Developer Oliver Kuttner’s plan to build a 233-unit, nine-story residential tower in downtown Charlottesville has been dealt a setback by the city’s Planning Commission.
Commissioners voted 4 to 2 at their meeting last week to recommend denial of a special-use permit that would allow Kuttner to build at a much higher level of residential density than permitted under the existing zoning.
“You all have been one of the toughest planning commissions I’ve ever dealt with,” Russ Nixon, Kuttner’s representative, told the commission.
While the “downtown extended” zoning district allows buildings to be as tall as nine stories, the permit is needed to exceed the 60 dwelling units that could be built by-right on the 1.37-acre property at 201 Garrett St. The structure would be built above and adjacent to the existing Glass Building.
The building also would have 49,580 square feet of new commercial space.
“This project is very unique in nature,” Nixon said. “Mr. Kuttner is proposing to put in small loft apartments which he considers affordable housing for the folks that would be living there.”
Nixon said the potential market includes single people, young married couples and elderly married couples.
Kuttner has agreed to designate eight 450-square-foot units as affordable. Rent in those units would be capped at $823 a month, according to city housing specialist Kathy McHugh. That assumes the unit would have at least one bedroom.
Several neighbors said the project would be out of scale with the area.
“I am not opposed to development,” said Kevin Silson, a resident of the neighboring Gleason building. “However, I think the magnitude of this development is inappropriate to the site.”
Another resident of the Gleason said she wanted the commission to take into account the cumulative effects of development in the neighborhood.
“The Market Plaza is also going to be incredibly disruptive,” said Jane Trowbridge. “The parking issue is very important for our neighborhood because it’s already very difficult for people to find on-street parking.”
The plan currently shows 141 spaces in a two-story parking garage. City parking requirements call for one space per residential unit, so Kuttner will have to secure more spaces.
“They have the opportunity to get long-term leases on spaces within a thousand feet of the site or pay into a parking fund, which I believe the rate right now is about $18,000 per space,” said city planner Brian Haluska. “They’re not going to enter into those agreements until they know how many units they can build on the site.”
Haluska said the city’s Comprehensive Plan encourages additional residential density that allows for more people to live and work downtown without need for a car.
“This is a site that is very close to our downtown area and a lot of the services there,” Haluska said. “Driving anywhere downtown would be silly from this location.”
The Strategic Investment Area plan, a study that is part of the city’s Comprehensive Plan, vaguely recommends office use at the site rather than residential.
“As you read through the SIA plan, you realize this site really didn’t get considered a lot because it already had a building on it,” Haluska said. “The whole area is categorized as mid-rise buildings. The zoning ordinance permits 101 feet and we can’t prevent someone going to 101 feet.”
Commissioner Genevieve Keller served on the steering committee for the SIA.
“Many of us who served asked staff when the city would implement the SIA and begin the zoning changes that need to be addressed,” Keller said, adding that the committee wanted city policy changed to prevent projects as massive as the one Kuttner is proposing.
However, Keller acknowledged that the commission’s decision needed to be made based on the existing zoning, and not the vision called for in the SIA.
“We have a stated goal of increasing density in this area but this is four times the density allowed by-right,” she said. “I’m not convinced there’s a need for this many of that type of housing.”
Commissioner Lisa Green supported the project.
“When we had our Comprehensive Plan, we were given an entire set of data on the type of people who will need housing in the next 10 or 20 years,” Green said. “It’s the millennials, the younger folks and our retirees.”
Some commissioners said they could support the project if it had fewer units.
“My sense is that there about 40 units too many in this building,” said Commissioner Kurt Keesecker. He added that a reduction would both decrease the need for parking and make the building smaller in scale.
Nixon said Kuttner is willing to reduce the project by 40 units, but that he does not want to reduce the height.
Nixon did not ask for a deferral to prepare another plan, and the commission decided to vote on the project before it. With the commission’s recommendation for denial, the matter will go before the City Council later this summer.
“I think you’re going to miss the boat on something huge for the city in the next 10 years if you don’t go forward with this,” Nixon said.