The developer of the proposed 206-unit Arden Place “luxury” apartment complex off Rio Road has requested a deferral of its preliminary site plan application. The action came at the very end of the June 23, 2009 meeting of the Albemarle County Planning Commission after a majority of members indicated they would deny a waiver of the County’s requirement that all neighborhoods with more than 50 residential units connect to two public streets.
During the three-and-a-half hour discussion, thirty speakers from the Woodbrook subdivision told the Commission they wanted their neighborhood to continue to only have one entrance point off of U.S. Route 29 near Lowes. While some residents said they could accept a pedestrian trail on a County-owned right-of-way, the majority of speakers expressed concern that such a walkway would lead to additional crime and would alter the character of their neighborhood.
The Commission was asked by County Planner Gerald Gatobu to review five specific actions during their meeting:
Charlottesville Realty Corporation, and the parcel currently has two zoning classifications on it. The applicant, Coleway Development, has an option to purchase the portion zoned R-15 for high-density residential development. If the site plan for Arden Place is approved by the County, Coleway will purchase the land. The remaining portion, which is zoned for commercial uses, will be subdivided and a site plan for that section will come before the County at some point in the future.
Gatobu said most of the critical slopes on the property are the result of fill created when Fashion Square Mall was constructed in the late 1970’s. It is easier to get a waiver for man-made critical slopes. Gatobu added that there are also natural critical slopes where the property abuts the Woodbrook neighborhood, but those would only be disturbed if a road were to be constructed there.
The buffer disturbance issue relates to the fact that the property contains both R-15 and C-1 zoning classifications. Attorney Valerie Long, representing Coleway Development, said because the road will pass through both sections, the waiver is required to protect the residential section from disturbances made in the commercial section.
By-right, the developer could have built 170 units but sought a 5% density bonus from the County because of a commitment to preserve some of the wooded area and a 15% bonus because of a commitment to dedicate open-space to the County. The amount of units could have been higher if Coleway Development had proposed affordable housing units.
The waiver for the two-entrances requirement was the main cause of controversy. Gatobu said there were three potential access points. The site plan depicted one – a connection to Putt Putt Place. He said the developer had unsuccessfully negotiated with Dunbarton Properties, the owners of Albemarle Square, to obtain access through that commercial development. The third would be along the public right-of-way through Idlewood Drive in the Woodbrook neighborhood, but that the developer did not want to pursue that option. That right-of-way, owned by the County, has existed since the creation of the Woodbrook neighborhood in the 1960’s.
Instead, the developer proposed constructing a pedestrian walkway along the right-of-way, complete with a bridge to cross the stream that passes through the area. Because of that offer, the developer requested the waiver to allow vehicular access only through Putt Putt Place. Gatobu said staff recommended approval of the waiver with that condition. Additionally, Gatobu said that County fire and rescue officials were satisfied with the pathway if it could be built to allow for emergency access for public safety vehicles.
Commissioner Marcia Joseph (At-Large) asked if the applicant had considered a fourth option – building the second entrance on Rio Road through the commercial portion of the property. Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) Engineer Joel DeNunzio said there was room in that area to build a “right-in, right-out” entrance, but that VDOT’s access management standards did not consider another entrance to be desirable. He also said that if that option were proposed, VDOT would need to perform another traffic study. DeNunzio said VDOT preferred the Albemarle Square option.
The intersection with Putt Putt Place is problematic to both VDOT and County traffic engineers. DeNunzio said that even though a fully built-out Arden Place would generate an additional 1,250 vehicle trips a day, the intersection of Putt Putt Place and Rio Road would still not meet VDOT’s warrants to install a traffic signal.
County Transportation Engineer Amy Pflaum said that the traffic study did not include the Woodbrook intersection for two reasons. First, staff and the developer were both aware that the Woodbrook neighborhood was opposed to a vehicular connection. Second, preliminary traffic modeling showed that even if that connection were built, it would not alleviate the long delays that would be experienced by motorists seeking to turn left from Putt Putt Place onto East Rio Road.
Gatobu pointed out that even if a road were constructed along the public right-of-way, Woodbrook residents would have no guaranteed right to use it to travel south to Rio Road as both the Arden Place development and Putt Putt Place are private streets.
Gatobu said he had met with Jim Plotkin of Dunbarton Properties, the owner of Albemarle Square. After looking at the site plan for Arden Place, Plotkin told him that denying the connection through Albemarle Square is “a business decision.” On the day of the hearing, Plotkin sent a letter to Gatobu saying they wanted Coleway Development to construct a fence to block children from the Arden Place development from entering the Albemarle Square property.
ATTORNEY VALERIE LONG PRESENTS CASE FOR ARDEN PLACE
Valerie Long , an attorney with Williams Mullen, represented Coleway Development during the hearing. She said Arden Place was being designed as a “luxury” apartment complex offering market-rate rentals. She said the Places29 area lacked high-end rental housing and Arden Place would satisfy that demand. Long said residents would be able to walk to a large number of destinations including Fashion Square Mall, the Northside library, Woodbrook Elementary and numerous office buildings.
“We really think it’s a perfect fit for this area and obviously the zoning contemplates this use,” Long said.
Long said the developer did not have the legal right to make the connection to Albemarle Square, but that they would continue to pursue negotiations with Dunbarton Properties. Long said Albemarle Square would need to relocate some parking spaces in order to accommodate the connection. Long also said that her client did not want to build a road connecting to the Woodbrook neighborhood because it would cause too much of an impact on a stream.
“Strict application of the two-vehicular connection requirement would result in significant degradation of the site and adjacent properties,” Long said. “We think it would be a different story if the Woodbrook community were just being platted and there weren’t any people living there now.”
Long said her client was willing to conduct additional traffic studies, and would be willing to explore a second connection to Rio Road if the Commission did not grant the waiver.
After Commissioner Tom Loach (White Hall) pointed out that the Putt Putt Place already has a failing intersection for those seeking to turn left, Long said the developer will have an incentive to work out the transportation issues so that people will want to live in Arden Place.
“If [residents] feel it’s not a safe entrance, they won’t want to live there,” Long said. “So there’s a built-in incentive on the part of the applicant to make sure that it’s going to work.”
PUBLIC COMMENT OVERWHELMINGLY AGAINST INTERCONNECTIVITY
Thirty people spoke during the public comment period. The first speaker, John Gallagher, captured the general spirit of the audience when he said he was not opposed to the development, but did not want to be connected to it. Another speaker, Charlie Trachta, said that crime from outsiders is already rampant and would only get worse if people could easily walk to the neighborhood. Bill Nuckols said he could see no advantage to having pedestrian access to Rio Road. Mike Mueller said he was opposed to the walking trail because it would bring strangers into his community.
“I moved to Woodbrook because it was a nice neighborhood,” Mueller said. “If you open it up to the shopping center and the apartment complex then it becomes the neighborhood recreational facility with people from ACAC running laps around our neighborhood. I don’t know those people.”
Some Woodbrook residents did support the pedestrian pathway. Steven Wilson said that while he was concerned about the potential for crime, he supported the County’s goals for connectivity and thought children in the Arden Place neighborhood could at least walk to Woodbrook Elementary School.
Many of the residents spoke to a greater sense of their residential neighborhood being affected by the growing urbanization of Albemarle County. Ann Hobson has lived in Woodbrook for 39 years, but now her son wants her to move elsewhere because he thinks U.S. 29 is too dangerous.
Kathy Welch said she had originally planned to support the applicant’s request for the waiver until she heard Long acknowledge that the applicant had not sought to build a second entrance onto Rio Road. Instead, she asked for a denial of the waiver because the site plan was “too preliminary.”
“Tell them to start over because they haven’t even considered using their own property as an access way,” Welch said.
On the subject of the public right-of-way, Jeff Deal said he believed that land was platted decades ago at a time when Albemarle County was not as developed. He said U.S. 29 was narrower and Rio Road was not a major arterial. He said if his community had sidewalks, it would make sense to connect to Arden Place.
COMMISSION CONSIDERS THE SITE PLAN APPLICATION
After the public comment period concluded, Commissioner Bill Edgerton (Jack Jouett) immediately said that the Commission had the power to deny all the waivers. He called the preliminary site plan application “an ill-conceived proposal” and suggested the applicant start again.
Commissioner Tom Loach (White Hall) said he generally supports interconnectivity, but that it has to be on an equal basis. He did say he could support the pedestrian trail, because he did not see it as a threat to the neighborhood. However, he said the entrance of Putt Putt Place onto Rio did not pass his own safety test so he could not support the waiver of the two-entrance requirements.
Commissioner Marcia Joseph (At-Large) said she also supported interconnectivity, but she was convinced that Woodbrook would not benefit in this case. She suggested the applicant develop a direct entrance onto Rio Road before coming back to the Commission.
Commissioner Linda Porterfield (Scottsville) said she understood that having the second entrance onto Rio Road would not solve the traffic conditions, but at least it would give drivers leaving Arden Place a choice.
Chairman Eric Strucko (Samuel Miller) said he thought the develop needed two entrances, but said he was concerned that if the waiver is not granted, the developer might have the ability to build the road anyway. Bill Fritz, the County’s Chief of Current Development, said the Commission could still determine the “location and design and number of entrances.”
Strucko, a staunch supporter of the County’s Comprehensive Plan , said he entered the meeting trying to hold fast to interconnectivity but that he had been convinced by the overwhelming public opinion against both the road connection and the pedestrian connection.
The Commission spent several minutes debating potential options for where the second entrance should be. Edgerton called on his Commissioner to stop redesigning the project and to simply vote to deny the waivers.
“I would love to see our development area develop at the density that the zoning calls for, but not in a bad way,” Edgerton said. “If we grant waivers to help them do this, we’re working against the community.”
With a denial of the waiver for two-entrances looming, various Commissioners repeatedly asked Long if her client was willing to ask for a deferral. Long said she would prefer to move forward with the critical slopes waiver and the buffer-disturbance waiver, and then come back with a site plan showing a second entrance.
Porterfield said she was uncomfortable approving any waivers for a preliminary site plan she hadn’t yet seen. Commissioner Don Franco (Rio) agreed and said the applicant should take feedback from this meeting and return in the future with a revised plan.
In the end, five Commissioners expressed their opposition to the pedestrian trail. Without the pedestrian trail, the residential density allowed at Arden Place would be lower because it would no longer qualify for a 15% density bonus.
Porterfield said she thought one benefit would be that children from Arden Place could walk to school at Woodbrook Elementary School, rather than have to travel onto Rio Road and U.S. 29.
Long said her client was disappointed in the conclusion on the pedestrian committee trail.
“When we met with planning staff, they made the comments about that the fact that it would connect multiple neighborhoods within the designated development areas from one set of public roads to another,” Long said. “It facilitates walkability and exercise and open space and all of those things…. We’re very respectful of the neighborhood’s comments about not wanting people walking, but there is a public elementary school in the middle of their neighborhood.”
Long said because the land is already zoned R-15, it is costing the developer more to purchase so that is why they are pursing the bonus density. Strucko said he could appreciate that, but that the additional units would place additional burdens on the community’s infrastructure.
“We have to weigh the benefit of those additional 30 units and the traffic they generate on Rio Road versus the availability of this green space,” Strucko said.
DeNunzio said it would take VDOT at least 30 days to review a new preliminary site plan once it is received.
Franco encouraged the developer to seek another way to obtain the density bonuses, possibly by making off-site road improvements.
Andrew McGinty with Coleway Development said that another way to get the bonus density would be to convert the project to a 100% affordable housing project, but that might be his only option.
“Based on what I’ve heard [at this meeting], I can’t make a luxury product work here,” McGinty said. Instead, he might consider applying for tax credits through the Virginia Housing Development Authority and returning with a fully by-right development with 220 units. He could do so by eliminating all open space and without preserving the woods.
“I am under a tremendous amount of pressure from my partners to not even try to do a luxury product,” McGinty said. “There’s absolutely no risk in doing more tax credit apartments on this site. A new community there would lease up instantly. All the tenants in the existing [nearby] communities would move over to the new one.”
Strucko said he acknowledged McGinty’s property rights, but that the Commission was charged with weighing the community’s greater interests versus the developers.
Edgerton grew impatient and asked to call the question on a motion to recommend denial of the waivers and the preliminary site plan application. With that, McGinty called for a deferral. The Commission voted to accept the deferral, and the preliminary site plan application will come before the Commission at a later date.