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The Albemarle and Charlottesville planning commissions had the opportunity Tuesday for a joint discussion on a redevelopment project that could help the two communities realize a goal of improving the area’s connections with the Rivanna River.
Developer Brian Roy is seeking a rezoning that will allow for an adaptive reuse of the historic Woolen Mills building located within a landlocked section of Albemarle County.
“I was amazed the first time I walked through the building,” said Roy, who has been working on the project for two years. “The interiors and exteriors are amazing.”
The project immediately borders the city of Charlottesville, and a rare joint meeting was held so both planning commissions could hear directly about Roy’s plans to have the area rezoned from light industrial to commercial use.
Roy wants to build 100 residential units, or about 22 units per acre. An additional special-use permit would be needed for residential use.
An existing 15,000-square-foot building would be converted into a restaurant. There would be a new building to provide about 40,000 square feet of light industrial space. Another existing 7,232-square-foot building would be preserved for non-residential use.
A special use permit will be required so Roy can build a floodwall into the project to help protect the structure. A waiver also will be required to disturb steep slopes that Roy said are needed for parking and for some new construction.
“That application has not yet been filed,” said Bill Fritz, Albemarle’s chief of special projects. “This property was discussed in great detail during the [recent] adoption of our Comprehensive Plan. This use is consistent with the plan.”
All renovations would be consistent with federal and state historic preservation guidelines so that Roy can seek tax credits to offset the cost of the project.
The existing building dates back to after the Civil War. A previous factory had been used to manufacture uniforms for Confederate soldiers but was burned down by Union troops.
“I do want to preserve this historically,” Roy said.
Fritz said the county’s concerns include parking requirements, the ability of fire and rescue to get to the site and how the area’s character could change through new residential use.
“We have received an application, but we don’t have an answer yet on how we are going to solve these things,” Fritz said.
One issue is how much additional traffic will travel down East Market Street, which is within Charlottesville. Roy’s plans show a small parking lot at the road’s end but does not show a vehicular connection.
“Coming down Market Street is tough,” Fritz said. “It’s narrow. Mixing bicycles, pedestrian and cars is going to be a tough dynamic to address.”
Roy said he does not want to increase East Water Street traffic, and the plan shows Broadway Street as the main entrance.
Roy is planning for rental apartments that will be unique to this area.
“The fourth floor of the four-story building has tremendous window and ceiling heights that would allow for true loft apartments that really don’t exist in this community,” Roy said.
Albemarle Commissioner Karen Firehock said she was concerned that all of the apartments could be one-bedroom rentals.
“It makes the community a little more transient,” Firehock said. “If you want to have a family, you’ll have to leave this place. This will be part of the Woolen Mills community and the stability there.”
“The units are going to be narrow and longer than they are wide,” Roy said. “The economics begin to become a consideration, but I’d be happy to take a look at it.”
The underlying zoning would allow for a full range of commercial uses, including retail. However, a hotel use would require a special-use permit that Roy is not applying for.
Firehock also wanted to know how the site plan would limit impacts to Moores Creek, which is considered impaired by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.
“Preserving a historic building, it would be counter-intuitive to throw up a lot of asphalt,” Roy said. “Certainly, I want to play up Moores Creek and take advantage of the Rivanna River.”
Several people spoke during a public comment period.
One city resident was concerned about the impacts it would have on Riverview Park, which she said is already at capacity.
“What’s not been mentioned is Franklin Street and the Hogwaller neighborhood,” said Allison Ewing. “I really question the new buildings, and I understand the owner is being pushed to build them for light industry. Is that really a use you want to encourage?”
Others were more willing to embrace the project.
“It’s great to see the two commissions working together on this issue,” said Woolen Mills resident Bill Emory. “It would be really great if cultural tourists would come here.”
“I see this as an opportunity for the neighborhood to reclaim its name,” said John Frazee, president of the Woolen Mills Neighborhood Association. “It’s a critical opportunity for the city and county to work together.”
Frazee said he supports the project but does hope parking and other concerns can be worked out.
City planning commissioners were receptive of the plan.
“I’m having a hard time thinking of a site that deserves a creative approach to its development, as well as creative review by the regulatory agencies,” said Commisioner Jody Lahendro.
“As a city commissioner, we are jealous this is yours to review,” said Commissioner Genevieve Keller.