At its monthly meeting Tuesday, the Charlottesville Board of Architectural Review presented a cold shoulder to the current design of a massive student housing project on West Main Street.
The majority of the board said they would not support the current design with its attempt to maximize both the density and building height allowed under a special-use permit.
“I have been looking [at the University of Virginia] for 10 years looking for the right time to do a project,” said Ryan Holmes, of Atlanta-based Ambling University Development Group. “This housing project would involve UVa students and medical students.”
Mary Joy Scala is the city’s preservation and design planner.
“They have applied for a special-use permit to increase density from 43 units per acre to 103.3 units per acre and additional building height from 70 feet to 101 feet,” Scala told the BAR. “Whenever a project with a special-use permit is in a historic district, it comes to you first for a recommendation for City Council.”
“That is a powerful tool that allows council to impose conditions, so it’s important for them to have your input,” Scala added.
The 2.12-acre site is on the south side of the street between the Amtrak station and the Hampton Inn hotel. Historically, the block has been home to hotels, followed by auto dealerships, including both Brady Bushey Ford and Peyton Pontiac Cadillac.
As proposed, the Plaza on West Main would consist of a six-story building and an eight-story building with a total of 219 apartments intended for university students. The first floor of the building fronting West Main would contain retail space and a restaurant.
Other design elements include a small covered public plaza on West Main next to the commercial uses, a parking garage, a private central courtyard one floor above street level and a swimming pool.
The development team, which includes locally owned Riverbend Management, struggled to understand the BAR’s vision for housing density in the West Main corridor.
“We thought we were coming in with half the density allowed in [part of the project], so I am having trouble understanding,” Holmes said.
“This is way too much mass and way too much stuff on this site,” said BAR member and architect William Adams. “There is nothing like this in this district. The closet thing we have approaching this mass is the UVa hospital complex. This would be Charlottesville’s first ‘super block’ project.”
Michael Osteen is the BAR’s liaison from the city Planning Commission.
“Relative to density, it is a lot of project,” noted Osteen. “When we developed zoning regulations for this corridor, there was a sense this was a place that could take it.”
“I would rather be generous on the absolute heights, and drop some units on the front,” Osteen suggested. “Some greater differentiation in vertical masses along West Main might be a place to sacrifice some density.”
For BAR member Melanie Miller, the density correlated to parking problems.
“This density is 595 bedrooms, plus commercial space,” Miller said. “But 190 bedrooms wouldn’t have parking provided …. That’s a lot of cars coming and going and no traffic signal.
Ryan said the parking garage would be three stories and provide parking to about 70 percent of the tenants, with about 400 spaces. He said that was comparable to other student parking usage rates at other projects already built in town.
BAR member Whit Graves offered tentative support for the project.
“I do support density on this site,” Graves said. “Near the university, I think it’s a good site for high density.”
John Sydney Knight, the BAR’s chairman, agreed this was a place for increased density, but with a different design.
“I do support density here. I am not sure it can be architecturally feasible to get as much density as the applicant is suggesting,” Knight said. “I think we need a better balance between architecture and density.”
“This project looks like it could be in Atlanta or College Park, Md.,” Adams added. “There is just nothing like this in a historic district in Charlottesville.”
Ryan said he hoped a decision would not be delayed too far into next year.
“These projects have to start by March and finish by the following July,” Ryan said. “The square footage would have to be similar to make the economics work. If there is a big change in density, it’s pushed down, then it might not be feasible at all.”
Knight challenged the applicant to solve the way the massing of the building is handled architecturally.
He proposed informing the City Council that the project needed a “wait and see approach.” However, Scala told the BAR it had to make a recommendation for or against the special-use permit. Otherwise, the City Council could act on its own in the matter.
The BAR voted 4-2 that the project “will have an adverse impact on the West Main Street Architectural Design Control District unless the applicant makes substantial revisions…”
Board members Graves and Adams voted against the motion.
The project is expected to return to the Planning Commission at its meeting Nov. 13 before a recommendation is ultimately made to the City Council.