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Council OKs controversial student-oriented housing project for West Main
Artist's rendering depicting the courtyard of the Plaza at West Main
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Credit: Niles Bolton Associates
Artist's rendering depicting the courtyard of the Plaza at West Main
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by Sean Tubbs | Tuesday, December 04, 2012 at 6:25 p.m.

The Charlottesville City Council has granted a special-use permit to allow the Ambling University Development Group and Riverbend Management to build the Plaza on West Main, an eight-story building that will have 595 bedrooms and ground-floor commercial space.

 
“I think this is the right project in the right location,” said Mayor Satyendra Huja. “It will provide us with money for affordable housing and that will be helpful in many ways. It will help our tax base and it will provide for some public spaces.”
 
The 4-1 approval came despite the concern from some in the community who felt it would gentrify West Main Street.
 
Valerie Long, an attorney who represented the developers at a public hearing Monday, said the primary market for the Plaza will be students, but that the Fair Housing Act requires the developer to lease to anyone who wants to live there.
 
“Its proximity to the [University of Virginia’s] hospital makes it very attractive to medical students, medical residents, faculty and staff,” Long said. “[It’s for] anybody who likes the idea of living in an urban environment where they may not need a car or want a car.”
 
Individual rents will range from $700 to $1,200, according to Ambling’s Ryan Holmes.
 
The price tag concerned Albemarle County resident Nancy Carpenter.
 
“While I think that the Plaza is a great idea for urban density and a great place to put that, I am concerned about the mix of housing,” Carpenter said. “I pay $400 a month in a four-bedroom unit, utilities included. What they’re proposing is almost twice that much.”
 
Former City Council candidate Brandon Collins said UVa should build more student housing on its own property.
 
“This is one of the biggest developments that Charlottesville is going to be putting up that involves housing for people in this city,” Collins said. “I don’t see how this fits low-income people in our community.”
 
Joy Johnson, who represents the Public Housing Association of Residents on the city’s housing authority, said she had not seen the design for the Plaza prior to Monday’s public hearing.
 
“The fact that we have neighborhoods connected to West Main Street, this is something that we should have been familiar with,” Johnson said. “This really, really scares me.”
 
Councilor Dave Norris said the property right across the street — currently a vacant lot — is likely to be developed in the near future and that will give an opportunity to help connect the Westhaven community to West Main.
 
“Westhaven was deliberately built to hide poverty and hide away poor people and to wall them away from the rest of the community,” Norris said. “What happens in this stretch is really going to help integrate Westhaven to the West Main corridor.”
 
Appraiser Ivo Romenesko called on councilors to approve the project because the developers had submitted a plan that fulfilled the city’s expectations for the property.
 
“The center of West Main … is an area that has been lacking in development,” Romenesko said. “There isn’t much demand in that area right now and yet we want to have, and we need, living and working households in that area.”
 
However, Romenesko called for the project to have as much commercial space as possible to encourage development on West Main.
 
“I think it’s time to turn the page on West Main away from used-car dealerships, vacant parking lots and shops that are one-story in height,” Romenesko said.
 
Councilor Kathy Galvin said the project is the natural conclusion of a city plan that dates back to 2000, when the firm Torti Gallas presented a blueprint of how West Main might be developed as a dense corridor.
 
“That, in turn, generated changes to the zoning ordinance in 2003 that gave everyone the predictability and awareness they need of what is supposed to be going on there,” Galvin said. “It will fill in a major missing tooth.”
 
However, Councilor Dede Smith said she could not support the project.
 
“I find it hard to believe that the planning that was done four or five years ago ... envisioned student housing on Main Street,” said Smith, the only councilor to vote against the project. “This isn’t residences. This isn’t households. It’s basically a glorified dormitory.”
 
Smith said the project would negatively affect the character of Fifeville.
 
“There’s been a lot of attention to the design in the front of the building that faces West Main Street and very little about what faces Fifeville,” Smith said.
 
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