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The Charlottesville City Council is now expected to decide in June whether to initiate a study of changing the zoning of West Main Street to reduce the maximum building heights allowed on the rapidly developing corridor.
“We’ve received concerns that folks have perceived developments to be large, too tall and not having appropriate open space and character,” Missy Creasy, the city’s interim director of neighborhood development services, said at a recent council meeting.
In the past several years, the council has granted special-use permits to allow several buildings to have additional height and residential density. The Flats at West Village opened last August and site preparation work is underway for an L-shaped building at 1000 W. Main.
The granted special-use permits have provoked some in the community to call for reform.
The council also has granted special-use permits for two other projects on the street.
“The community’s reaction to the Flats at West Village has been strongly negative,” said Morgan Butler, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The project is widely seen as out-of-scale and damaging to the historic character of the corridor.”
In March, the council and other groups were briefed on potential changes to West Main’s zoning.
The zoning on West Main is currently split into northern and southern categories. Minimum heights on both sides of the street are 40 feet.
“The maximum, depending on which side of the street, can go up to 70 feet or 101 feet with a special-use permit,” Creasy said.
The main change suggested by Lee Einsweiler, of the firm Code Studio, is to divide the street into western and eastern zoning districts. Buildings would be allowed to be as high as 75 feet tall on the western side and as high as 52 feet on the eastern side. Einsweiler also has recommended removing the ability to obtain additional height through a special-use permit.
The city’s zoning code can only be changed after the Planning Commission has been directed to make recommendations.
Butler urged the City Council to get that done as soon as possible.
“There’s been a lot of good discussion over the past year about fixing West Main’s zoning and much work has been done by city staff, the West Main Steering Committee, the PLACE Design Task Force and the public,” Butler said. “Now it’s time for council to take the reins and turn that work into actual solutions.”
However, the council will not take actual action on whether to initiate the study until its meeting June 15.
The issue of zoning on West Main also has to do with the role played by the Board of Architectural Review. One option is to move to a “form-based” zoning code in which projects must be built to certain design specifications.
“One of the positives of [a form-based code] is that somebody working on a project wouldn’t have to keep coming back for discretionary decisions, which can make projects more expensive,” Councilor Kristin Szakos said.
If a form-based code is enacted, the city’s urban design planner said it would alter the development review process.
“All of these changes also have a great effect on our board, commission and City Council review,” said the city’s urban designer, Carrie Rainey. “Our enabling state legislation authorizes the BAR to provide review of architectural and design features to determine compatibility of proposed developments with historic landmark buildings and structures.”
However, Rainey said the BAR is not authorized to modify or amend zoning requirements and that a change to a form-based code would take design review power away from the BAR. Specific details about building design would be outlined in the code rather than left to the BAR’s discretion.
At least one councilor said he was uncertain about whether the city should move to the form-based code for West Main.
“One of the things which I don’t think will work very well will be a form-based code in this area given that it’s a design control review district [controlled by the BAR],” said Mayor Satyendra Huja. He said heights could be reduced by amending the existing zoning.
Councilor Kathy Galvin supports a form-based code because, she said, it would provide more clarity about design review.
“I have heard from people that have been involved with the process that the design guidelines are vague,” Galvin said. “So when an applicant goes through the process it is really not a clear pathway to what ultimately the BAR, the Planning Commission and council wants.”
Councilor Bob Fenwick said he did not want to rush into a decision.
“I don’t see anyone from the development community out here and I haven’t heard from the BAR or the Planning Commission,” Fenwick said. “What we’re doing right now is crafting legislation piece by piece by piece up here, and that’s putting a tremendous burden on the staff.”
However, other councilors pointed out that input will be taken in the next month before the matter returns before them.
“There’s a sense of urgency here because there are still [vacant] parcels on West Main and they are going to be disappearing,” Galvin said. “It is very important to get the scale and the massing right.”
The issue of zoning has been separated from a streetscape project that would change the configuration of the street. So far, the city has paid the firm Rhodeside & Harwell $350,000 to develop a concept for an enhanced streetscape.
In December, the City Council heard details of the project, whose cost estimate totaled $30 million, a price that includes placing all utilities underground.
The council is expected to take that conversation up again in June, as well