Note: This story is part of our continuing coverage of Charlottesville’s Comprehensive Plan update. If you’re new to the conversation, get up to speed by first reading this initial explainer, then other stories about some of the  controversy and confusion, the community comment period, and what the City can learn from its land use and zoning history.


 

Implementation of the Future Land Use Map.

This is the first goal of the first chapter—the “Land Use, Urban Form, and Historic and Cultural Preservation” chapter—of Charlottesville’s current Draft Comprehensive Plan Updates document.

Implementation of the Future Land Use Map (FLUM) is just one of the many dozens of goals presented in the 77-page document, and when it is approved by the Planning Commission and eventually City Council, it will become one part of one chapter in the lengthy Comprehensive Plan. But the creation of the FLUM itself has become the most contentious aspect of the Comprehensive Plan update process to date.

Sunshine Mathon, executive director of the Piedmont Housing Alliance, and Dan Rosensweig, president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville, are together proposing a shift to that conversation with a slight tweak to the FLUM.

May 2021 draft land use plan screen cap header

A view of the most recent (May 2021) Charlottesville draft land use plan.

Credit: Cville Plans Together

“There is no single solution which is going to address every community need or opinion,” said Mathon. “It’s just not possible. But I think if we can retain our grounding in this process with our core principles [i.e., equity], and we ensure that we are developing a Future Use Land Map that reflects those principles, that’s the best we can do.”

And it’s just a tweak, one that builds upon the many hours of work already put in by the Rhodeside & Harwell consultants, the Cville Plans Together steering committee, the Planning Commission, the neighborhood associations, affordable housing activists and advocates, and many others, said Rosensweig.

Mathon and Rosensweig, both experienced planners and housers who work directly with low- and very-low income members of our community in their nonprofit roles, presented this concept, which is more of a framework than a map, for the first time during a June 16 city Housing Advisory Committee meeting. It’s still a new idea, and they said they learn more every time they discuss it.

Before getting into the details of the proposed framework, Mathon acknowledged that any conversation about housing is complexified by the fact that housing is a commodity, when it should in fact be a human right. Conflating home as investment and home as home “interlinks what should be the question of human right with the opportunity for making money,” he said.

He also acknowledged what we as a community know about how Charlottesville’s neighborhood demographics, which often separate Black folks from white folks, low- and middle-income folks from wealthy folks, got to the point they’re at today.

“It got here through a series of sometimes strategic, sometimes iterative, decisions that prioritized the voices and wealth-building of white households,” he said. “Regardless of where we end up as a framework, we are at this moment in time where we have the opportunity to prioritize a different set of voices, and we have to. Fundamentally, we have to.”

So, while Mathon and Rosensweig’s proposed framework for the FLUM prioritizes the voices and needs of those community members who have historically been left out of Charlottesville housing and land use conversations—Black and brown residents, low-income residents—they’ve also considered the responses and reactions of (majority white, majority wealthy) residents and neighborhoods whose voices were prioritized in those previous conversations, and who they say have expressed some understandable and valid concerns in public comments and letters to the Cville Plans Together team, particularly in regards to preferring nodes, where residential and commercial activity can radiate outward, rather than linear commercial/residential corridors, said Rosensweig.

“It seems to me that this is something that has emerged a little bit organically out of conversations, and Sunshine and I are kind of a conduit for it,” said Rosensweig. “This is what we’ve heard. This is what we think could be a framework for bringing people together.”

(Plus, an “affordable housing overlay” to the FLUM is specifically recommended as sub-strategy for achieving the first goal in the Comprehensive Plan update, the one about implementing the FLUM.)

Mathon and Rosensweig’s proposed tweak to the current draft FLUM present has two main components:

  1. Creation of a low-intensity land-use category;
  2. Any ties to density beyond base density—which would be either low-intensity or general residential—need to be tied to affordability.

“How much affordable, and to what depth of affordability, those are questions we need to answer, but my opinion is that we can’t answer those until we agree on the common principles first,” said Mathon.

Essentially, base zoning across the city would be either that new low-intensity category or the standing general residential category, and any increases to either medium-intensity or high-intensity would be tied to affordability, explained Mathon. 

“And that medium intensity becomes a by-right use as long as affordability is included—if and only if” it provides opportunity for “all kinds of housing for all kinds of people in all kinds of places” across the city, said Mathon.


 

*Mathon and Rosensweig emphasize that the above proposal for an affordable housing overlay to the FLUM is truly just a proposal. The maps they’ve provided above are by no means official—they are sketches to help illustrate the idea they’re asking the project consultants, the Planning Commission, and individual citizens, to consider. At this phase, they did not take individual lots into consideration, and urge people not to look into the granular details but instead focus on the concept, the idea.


Mathon and Rosensweig’s shared critique of the FLUM as it is currently proposed is that while it sets the city up for increased density/intensity, it does not necessarily—and in all likelihood would not—bring about more affordability, said Rosensweig.

But they think this tweak could help, for a couple of reasons.

One, said Mathon, “it will reduce the pressure on those lower-income and historically Black neighborhoods by shifting development pressures, development opportunities, to other parts of the city by the differentiation in allowable intensities, at least, the difference between the low-intensity or general residential.”

“The other layer is that any intensities either above and beyond either low intensity or general residential would be mandated to include some level of affordable housing. [It] may still evolve, but, as it’s currently defined [on the FLUM], medium-intensity is four units plus, per [each] development. In that context, some percentage—that percentage still TBD—we need to work that through—but some percentage of housing would be required to be affordable,” said Mathon.

“There is work yet to be done” on this, he added, particularly in determining what percentage of new units in the medium- and high-intensity areas would be affordable, how deeply affordable those units would be, and for how long they would be affordable. “All three of those are critical to the decision-making,” he said. “But it’s difficult to have conversations on the details without first agreeing on the general platform we’re building them on.”

In short, they say this tweak to the FLUM, along with related policies, could realistically help bring about more truly affordable housing, in more locations throughout the community, while also protecting low-income and historically Black neighborhoods from further gentrification.

 

Altamont_MK10

Another view of Altamont Circle

Credit: Mike Kropf/Charlottesville Tomorrow

There’s a great example of what this could actually look like, right here in town, said Rosensweig: Altamont Circle.

“It’s beautiful. It has a range of housing, from large single-family homes that’ve been broken up into six different homes, to million-dollar homes, to a five-story apartment building,” he explained. “And it’s wonderful.”

He knows, he says, because he lived on that street.

“And, frankly, it’s pre-zoning, and that’s why it’s wonderful,” Rosensweig added. “It happened a little more organically. It’s also illustrative of the fact that it’s not just the zoning code that has to change, it’s also [the] preconceptions that we have about things like street widths and parking. Some of the things that make that road really beautiful and work for this whole housing ladder of opportunity is that there are no curb cuts for driveways, the houses are served by alleys. The road is 14 feet wide, which, you can’t do right now, but we should be able to do it, because it’s a safe road. There are sight line issues that you can’t do now. There’s a whole suite of trailing policies that would have to happen to make the kind of growth possible by this mixing up of densities and intensities. But we can get there, because you know what? We already have it in Charlottesville.”

So, the general residential or low-intensity category proposed in the tweak, Rosensweig said, is not so much about creating a bunch more, different, structures, but instead allows people to take existing buildings—like those large homes on Altamont Circle, of which there are many throughout the city—and break them up into a few different units. And then a nearby five-story apartment building, like The Altamont, at either medium- or high-intensity (and thus required affordability) could be set up quite well for low-income and other types of affordable apartments.

Mathon and Rosensweig have no illusions that their proposed tweak to the FLUM, will be the ultimate end result, that neither the community or the consultants will say, “yes! This is what we’ve all been looking for!”

Their goal is to present this for public consideration in the overall land use map/zoning code/affordable housing conversation.

They’ve already shared the idea and the map sketches (which, again, are not at all precise—they did not take individual lots into consideration, and the map sketches are NOT proposals for a new FLUM) with the Housing Advisory Committee, some neighborhood leaders, a few existing and aspiring city councilors, and to the consultants from Rhodeside & Harwell, Inc. who are helping guide the Cville Plans Together process.

And now, they’re sharing it more widely with the general public before bringing it to the June 29 Planning Commission work session.

 “If there is consensus in the community that we want to continue thinking along these lines, we think we can. We think that ultimately, the community will generate a future land use map and, more importantly, a zoning map that’s fit for purpose,” said Rosensweig.

Wherever Mathon and Rosensweig’s proposal ends up, wherever the Cville Plans draft FLUM ends up, “it’s not a panacea,” said Mathon. “It’s a step in the process that requires all the other steps to be taken. […] The land use map, and even the zoning that comes after, is one necessary but insufficient tool set to further our collective vision. It’s really important to highlight that over and over again. It still requires all the other steps identified in the affordable housing plan, it still requires funding, it still requires a tenants’ rights development, still requires all these other layers.” 

There is no silver bullet, Mathon said, nor can we throw the baby out with the bathwater, as one might say. 

Mathon said that throughout this Comprehensive Plan update and related land use and zoning code update, he’s often thought back to his experience with a similar process in Austin, Texas, where he lived for years before moving to Charlottesville in 2017.  

“There were some similar starting places, where everyone generally agreed that affordable housing was a priority. Everyone generally agreed that the existing system was broken,” said Mathon. 

A good starting consensus. But, once people started looking at their neighborhoods, at their own individual lots, “that’s when everyone got entrenched in whatever their viewpoint was. It took years to grind to a halt, but it did. Five years and $7 million in consultant fees later, they abandoned their process as it currently had been, because they couldn’t come to consensus. They couldn’t ever agree.”

But Charlottesville’s not Austin, some might say. True, but there are similarities among them, and ultimately, this is a cautionary tale for any city, any town.

“There’s never, ever going to be maybe even majority agreement on whatever map gets put forth,” said Mathon, though he and Rosensweig hope that their proposed tweak can help reframe the conversation and bring various communities closer to consensus.

“As much as possible, if we can, and I don’t know that this is really possible, but, if we can pull back the heat and recognize that this is a conversation about the future vision of our community, and not ‘my individual lot’ or ‘my individual street,’ I think it opens up a bit of breathing room for having more authentic dialogue around what’s possible for the city.”

Ultimately, though, said Mathon, “it’s going to take an act of will and courage on the point of the planning commission and city council to put a stake in the ground for what they believe is in the best interest of the city.”