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Small steps taken on central Charlottesville master plan
Aerial view of central Strategic Investment Area around Friendship Court and Ix property - 12-5-2013
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Credit: Cunningham | Quill Architects
Aerial view of central Strategic Investment Area around Friendship Court and Ix property
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by Sean Tubbs | Sunday, August 03, 2014 at 7:55 p.m.

A master plan to guide redevelopment in central Charlottesville has been city policy for six months, and a key proponent of the Strategic Investment Area wants to be able to better gauge its implementation.

“I would have liked to have seen by now some sort of a method of monitoring our implementation and how far we’ve gotten in meeting the calls for immediate action,” said City Councilor Kathy Galvin.

In 2013, the city hired Washington-based Cunningham Quill to recommend development opportunities for 330 acres south of the Downtown Mall.

The plan’s main idea is to build a mixed-income, mixed-use neighborhood without displacing current residents and that provides significant employment growth. The development would be anchored along a greenway that daylights an underground stream running from downtown to Elliott Avenue.

In February, the City Council voted to incorporate this vision into the city’s Comprehensive Plan.

In April, the council adopted a budget that includes more than $1 million in the current fiscal year to begin improving streetscapes within the plan’s boundaries.

Since then, the owner of the Ix property has given permission for creation of an “art park” as a precursor to a public plaza called for in the plan. Additionally, Southern Development is building dozens of homes on the periphery in conjunction with Charlottesville’s Habitat for Humanity chapter.

But the plan’s true success will depend on whether partnerships can be formed to redevelop the city’s aging stock of public housing and subsidized properties.

“We need to bring folks to the table who can help figure out various creative investment strategies to get this work done,” Galvin said.


Boundaries of the SIA area

Early actions

Cunningham Quill’s 271-page report contains several actions to take within the first six months of adoption.

One of these was to remove a metal fence at Friendship Court, the 150-unit subsidized housing complex operated by the National Housing Trust and the Piedmont Housing Alliance.

This has not yet occurred. The housing alliance’s executive director, Frank Grosch, could not be reached for comment. The alliance is expected to take full ownership of the site in 2018.

Additionally, the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority was asked to improve the 188 public-housing units within the Strategic Investment Area vicinity. Housing authority officials were directed to beautify public spaces, to confirm that all heating and air conditioning units worked and to build a dog-walk area at Crescent Halls.

Constance Dunn, executive director of the housing authority, said the dog-walk area has been created but other issues were harder to address.

“Crescent Halls is cooled and heated by a central chiller system, which leaves someone in the building inevitably ‘too hot or too cold,’” Dunn said.

The city’s public-housing units in the Strategic Investment Area vicinity were built in the late 1970s and they are showing their age.

In June, a bedroom ceiling in the Sixth Street complex collapsed within hours of a resident reporting a crack. No one was hurt, and Dunn said the housing authority inspected all other units in the complex as a precaution.

Galvin said the incident highlights the urgency about restarting talks about redevelopment.

“We’ve got to start getting into the details,” she said. “Delay is only going to lead to more failing building systems. The Department of Housing and Urban Development is not going to be coming in with major infusions of cash to redevelop the public-housing sites as they are.”

Assistance to facilitate redevelopment talks could come from the Bridge Performing Arts Initiative. The nonprofit group and the Piedmont Council for the Arts have been awarded a $50,000 Our Town grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to foster community dialogue.

Public investment

The Strategic Investment Area plan also recommends streamlining city policies to encourage redevelopment.

These “catalyst projects” include creating an overlay zoning district, expedited review of projects within the Strategic Investment Area boundaries and a switch to a zoning code where building design is more important than what specific uses occur inside.

“We want to encourage [private development] as much as possible,” said Jim Tolbert, the city’s director of neighborhood development services. “We want to make sure they understand what we’re looking for before they ever start doing any drawing.”


Aerial view of central Strategic Investment Area in Google Earth
Download this KMZ file for use in Google Earth

 

Tolbert said $750,000 will be spent to improve the intersection of Lexington Avenue and East High Street in the Martha Jefferson neighborhood. That area is the northernmost tip of the Strategic Investment Area.

The current year’s budget also includes $300,000 that will likely go toward a streetscape for Second Street Southeast between Water Street and Monticello Avenue.

“The city has the biggest control over the streets,” Galvin said.

While not directly part of the Strategic Investment Area, the city also is working on a new streetscape for Elliott Avenue, as well as a new public staircase between Ridge and Garrett streets.

A nearby property owner had asked the City Council to close the stairs, but the council instead sought to keep it open to keep connectivity between the Strategic Investment Area and West Main Street.

Under the preliminary design, the stairs would be reoriented to be perpendicular to Ridge Street, allowing for more visibility that officials said would enable police to have more visibility in the area.

Streamlining redevelopment

The public sector will have a large role to play in coordinating implementation.

Galvin said she is concerned that the steering committee convened to oversee creation of the Strategic Investment Area plan has only met once since it was adopted.

“When you’re implementing a project like this, you need to be able to have a point person who can act quickly and to make decisions to facilitate development and facilitate construction,” Galvin said.

Tolbert said an implementation team will be created with members from across all city departments. He also said the Strategic Investment Area experience is altering the way his department operates.

“The focus on design is changing the way we’re working, whether it’s in a small area plan or not,” Tolbert said. “For years, this department has had a long history of all the planners being policy planners. But as of September 1, we will have three with design backgrounds on staff.”

City Manager Maurice Jones is expected to give an update to the City Council in October.

“We are putting together an internal team that will examine the many different pieces that are associated with the long-term development of the SIA,” Jones said in an email. “The team will have expertise in economic development, planning, parks and recreation and the construction of public infrastructure.”

Galvin welcomed the news.

“That, for me, is good news, that we’re really marshalling our city departments and expertise right at the top,” Galvin said.

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