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Uncertainty remains about form-based code in Charlottesville
Strategic Investment Area boundaries
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Boundaries for the "strategic investment area"
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Sean Tubbs | Monday, December 05, 2016 at 10:32 a.m.

The city’s Strategic Investment Area has been part of Charlottesville’s Comprehensive Plan for nearly three years, but details of a rezoning called for in the plan have not been written or explained to the public and property owners.

“We don’t really know what form-based code is and we are not experts in it,” said Susan Krischel, who works for the owners of the IX property.  

IX is one of several major properties in the SIA, which is a small-area plan for 330 acres south of the Downtown Mall.  The document was crafted in 2013 by the Arlington-based firm Cunningham & Quill at a cost of $190,000. Council adopted it as part of the Comprehensive Plan in February 2014.

Properties in the vicinity include Friendship Court, the IX property and several public housing sites owned and operated by the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority.

Part of the plan involved amending the zoning to something known as form-based code. That’s where rules about buildings focus on their physical form as opposed to the separation of uses.

City Councilor Kathy Galvin said form-based code involves laying out character zones – called transects – that include transition zones aimed at preventing overdevelopment.

“Transition zones were very important at every community meeting,” Galvin said. “Every person – didn’t matter if they were black, white, rich or poor – didn’t want to have 101 foot tall buildings across the street from their one and half story buildings.”

But those details have not yet been codified and Council is considering hiring a consultant to perform that work. Some in the area want clarity so the public knows what to expect.

“The residents who live in this neighborhood don’t understand your jargon and so if you’re going to put money into anything, make absolutely sure residents understand what you are doing,” said Joy Johnson of the Public Housing Association of Residents.

Marta Goldsmith of the Form Based Code Institute said some localities in the country use pictures to depict visual standards expected by the community.

“There are many ways that a five-story building can look and so you want to decide which ones you are comfortable with which ones you are not and codify it that way,” Goldsmith said. “Same thing with widths of the streets and sidewalks and landscaping.”

Progress report

City Council received a briefing on the SIA Wednesday along with the Planning Commission and the PLACE Design TASK Force. The latter group was created in 2012 to advise Council on urban design issues.

In May, the City Council and the Planning Commission held a work session at which they endorsed the idea of switching to a form-based code for the area. That work was to be done in three phases, with the first covering areas that currently have the city’s Downtown Extended zoning classification.

“Since then we’ve met with a number of property owners within the district to talk about what is in the plan as well as the steps moving forward as we begin the implementation process,” said city planner Brian Haluska at the work session.

“The main concerns were the building heights within the district and how those might impact thoughts on how properties will develop,” he added.

Haluska said a challenge will be to ensure the zoning ordinance amendment for the form-based code fulfils goals called for in multiple documents including the SIA plan, the bike and pedestrian plan as well as the Streets That Work policy that was approved in February.  

Galvin said it is crucial for new streets to be built throughout the area to create new city blocks that are shorter than the superblocks created as part of the Garrett Street urban renewal project that eventually resulted in Friendship Court.

“What that does is create walkable-scale blocks that create buildings with a pedestrian scale, a human scale,” Galvin said. She said the Piedmont Housing Alliance’s master plan for the redevelopment of Friendship Court follows this plan and shows five blocks on an area where there is currently one 12-acre superblock.

Galvin, an architect, was critical about some of the terminology and techniques being used in draft zoning ordinance included in the meeting packet. She said much of that material should already have been defined in the Streets That Work guidelines. 

However, the deputy city attorney said what was presented to the group was intended to launch a conversation.

“The ordinance in the packet is intended to be a sounding board,” said Lisa Robertson. “We needed something to get people talking about how we need to pull the stuff out of the SIA and how do we organize it and put it together.”

For instance, Robertson said PLACE’s role would be to weigh in on what details should be in the code in terms of how buildings should relate to the street.

“We need PLACE’s help to start framing up what those standards are going to be,” Robertson said. “The chart in the SIA that talks about building envelope standards already contains some specifications for height, transparency, build-to lines. We’re going to pull that together, but the picture needs to be completed.”

However, Galvin pointed out that none of the PLACE members have written a form-based code.

The group’s chair agreed.

“We are by no means zoning ordinance experts in terms of writing an ordinance,” said Fred Wolf who said he did not view PLACE’s role as being prescriptive. He also said there should be some flexibility allowed.

“That being said, I think PLACE would welcome being a sounding board and seeing what’s proposed and giving feedback,” Wolf said.

Galvin said PLACE’s role should be to write requests for proposals to hire consultants to do the work such as the one for the West Main streetscape.

Robertson was adamant that PLACE was not being called upon to write the ordinance.

“We need your input on how we can put together a set of recommendations that will develop the ordinance,” Robertson said.

Galvin said she was concerned that not enough progress has been made towards the form-based code. 

“Seven months ago we were on board with creating a form-based code for the SIA,” Galvin said. “Two years before that the SIA was adopted with these recommendations for a form-based code embedded in the SIA plan. We are not anywhere near getting a form-based code.”

Galvin said she was concerned the process delay was slowing down the process at a time when the transition to Donald Trump’s presidential administration is causing uncertainty.

“We have a different national picture,” Galvin said. “We have in this area public housing sites, sites that have subsidized housing on them. There is every reason to be concerned about whether or not those will remain in the hands of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.”

At the meeting, Council indicated they would consider hiring a consultant to write the code. The goal is to get a zoning ordinance amendment before City Council in June.

Council will discuss Monday whether to use part of its year-end surplus to hire a consultant to write the ordinance.

Meanwhile, some property owners are trying to find out what their options will be under a form-based code. Krischel said the IX developers have hired their own firm to get advice.

A representative from the firm DPZ will be in town on Dec. 6 to meet with staff as well as appointed and elected officials.

“Hopefully this person can address the questions that you’ve been asking,” Krischel said.

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