner, she asked council not to change the by-right density.

“Our commissioners were concerned that the upper limit of 200 dwelling units per acre was actually not achievable on many of the parcels,” Keller said. “That could have the effect of encouraging parcel consolidation and a scale of development not necessarily in keeping with the unique nature of West Main Street.”

Keller said she is not a fan of special-use permits but believes the mechanism should be continued for now on West Main Street for density.

“Doing so would allow the city the flexibility to establish special-use permit conditions that might address parking, transit, affordability, amenities, as well as the historic overlay district needs,” Keller said.

Valerie Long, an attorney with Williams Mullen, encouraged council to allow developers to have the flexibility to meet market demand for more places to live.

“A lot of the emerging tech businesses in this city tell us that they have challenges with recruiting young employees for their companies,” Long said. “They’re competing with companies in bigger cities that have more opportunity for housing in their downtown area.”

After the public hearing, City Councilor Kathy Galvin made a motion on an alternative plan that would raise the by-right density in the western district to 64 units per acre, with an option to go up to 180 dwelling units with a special-use permit.

Her motion would have kept 43 units per acre as a by-right use in the eastern section, with 120 units per acre allowable with a special-use permit.

“I have grown to believe it would be premature at this time to go to the point where we have 200 dwelling units per acre [without a permit],” Galvin said. “We need that extra layer of review now to make sure we don’t create any unintended consequences.”

City Councilor Bob Fenwick said more study would be needed before he could vote on Galvin’s motion.

“I would say that the Planning Commission should have the exact kind of discussion that we’re having up here now,” Fenwick said.

Galvin agreed; her proposed language will be the basis of their conversation.

Mayor Mike Signer said he was concerned restricting density could mean too few new dwelling units could be built on West Main Street.

“As we seek to strike a balance about historical preservation and the integrity of our neighborhoods, I am very worried about increasing housing costs because of a constricted supply,” Signer said.

The new rules will not affect several buildings that were approved in recent years.

The Flats at West Village has now been open for nearly two years. Council approved a special-use permit there for 97 units per acre in December 2012.

Construction is coming to an end on the Uncommon at 1000 W. Main St. The apartment building will have 127 units per acre, though council had approved a higher number.

Developers of the Standard hope to break ground later this year. That apartment building will have 76 units per acre.

In June, council approved a special-use permit allowing up to 180 units per acre for a project to be built behind the Blue Moon Diner.

For comparison, the Crossings at 4th Street has 81 units per acre. The GrandMarc Apartments on 15th Street is at 62 units per acre. The Monticello Hotel has 256 units per acre.

Meanwhile, Friendship Court is built at 12.7 units per acre.
 

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