A three-dimensional depicting the heights allowed in a full zoning build-out allowed under the proposed zoning ordinance change

(Image: City of Charlottesville)

The Charlottesville Planning Commission will wait one more month to give further consideration to an amendment to the City’s downtown zoning ordinances which would change by-right building heights.  New structures exceeding those limits would require a special use permit.  The City’s consideration of new building height limits began in mid-2006 in response to a rush of 9-story building proposals on and around the Downtown Mall.

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At their March 25, 2008 work session, the Commission also discussed ordinance issues related to housing density and the Commission’s policy for public input at work sessions.  The Commission will finalize recommendations for City Council at a future meeting.


Five 9-story building projects in the downtown are in various stages of development. They are the Waterhouse, the Landmark Hotel, 201 Avon, the Coal Tower, and the corner of Ridge-McIntire/West Main.

Former Mayor David Brown appointed a task force consisting of Commissioners, members of the Board of Architectural Review, and key stakeholders, many of whom were in attendance at the work session.  The study initially looked at both building heights and allowed residential densities, but those were split into separate items to be considered separately by the Planning Commission.

“Essentially we were concerned with two things. One was that the [by-right] overall heights allowed in the downtown area might be too high,” Tolbert said. “And we had the conflict that really initiated this with the Keith Woodard building at First and Main where we have a provision in the BAR’s guidelines that say no building or structure should be more than two times the mass and height of surrounding properties.”  Tolbert said the latter standard would have prevented nearly any tall building downtown.

This chart lists the changes that would be made to the zoning ordinance (click through to read)

Currently, a new building in the downtown mall district (north of Water Street and south of Jefferson) Street would have a by-right development height of 101 feet. The proposed ordinance change would lower that to 70 feet, but would allow a developer to apply for a special use permit to construct to 101 feet.

Buildings on the south side of West Main Street are currently restricted to sixty feet by-right, with 80 feet allowed with a special use permit. The ordinance change would raise the by-right height to 70 feet, but would allow a height of 101 feet with a special use permit. That would increase by at least two stories the height of buildings on that side of the street.

On the other side of the street, buildings are currently allowed to be 50 feet tall by-right, with no opportunity to apply for a special use permit. Under the amendments, the by-right figure would be raised to 60 feet, with 70 feet allowed with a special use permit.

The committee also recommended changing the zoning ordinance to create a new district for the Corner, but to make no changes at this time to the existing zoning.  Other changes would be made to the required streetwall and stepbacks, as noted in the chart to the right.

Commissioner Genevieve Keller asked why the committee felt the need to raise by-right building heights on West Main Street. Tolbert said the Committee felt that West Main could use more height, and that the proposed changes would provide “symmetry on the street.”

Commissioner Dan Rosensweig asked why buildings on the south side could be 31 feet taller than on the north. Tolbert said one factor is that the lots on the south are separated from other neighborhoods by the railroad.

The ordinances would also institute minimum heights for downtown for the first time. Commissioner Keller asked if a property owner whose building is destroyed in a disaster would be forced to build to the maximum height. Former City Planner Ashley Cooper served on the committee, and now works for developer Bill Atwood. Cooper said the non-conformities could be allowed in certain situations.

Commissioner Keller also asked if there was more information on what the existing street heights are on West Main Street, saying that she needed to better understand how higher buildings would affect the street. Kay Slaughter, who represents the Southern Environmental Law Center on the committee, said they used anecdotal evidence. Keller said she wanted more concrete information.

“We’re making major decisions that will affect the development and redevelopment process,” Keller said. “I think it’s important that people understand what the base is before we make changes.”

The Monticello building on 5th and E. Jefferson (left) stands tall above its neighbors

Commissioner Farruggio pointed out that under the ordinance changes, a developer could build a 70 foot building on the southern side of East Jefferson Street. Currently the tallest building on that side is the former Monticello Hotel, but no other building is currently taller than three stories. Farruggio recommended revisiting the zoning for that street and suggested a 40 foot maximum. Tolbert  pointed out that the by-right height was recently as high as 187, but that the Committee didn’t address Jefferson Street.  He suggested the boundary for the Downtown North district be extended south to cover the issue.  Keller said she would like to see some changes for Jefferson as well.  Tolbert agreed to make the adjustments, as well as slight adjustments for the South and Water districts

Rosensweig asked how a street that had two different sets of building height standards could appear to be part of the same street. Committee and BAR Member Fred Wolf pointed out that street walls and step backs would be the way in which planners can establish continuity for a street.

Keller also said she was concerned about a 101 foot building at the intersection of what used to be the corner of Garrett and Ridge Streets (the roads are no longer connected). Currently that site is occupied by the firm Macrosoft, and is proposed to have the same classification as West Main South. Tolbert wasn’t certain that was correct, and that may have been a mapping error. “The Committee has never focused on that [area],” he said.


David Brown

asked Tolbert about the timeline for the ordinance changes. Tolbert said he had hoped to have the Planning Commission vote on the recommendations in April, but that would now need to be pushed back to May.

Brown said it was important to work fast. “The longer we take, the more properties get affected because someone has moved ahead in the mean-time,” Brown said. He suggested breaking the ordinance change into pieces so the areas that had been studied could be rezoned. Keller asked if that would be legal. Tolbert said it was legal to move forward with anything less than the whole of what had been advertised. Farruggio said he was reluctant to do move forward on a piecemeal basis. Deputy City Attorney Rich Harris said he would rather see it move forward as one ordinance change.

Keller said she was concerned with treating the two sides of West Main Street differently. “It troubles me from a design point of view that we would be encouraging buildings to be considerably taller on one side of the street than the other, “ Keller said. Farruggio said the setback of 15 feet would allow for the creation of a wide sidewalk extending all the way from the University of Virginia to the Downtown Mall.

Keller also said she would prefer to see the West Main corridor be split into two zoning districts out of a concern that the City was approving far too much for developers. “I wonder if we’re biting off too much at one time. Having lived here all of my life and watched all the development patterns it seems like we get one or two major buildings  a decade and so I really don’t believe we’re going to have a boulevard of very tall buildings. I think these will be cherry picked, and so I would really like to see us move ahead incrementally.”

Farruggio said he supported changing the zoning for all of Water Street now to take advantage of redevelopment that is soon to come.

“There’s three very large areas that are ready for redevelopment and I would want to capitalize on what may occur there because I really want to get, and I think that we as a City really are moving awards getting the density to get some transit working, and I want to have the same plan for the whole area,” Farruggio said. Lewis agreed that all of West Main should be planned at this time, but also questioned why the two sides of the road would have different allowed heights.

Osteen said he thought the asymmetry would be imperceptible because of the setbacks and stepbacks.

Commission discusses reduced density proposal

After the discussion on building heights concluded, the topic moved to the issue of changing the allowed densities. Tolbert said the public hearing on these changes would not come until after the building heights issues moves forward.

Tolbert said staff was concerned that the by-right densities under existing zoning were set too high, denying the opportunity for the City to require a project developer to address impacts on infrastructure. For example, the developers are currently allowed 87 units per acre by-right, with an opportunity to apply for a special use permit to reach 200. For downtown, he suggested reducing the by-right to 43 units per acre and up to 240 units with an SUP.

“The gist of that is that by-rights would be lowered, and in most cases the ability to do more with an SUP would be increased, and the beauty of an SUP is that it gives us the opportunity to mitigate specific concerns resulting from that development that we might not otherwise be able to deal with,” Tolbert said.

After a discussion, Tolbert asked the Commission if they were satisfied with the direction he is going in on density. Farruggio said his presentation had been helpful. Keller asked for Tolbert to put his rationale into a narrative that she could read.  Lewis said she would have preferred to see the height and density adjustments undertaken in the same ordinance change, given that both will affect property owners.

After the two items were concluded, Farruggio asked if any members of the development community would like to weigh in on the discussion. Just as architect John Matthews was about to speak, Commissioner Keller raised an objection.

“I have no problem with listening to what [Mr. Matthews] is trying to say, but in my experience prior to joining the Planning Commission the work session was a closed meeting and I often attended work sessions and took notes but  I didn’t have an opportunity to speak,” Keller said, adding that the Commission needed a policy to govern public comment at work sessions. “There may have been people who would have attended this meeting and didn’t because they knew they wouldn’t have an opportunity to have input.”

Lewis said the Commission took comment during the historic preservation work sessions. Keller said if the public is allowed to comment, it should be reflected on the agenda.  Deputy City Attorney Rich Harris said he would come up with a policy that distinguished between a public hearing and public comment at a work session.

When Matthews finally spoke, he identified himself as an architect who is working on many projects on West Main. He said he thought increased building heights and densities were vital to the health of the corridor, and would not threaten the existing character.  Matthews also added that higher densities fit in with the City’s desire to become more sustainable.

Ivor Romenesko of the Appraisal Group and the Landmark Realty group pointed out that the City’s future growth in tax collections would come through additional density, and that increased residential density on West Main was justified because of the economic engine of the University of Virginia.

Developer Keith Woodard suggested that the special use permit process have clear guidelines that would allow developers to keep engineering costs lower by knowing what would be expected of them. He also disagreed with lowering by-right densities.

Ashley Cooper suggested that the City develop three-dimensional models to help the public understand the big changes that will be coming.

Keller supported Woodard’s request, and called for guidelines. “I’m concerned about us approving this ordinance and not being prepared to make decisions about special use permits,” Keller said. Cheri Lewis asked for more information on what other communities require for special use permits, and also wanted to know what design control powers the Commission would have.

When asked by Rosensweig if the intent was to improve the City’s ability to obtain proffers, Tolbert pointed out that proffers will not be part of the SUP process. Instead, the City can impose specific conditions directly related to the project, which could involve cash.

Rosensweig then asked if the density changes could help create more affordable living choices. Tolbert said  a new bill passed by the General Assembly at the request of the City of Charlottesville gives the City more power. The City will be able to require a percentage of “affordable” units as a condition for each SUP. As with the County, the developer can either build the number of units, or contribute to the City’s affordable housing fund.

Timeline for podcast:

Sean Tubbs


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