A vacant grocery store in the Seminole Square shopping center eventually could be replaced by hundreds of new apartments.

The Charlottesville Planning Commission on Tuesday gave feedback on design concepts for an apartment complex on the former site of the Giant Food store.

Great Eastern Management Co., which manages Seminole Square, has proposed constructing 11 five-story buildings with a total of about 500 residential units. The project also would add about 40,000 square feet of commercial space.

David Mitchell, a principal at Great Eastern, said the residential development would drive the transformation of Charlottesville’s U.S. 29 corridor into a more walkable community.

“Not tomorrow, not 10 years from now, but 20 years from now, I think the rest of Seminole Square will start to look a lot like this,” Mitchell said.

Seminole Square has lacked an anchor tenant since Giant closed in 2012. Kroger currently leases the building, although the grocer has suspended plans to relocate its store at Hydraulic Road and U.S. 29 to the site.

Mitchell said Great Eastern will negotiate the end of Kroger’s lease while moving forward with regulatory processes for the proposed apartments.  

Plans realized?

In July, the Planning Commission unanimously approved a partial redevelopment of Seminole Square that could allow the 32-year-old center to provide a more pedestrian-focused experience. The design removes 92 parking spaces and breaks up remaining spaces with new landscaping.

On Tuesday, commissioners discussed the proposed apartments’ alignment with the Hydraulic Small Area Plan. Adopted by the City Council in 2018, the plan encourages the development of a mix of housing types within the core area around the intersection of Hydraulic Road and U.S. 29.

Surface parking takes up 100 acres in this area — enough to support more than 1,000 units of multifamily housing, according to the final report of the Hydraulic Planning Advisory Panel.

Mitchell said Seminole Square presents an opportunity to redevelop a large tract within the core area without having to secure permission from multiple landowners.

“There are only certain places where [comprehensive plans] work. This is one of them,” he said. “This is the first domino, hopefully, of a redo of this area.”  

Conceptual rendering by Henningsen Kestner Architects.

“Everyone is talking about housing”

On Tuesday, commissioners suggested rearranging some of the apartment buildings to allow for more contiguous greenery. They also challenged Great Eastern to eliminate even more parking spaces at Seminole Square.

However, the commissioners were united in their enthusiasm for bringing residences to the shopping center.

“Now that everyone [in Charlottesville] is talking about housing, it’s timely that this came up,” Commissioner Gary Heaton said. “It’s a feel-good story.”

“Personally, I think this is fantastic,” Commissioner Jody Lahendro said. “I have some architectural issues, but that can wait.”

Commission Chairwoman Lisa Green joked that the drab appearance of the apartments in preliminary renderings reminded her of “prison dormitories.”

Mark Kestner, CEO of Henningsen Kestner Architects, said the current renderings are intended as “placeholders” before more thorough design work is completed.

“Architecturally, we are at the very beginning of the first step,” Kestner said.

The affordability issue

Some commissioners raised concerns about the affordability of the proposed development.

Mitchell said the apartments generally would be priced to provide workforce housing for employees of nearby businesses. However, he did not specify how many of the apartments would meet the city’s definition of affordable units — those eligible for families making less than 80 percent of the area median income.

“We are going to bring something to the table. But it all has to fit in the economic model,” Mitchell said. “I don’t believe our project causes an additional impact on the affordability issue [in Charlottesville]. I think that, in itself, it helps by increasing the supply of housing.”

Commissioner Rory Stolzenberg said the project could reduce the percentage of affordable units from the 15 percent goal set by [the City Council], “by increasing the denominator and not the numerator.”  

Next steps

Mitchell said Great Eastern will apply for a special-use permit for residential density of 43 units per acre on the Giant parcel and to waive a limit on the buildings’ setback from a public road. He said he expects the project to be reviewed by the Planning Commission officially in April.

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Josh Mandell

Josh Mandell graduated from Yale in 2016 and has been recognized by the Virginia Press Association with five awards for education writing, health, science and environmental writing and multimedia reporting.