Late on a Tuesday afternoon on Garrett Street, construction workers finished the day’s work under a bright yellow crane and the sinking sun. The crane towers above the Water Street Parking Garage and makes the two-story townhouses at Friendship Court look like toys. 

The building under construction at the corner of Garrett and Fourth Street Southeast will also be much taller than its surroundings. 3Twenty3 will be nine stories of high-end office space and represents what zoning laws currently allow throughout the neighborhood south of Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall.

A long-discussed overhaul of that zoning is in draft form and is set to be discussed by the Charlottesville Planning Commission on Oct. 15. 

Although the new code seems like a clear win in many ways over current zoning, low-income housing advocates are worried that it will change life dramatically for current residents without providing benefits to outweigh that change.

“The city keeps wanting to focus on these small parts of the city, but often these parts of the city are places where people have not had a voice historically, and we’re pushing through policies without looking at the big picture,” said Elaine Poon, managing attorney of the Charlottesville office of the Legal Aid Justice Center. 

LAJC is a member of the Charlottesville Low-Income Housing Coalition, which submitted comments to the city in mid-September urging the City Council to hold off on adopting the new rules.

How form-based code became about housing

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The Strategic Investment Area includes several public and subsidized housing sites, including Friendship Court, Crescent Halls and the Sixth Street and South First Street neighborhoods.

Credit: City of Charlottesville

Form-based code is a relatively new kind of zoning that focuses more on how buildings feel to passersby than what goes on inside them. 

Developing a form-based code for the southern downtown area was a key step in implementing the Strategic Investment Area Plan, which covers the area between Ridge and Avon streets that stretches towards the city-Albemarle County line. 

“It’s a zoning tool, and the way we’ve crafted it in this area south of the Downtown Mall, it does address head-on the equity, sustainability, and place-based community challenges of our city,” said Councilor Kathy Galvin.

Galvin has been a longtime advocate of both form-based code and the SIA plan, which the city adopted into its Comprehensive Plan in 2014. 

The SIA plan called for the city to limit the nine-story buildings currently allowed throughout the SIA to a few locations, like the IX property. The plan also called for smaller blocks, which makes it easier for walkers to get around, and more bike lanes, trees and sidewalks. The form-based code draft implements these goals of the plan without much controversy. 

However, the process of drafting the form-based code did not start until one month after the white supremacist rallies in August 2017. 

“The whole code sort of got derailed, for lack of a better word. It got focused on really, really talking about affordable housing. That’s what residents wanted to talk about,” said Marina Khoury, a partner at the firm DPZ CoDesign that was hired to draft the code alongside the Form-Based Codes Institute.

The city originally hired the consultant team to draft the code for $228,000. The cost grew to $311,000 after the city asked the consultants to conduct additional community engagement targeted for low-income housing leaders. 

However, low-income housing leaders have long voiced skepticism about the project, dating back to the SIA plan.

The neighborhood context

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Crescent Halls resident Judy Sandridge (left) celebrates the Public Housing Association of Residents internship program in June alongside two other program graduates.

Credit: Eze Amos/Charlottesville Tomorrow

The Strategic Investment Area covers one of the city’s low-income, historically Black neighborhoods. Parts of the historic neighborhood were demolished in the 1970s during urban renewal, when renters were forced to move and owners were forced to sell their homes.

One of the consistent critiques of form-based code from low-income housing advocates has been that it cuts the public out of the development review process. Instead, residents articulate what they want their neighborhood to look like up front and planners write that vision into the zoning rules.

Crescent Halls resident Judy Sandridge said that she has been to two presentations about form-based code but did not feel that she has gotten the information she needs. 

“You couldn’t hear what they were saying because they didn’t have microphones, and they weren’t talking loud enough for everybody to hear,” said Sandridge, who graduated from the Charlottesville Public Housing Association of Residents internship program.  

Crescent Halls is a public housing complex on Monticello Avenue designated for the elderly and disabled. 

Sandridge said she sees form-based code as a way to further line the pockets of those with money and worries that the code will prompt the construction of high rises that will ruin the quiet community she values. 

“You take when Charlottesville was built and this place was made beautiful. Who did it? The old people did it. The forefathers, the grandfathers and the great-grandfathers of the people that’s living in Crescent Halls right now,” Sandridge said.

She argued that Charlottesville and area businesses should invest more directly in low-income residents, by giving land to the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority, for example.

“The rich people paid them pennies, and now, when they’re getting ready to retire, they can’t even get enough money to live on, to pay rent and stuff, so they’re in low-income housing for that very reason,” she said.

The activist response

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Elaine Poon, managing attorney of the Charlottesville office of the Legal Aid Justice Center, protests the eviction of Belmont Apartments residents in May.

Credit: Eze Amos/Charlottesville Tomorrow

In formal comments from mid-September on the most recent form-based code draft, the Charlottesville Low-Income Housing Coalition urged the city not to adopt the code yet. 

The comment letter notes that the city is getting ready to hire consultants to craft a comprehensive housing policy, complete the city’s Comprehensive Plan update and rewrite its zoning code. The request for consultants for that process was written to ensure low-income and historically marginalized residents have a seat at the table the whole time. 

The letter cites the consultants as saying that the code could raise housing prices and, through that, cause displacement. The letter says that the city should focus on how to protect residents from displacement instead and only adopt the code when the other updates are figured out.

Poon said that CLIHC is not opposed to density, or allowing more people to live in less space and said that the SIA could be a place for taller buildings. But CLIHC wants to see how the big picture – like the zoning that only allows single-family houses in historically white neighborhoods – will change first.

“We’re asking the low-income community to bear the brunt of density,” Poon said. “What is making it worth it for them?”

Specific proposals in the letter include setting more ambitious targets for building more affordable housing, setting aside one-third of that housing for ownership, and seeding businesses owned by African Americans and low-wealth individuals in the area.

Decreasing risk of displacement

Khoury said that she does not understand why people are worried about form-based code causing displacement. 

Khoury pointed to the Residents’ Bill of Rights for Redevelopment that was adopted by the City Council. The bill of rights commits to one-for-one replacement of all current public housing. That housing would be reserved for extremely low-income families and current families would be offered housing first. 

“We’ve understood that the fears are not so much of displacement as they are of gentrification. I could be wrong,” Khoury said. 

CLIHC is concerned about rising prices for naturally occurring affordable housing, like the Belmont Apartments, which had unusually low rents for the area until they were bought by a developer. The apartments are now being renovated and many long-time residents have had to move elsewhere. 

Anita Morrison, a founder of Partners for Economic Solutions and a member of the form-based code consulting team, has written housing needs assessments for the city and the broader region within the past two years.

Morrison said that she found very little naturally occurring affordable housing in the SIA, the city or the region. 

“The main driver of displacement is rising rents that result from excess demand,” Morrison said. 

Morrison said that Charlottesville’s housing shortage is partially caused by current processes, which block the construction of new housing. 

“By anticipating and addressing the typical design issues that arouse neighborhood opposition, form-based codes can shorten development approval processes and make them more predictable. Increasing the overall housing supply should alleviate the pressures for rapid rent growth,” Morrison said.

However, Morrison said that the more appealing buildings, sidewalks and public spaces required in the form-based code could attract residents who can pay higher rents. This could displace those in naturally occurring affordable housing. 

“The response to that phenomenon should not be to refuse to enhance these neighborhoods, but rather to increase protections,” she said. 

Morrison listed creating and preserving affordable housing, including smaller units and homeownership options, increasing rental vouchers and supporting low-wealth entrepreneurs as ways the city should protect the neighborhood.

The role of zoning

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Nine-story buildings are currently allowed by-right throughout the Downtown Extended zoning category (pink) as long as they include a mixture of uses, like offices and apartments, in the same building.

Credit: Strategic Investment Area Plan/City of Charlottesville

Hearing the community’s focus on affordable housing, the Form-Based Codes Institute, DPZ and Partners for Economic Solutions worked to ensure new buildings would include affordable housing. 

The draft form-based code allows developers to build taller buildings in exchange for providing affordable housing. If developers wanted to build higher than three stories, they would have to reserve a percentage of those stories for lower-income families. 

The form-based code would allow the IX property to have some of the tallest buildings in the SIA. However, with parking requirements and the cost of materials, the consultants saw six-story buildings wrapped around parking garages as the tallest buildings that made sense on that property. 

In a mixture of six- and four-story buildings, the IX property could have 2,093 apartments or condominiums. The consultants found that the city could require the IX owners to reserve 147 of those residences as affordable to households making 60% of the area median income. 

A family of four at 60% AMI earns roughly $46,000 a year, based on the 2017 incomes the consultants used.

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With parking requirements and the cost of materials, six-story buildings wrapped around parking garages are the tallest buildings that make sense on the IX property, according to DPZ.

Credit: DPZ/City of Charlottesville

The current special use permit process, which developers see as unpredictable, would allow the IX developers to pay $3.8 million into a fund instead. This could result in something like 126 units elsewhere at 60% AMI, if the project is approved.

“The form-based code as it stands right now is a significant improvement for affordable housing than what’s currently on the books,” Khoury said. 

In addition to the height bonuses, the consultants suggested the city set up a tax structure that siphons off some of the increased tax revenue on the property towards rental subsidies. After paying for other costs related to new development, the city could use the taxes on the IX property to pay for 99 rental subsidy vouchers, the consultants calculated.

These tools would combine with the mixture of housing types, like triplexes and small courtyard apartment complexes, allowed in the code to provide less expensive options in the SIA. 

However, these tools do not get the city close to reducing rents for the roughly 4,000 households projected to be spending more than 30% of their income on housing in the city by 2040. 

More than 1,000 people in that group would be extremely low-income, or making less than $25,000 without inflation, and the consultants said that for-profit developments would not be able to serve that group.

The developers

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The seventh annual Cville Sabroso Festival took place on Saturday, Sept. 21 at the IX Art Park.

Credit: Ézé Amos/Charlottesville Tomorrow

“[This code] creates relatively few affordable units. It’s not a huge tool in the affordable housing toolbox, but in my mind, it’s an important tool socially,” said architect and developer Greg Powe. 

Powe has been looking at a largely empty block at the base of the Belmont Bridge, across Levy Avenue from land owned by the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority. 

Powe said that he could see apartments or condominiums working on that block above shops or other commercial space. He said offices might work there, too.

Realistically, he thought only four or five floors worked on that property, so the owners would be reserving roughly one-fifth of the top one or two floors as affordable. Despite the small number, Powe said that it is important that the affordable units would be on-site.

“I firmly believe that mixed-income neighborhoods make for healthy neighborhoods,” he said.

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The proposed form-based code for the Strategic Investment Area would limit any nine-story buildings to the center of the IX property.

Credit: DPZ/City of Charlottesville

Ludwig Kuttner, one of the developers behind the IX, said that he still needed to study the numbers the consultants presented, but he didn’t think the affordability requirements made sense economically. 

(Conversations with a number of private and non-profit developers and other stakeholders helped Morrison arrive at the affordability percentages the city could require.)

Both developers said they liked that the form-based code spells out exactly what the city wants and limits the uncertainty in the process. 

Kuttner said that the uncertain process in the city could end up accounting for 10% to 15% of the development costs. If a developer has competing priorities in multiple cities, Kuttner said, the Charlottesville project loses because of these costs.

The form-based code also eliminates the low limits on housing units in the current zoning. Powe said that rule has forced unnatural apartment and condo sizes. 

This rule in particular could have meant a different outcome for 3Twenty3. 

Ludwig Kuttner’s son, Oliver Kuttner, originally applied for additional density to build 233 small apartments on the 3Twenty3 site with rents under $1,000 a month. The City Council sent the special-use permit request back to the Planning Commission out of concern for how the building’s height and scale would look on Garrett Street – elements that are spelled out in the form-based code.

One element Powe would like to change is the height allowed north of Garrett Street. Powe said that this part of the SIA is being downzoned from nine stories to six but that nine stories would still make sense given the other tall buildings nearby. 

Powe said that the blocks between Garrett Street and the CSX tracks would work well for office buildings, which would provide job opportunities and an increased tax base for the city.

Penalties for delaying

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View of the Norcross Station Apartments on Fourth Street Southeast, looking from the Water Street Parking Garage towards Friendship Court.

Credit: Emily Hays/Charlottesville Tomorrow

Galvin argues that the draft form-based code advances equity, sustainability and pride of place in the Strategic Investment Area. The code gets the private sector to build affordable housing to address housing inequities. It makes it easier to reduce carbon emissions by walking and biking, rather than driving, and it requires developers to cut massive buildings into smaller spaces that feel better to those walking by.

Galvin pointed to the resident-led redevelopment of the Southwood Mobile Home Park, which is owned by the Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville. Galvin helped Albemarle create the form-based code zoning category, now called the Neighborhood Model District, that the Southwood residents tailored to their goals. 

Galvin said that it took seven years to get to form-based code for this portion of the SIA, which accounts for 2% of land in the city. If future efforts continue at the same pace, rezoning the entire city will take roughly 350 years, she calculated.

“If that’s what this community wants — endless community engagement while it’s getting developed under our noses, with no affordable housing, no deference to place, and does nothing to get us to the point where we can be living in a multimodal transportation world where people can walk, bike and take the bus — fine,” Galvin said.

CLIHC said in its form-based code comment letter that the coalition wants the city to rezone all of its neighborhoods at the same time, through the housing policy, zoning and Comprehensive Plan update. The city currently is going through proposals from consultants, according to city Neighborhood Development Services Director Alexander Ikefuna.

Khoury agreed that if the City Council delays adoption of the form-based code, any buildings that happen with city staff or City Council approval in the meantime would not be held to the community’s standards. 

Khoury said that any code continues to be tweaked and amended and that figuring out how to solve the residents’ housing cost burdens is going to require help beyond what zoning or the city’s zoning department can do. 

“I know there’s an enormous amount of distrust in the community and that there are people who think that housing should be completely resolved before, but the tradeoff is that there are penalties for delaying,” she said.

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The draft Strategic Investment Area form-based code sets standards for what buildings, sidewalks and public spaces should look like.

Credit: DPZ/City of Charlottesville

This article was updated on Oct. 14 to include an omitted section.