The five candidates seeking three Democratic nominations in the Charlottesville City Council race primarily tackled growth and development issues at a forum earlier this week.
One particular new housing development received near universal contempt and disdain and the debate centered on whether it should now be viewed more as a wakeup call for reform or as a disastrous vote for density gone wrong.
“The Flats did not have to happen under our current zoning,” incumbent Dede Smith said at the forum, held Wednesday and sponsored by the Greenbrier Neighborhood Association. “They went up for a special-use permit, they did not meet the standard of review. The [tax revenues were] very tempting, but it was clearly out of scale. I voted against it.”
The Flats at West Village was completed in 2014 as an apartment building marketed toward University of Virginia students. It came immediately under fire by residents and councilors who expressed surprise at the building’s final appearance.
“In spite of having a zoning ordinance, design guidelines, a Board of Architectural Review to safeguard the quality of our built environment, in spite of all that, we got The Flats,” said incumbent Kathy Galvin, an architect who supported the project in 2012. “Something is really wrong.”
Smith and Galvin are both seeking second terms on the council.
City Democrats will hold a primary June 9 to select candidates for the three seats that will be on the November general election ballot. Mayor Satyendra Huja is not running again.
Criticism of The Flats also came from the three challengers.
“I think the first thing that we have to think about when we are talking about growth, specifically in that downtown area, is preserving the integrity of our city,” said challenger Wes Bellamy, a teacher at Albemarle High School. “You look at The Flats, well we have heard from people all over the city that say they do not like them. We need to make sure when we make these decisions moving forward that we include the entire community to ensure that everyone is heard from.”
Challenger Lena Seville called for more environmentally sensitive and pedestrian-friendly development.
“Density is one thing, but pedestrian streetscape is another,” said Seville, who is president of Belmont-Carlton Neighborhood Association. “When you get a really long building that’s fairly monotonous, it doesn’t encourage pedestrian activity. I’d like to see a lot more vibrancy at the pedestrian level.”
“City Council needs to make a stronger charge [to the Planning Commission and Board of Architectural Review] and also require more from developers,” Seville said.
Challenger Mike Signer, an attorney who lives a block off West Main, said he is living with the consequences of The Flats in his own neighborhood.
“What I think about these developments and future planning questions is that it ultimately has to do with your vision for the city and you have to balance interests,” he said.
Signer said a value he would bring to the council is the desire to “keep Charlottesville Charlottesville.”
“The Flats rings so wrong to a lot of us because it is monolithic and it’s kind of like a spaceship that fell on us,” Signer said.
In the audience of 40 people in Greenbrier Elementary School’s cozy auditorium, former Councilor John Conover probed for further details on the position of the incumbents on The Flats.
“The documents that we received two years ago were not the same building that was built,” Galvin said. “The scale and massing were totally different and it has a lot to do with the detailing.”
“What I am advocating for is the form based code … that brings that scale down, makes the process much more predictable with less discretionary review and much more clarity and tightness in the design guidelines, so we really know what we are getting,” Galvin said.
Smith maintained that the standards used by the city to review the project’s special-use permit were sufficient — The Flats just didn’t meet them and it shouldn’t have been approved.
“It was clearly out of scale,” she said. “What we saw may not have been in detail what we got, but we knew it was going to be that big.”
The City Council is scheduled to discuss West Main Street zoning at its regular meeting Monday. City staff members have recommended incorporating some aspects of a form based code approach to, among other things, reduce future building heights and require buildings to step back as they increase in height.
The next candidate forum will be hosted by the Martha Jefferson Neighborhood Association at 4 p.m. Sunday at 810 Locust Ave.
Barbara Null, chairwoman of the Charlottesville Republican Committee, said candidates seeking the party’s nomination must file their paperwork with her by 6 p.m. May 22. The city Republicans have moved their mass meeting to 10 a.m. May 30 at Charlottesville Circuit Court at 315 E High St.
From left, Democratic Charlottesville City Council candidates Kathy Galvin, Mike Signer, Wes Bellamy, Dede Smith & Lena Seville and moderator Michael Barnes