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“Most people in my industry think I’ve lost my mind.”
Frank Stoner of Milestone Partners shared that assessment at a recent visioning session for the Downtown Crozet Initiative. The meeting was the second community gathering to discuss design ideas for the former Barnes Lumber and CSX sites in downtown Crozet. The sites are owned by Crozet New Town Partners and are represented by Stoner’s development firm.
Stoner is taking the path less traveled in the design process. While most real estate developments create designs behind closed doors, Stoner said he believes that local support and involvement are essential to making the site a financial and community success.
“We opened this up to the public and said this needs to be a public-private partnership,” he said. “Without that, I don’t think we can be successful, but with it, I think we can.”
The community has identified its desire for a public plaza to be a centerpiece of the redeveloped industrial site. The plaza, which likely would include open green and paved spaces, would be a gathering place for Crozet, providing a location for outdoor dining, a farmers market and community festivals.
However, due to the cost of developing infrastructure such as roads and the plaza, Stoner is seeking assistance from the community to find creative ways to fund the public spaces.
“Mostly local businesses will move to downtown and occupy those spaces,” he said. “Those folks will need affordable space. If the developer has to bear all the costs of the public infrastructure and pass them along to commercial tenants, it’ll never happen.”
A public-private partnership, similar to ones that made construction of Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall or the Jefferson School repurposing possible, is how Stoner says he would like to fund construction of the community spaces, which could cost upwards of $4 million. Public contributions might include local, county, state or federal funding sources.
Beyond discussions about funding, much of the second visioning session was spent discussing three different design schemes for the site. The designs were inspired by drawings and comments shared by Crozet residents at the first community meeting.
Facilitator Christine Gyovai, of Dialogue + Design Associates, asked participants to focus their comments on general guidelines that would help inform the character of the space.
“We’re at the 10,000-foot view right now,” Gyovai said. “These are not final design concepts.”
The schemes varied in road layout, block size, parking areas and plaza design. All of the proposals included a trail connection to Crozet Park to the south, a pedestrian crossing over the railroad that connects to the depot area, green space and areas for commercial development.
Walkability, which has been highlighted in several community planning documents and by residents, is another element in all three proposals.
Architect Reed Muehlman, also of Dialogue + Design, highlighted the challenges in creating a space that is both walkable and commercially viable.
“A quarter-mile radius is the walkability standard,” Muehlman said. “Our site is just over a quarter-mile long. In order to make this place more walkable, we’ve done our best to keep the block size small.”
While the designers keep in mind the desire for walkability in the downtown area, the Virginia Department of Transportation’s road standards and parking requirements for stores also must be considered.
“VDOT defines a minimum size, while we’re trying to keep the size of the block down,” Muehlman said. “There’s already an inherent tension on the site.”
Pressures also exist in providing enough parking for businesses while maintaining a walkable space.
“The Downtown Crozet District regulations recommend one parking space per 1,000 square feet of building,” said Mark Lieberth, a senior landscape architect with LDPE. “Any business owner is going to tell you that’s crazy.”
Lieberth said a more common commercial parking ratio of one space to every 200 square feet would result in filling up the downtown with parking lots.
Attendees responded to the proposals after careful review in small groups. Several themes emerged but consensus was not reached. Community members said they liked the smaller blocks and straight roads outlined in one plan with a more traditional layout. Participants said they also liked the open and “funky and friendly” feel of a more modern plaza space outlined in another plan.
Albemarle Supervisor Ann H. Mallek said she was encouraged to hear the thoughtful discussions taking place at the visioning session.
“People may disagree about the fine points, but there is a huge amount of support for these projects in the downtown area,” Mallek said.
Gyovai said the design process is ongoing and that comments from the visioning sessions would be incorporated to find a hybrid solution. Moving forward, the design team will work over the summer to create a proposal that will be presented to the community in the fall.
Mallek advocated for a Community Development Block Grant to aid the design process for the site at a recent Board of Supervisors meeting. The grant would provide funding for an economic development market study for the region, a final design concept for the plaza and continued public engagement efforts.
The grant application was submitted earlier this month.
The design team said it welcomes ideas from all Crozet-area residents during the planning process. Comments may be sent via email to email@example.com. More information also is available at www.crozetcommunity.org.
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