At a work session Tuesday, members of the Albemarle County Planning Commission voiced a desire for a more active role in shaping the Rio+29 Small Area Plan.
The Rio+29 Small Area Plan was called for in an Albemarle County master plan adopted in 2011. Last year, the county used a $65,000 grant from the Virginia Office of Intermodal Planning to develop land-use alternatives for an area surrounding the intersection of U.S. 29 and Rio Road with assistance from the Renaissance Planning Group.
The county received public input on the small-area plan at several community meetings and online. However, Tim Keller, chairman of the Planning Commission, said he was concerned the first phase of the planning process had been “insular” and excluded the commission.
“I’ve had [county] staff members come up to me, [saying] they don’t know where these ideas are coming from or how they are being articulated,” Keller said.
The land-use alternatives proposed by Renaissance and county staff would focus the future development of the Rio+29 small area into circular “nodes,” with offices and retail locations at the center and more multifamily housing on the periphery. Renaissance identified the Rio-U.S. 29 intersection, the Rivanna River and Northtown Center near Carrsbrook as potential nodes of development.
Andrew Gast-Bray, Albemarle planning director, said this development strategy could create walkable communities connected by a bus rapid transit system.
“You can park once, or you can get off the transit and do your shopping,” said Gast-Bray. “You don’t have to lug things an awfully long distance.”
Gast-Bray said the county would concentrate its investment on one node at a time, prioritizing development nearest to the Rio-U.S. 29 intersection. Planning Commissioner Bruce Dotson said he agreed with this approach but hoped that the county would allow the development of other parts of the study area simultaneously.
“I also think we have to be nimble,” Dotson said. “What if everybody is sitting around, waiting for things to happen in that first node, and someone has a great idea and is ready to go in [the third node]?”
Gast-Bray said the county is interested in using a form-based code for the Rio+29 study area. The approach focuses on the physical form of a building, as opposed to the separation of uses seen in conventional zoning, as the basis for deciding what is appropriate in a given location.
“Form-based code … is designed to achieve a desired performance and character of development, instead of just regulating a certain use on a lot,” Gast-Bray said.
Keller said that previous efforts by the county to guide the nature of development had been constrained by the preferences of the real estate market.
“[The Shops at] Stonefield was supposed to be ‘vertical mixed-use.’ That didn’t happen,” said Keller. “Let’s talk about ways to push and nudge things that we all agree on, and let’s be realistic and candid about things where the market hasn’t caught up yet.”
Keller added that discussions about form-based code in city of Charlottesville had raised questions about its impact on affordable housing.
“There are advocates — beginning with Black Lives Matter — within the social justice community that are really concerned about form-based code,” Keller said. “You need to be aware and engage that community.”
The second phase of the small-area plan will develop recommendations to increase by-right, urban form development in the study area. Community engagement specialist Emily Kilroy said the county would continue to gather public input for the small area plan this year through focus groups, community meetings and other events.
The review by the Planning Commission comes at a time when Albemarle has vacancies in key leadership positions and an incomplete economic development plan and is evaluating moving some government facilities out of the city of Charlottesville.
Catlin said the Rio+29 study area would be considered for the relocation of the county’s courts and administrative offices. The county issued a request for proposals this month for a real estate development consultant to facilitate that process.
Tom Foley, former county executive, and Faith McClintic, former economic development director, both resigned recently to take jobs in other Virginia localities. Catlin said Albemarle County will hire a search firm to ensure these vacancies are filled by the end of the summer.
Catlin also said the county will hire a consultant to complete a draft of an economic development strategic plan, which is scheduled to be presented to the Board of Supervisors this spring.