The Charlottesville City Council agreed Monday to seek proposals from firms to develop the existing City Market on Water Street as a mixed-use project that also would provide an improved home for the market.

The move comes after years of study and a recent report that evaluated the merits of moving the market versus investing in improvements at the current site. Market-goers and vendors now will have to wait to find out if the City Market will get a more permanent home.

“We’ve had some expressions of interest in the property that the city owns, [with people] wondering if the city would be willing to partner in a development,” said Chris Engel, the city’s economic development director.

The market has operated on Saturdays at the lot since 1993. The city-owned property was assessed this year at $2.32 million but Engel said it would appraise for much higher.

Councilor Kristin Szakos said she supported requesting proposals to see what ideas might be out there.

“As much as we want the City Market to stay where it is, and it would be lovely, I don’t think that’s viable,” Szakos said. “But part of me wants to figure out a way to keep it downtown.”

Earlier this year, a Maine-based consulting firm called Market Ventures concluded as part of a $100,000 study that it would not be “financially viable” for a developer to accommodate both an expanded market and new development on just the 0.7-acre lot owned by the city.

The firm was restricted from looking at the larger two-block area, which includes a surface parking lot owned by Charlottesville Parking Center, because the parcels are not for sale. The two private lots have a combined assessment of $3 million.

A 2007 design contest examined exactly what the City Council is now considering. Then, the city and the now-defunct Charlottesville Community Design Center sought visions of what a market would look like if it were included in a mixed-use development that also spread into the adjacent parking lot and the site’s privately owned southeast corner.

A task force appointed by the City Council recommended in 2011 that the current site should be selected as the permanent location.
Market Ventures recommended in July that the city either make modest improvements at the existing lot or move to a site on Garrett Street one block south of the existing location.

Engel said the city has been in negotiations with the property owner of the Garrett Street site to develop a ground lease, though the duration is not yet certain.

Many vendors are opposed to Garrett Street as a potential location.

“The impact of moving the City Market to the location on Garrett Street right next to the railroad tracks is not a viable option,” said Cynthia Viejo, who sells bagels at the market.

Viejo said the lot is too narrow and too far away from the Downtown Mall. She also said the proximity to the railroad tracks would stop many parents from bringing their children.

However, Engel said the city should still consider the Garrett Street lease to temporarily relocate the market while the existing site is redeveloped. He estimated the redevelopment project could take up to four years.

The council directed him to continue negotiations with the property owner, though Councilor Dede Smith said she would vote against the Garrett street option when it comes to a vote.

Engel said he wanted councilors to tell him what criteria they would want to see in a request for proposals to sell the property.

Councilor Kathy Galvin said she wanted to ensure the proposals would meet high design standards. She said the proposal could be a good test of a move toward form-based zoning where cities outline specific design criteria for projects.

“We could apply that so that whatever is built here is not an open parking garage,” Galvin said. “The two blocks in either direction could become an arts-theater district with the right kind of detailing and in-fill development.”

During the public comment period, a resident of South Street said she and her neighbors do not want a large building to be built on the existing market property.

“We don’t think it would be very inviting for the City Market,” said Mary Gilliam. “We need to still maintain a low scale in some part of the street.”

The request for proposals will ask for firms to accommodate an enhanced market, a mixed-use development and parking. The request also will encourage proposals to consider purchasing the two private blocks, but cannot require that because the city does not own them.

Galvin said she was concerned about this approach.

“The development community likes things that are pretty clear and predictable, and we’re making this extremely vague,” she said.

The council will approve the request for proposals before it is advertised.