Citizens, planning commissioners, city councilors continue to clash over contested vision for city’s future as suggested in the draft future land use map
This story has been updated with more information on when the Planning Commission and City Council are expected to vote on recommending and adopting, respectively, the comprehensive plan.
A five and a half hour Planning Commission work session Tuesday night proved that the Future Land Use Map remains the most contentious part of the City of Charlottesville’s comprehensive plan update.
The meeting began 30 minutes late due to technical difficulties with Zoom and ended shortly after the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for the Charlottesville area — just as a citizen commented on how increasing density and walkability could be a good way to reduce carbon emissions and thus curb further contributions to climate change.
“Sending a tornado to Charlottesville was an unconventional way to end the city planning meeting, but I guess that could count as rezoning,” community member Jonathan M. Katz remarked on Twitter. “I wonder if the tornado is pro-density.”
More than 260 community members were present at the start of the work session, which included city planning commissioners, city councilors, and representatives from Rhodeside & Harwell Inc. (RHI), the urban planning firm brought on in 2019 to assist in updating the comprehensive plan.
This was not the first meeting about the FLUM — which comprises about three pages of one chapter of the seven-chapter comprehensive plan — nor will it be the last.
Cville Plans Together project lead Jennifer Koch, a senior associate planner with RHI, started things off, presenting a summary of feedback received on the May FLUM draft, and how that feedback affected the changes shown in the most recent draft of the FLUM, released in late August. She insisted that while the draft FLUM has changed, she and the other folks at RHI are still looking to equity and affordability as their guiding principles.
None of the recommended changes are permanent. There will be yet another draft of the FLUM in the coming months, and only after the FLUM is approved by the planning commission will it begin to be used as a tool for a rewrite of the city’s zoning code, which dictates what can be built where.
Koch then explained what changed from the May draft FLUM to the August one. Those changes include:
- Pulling back on adding mixed use nodes in some neighborhoods, including North Downtown, Greenbrier and Barracks/Rugby, which removes potential for higher intensity residential and retail activity in those neighborhoods, all in recognition that Barracks Road corridor is already a large mixed use node that presents an opportunity for even higher intensity in the way of housing and retail;
- Significantly reduced density in the Lewis Mountain neighborhood (Koch noted here that since many of the parcels of land in Lewis Mountain are quite large, owners could still choose to subdivide their land, which would increase density);
- Changes to both the general residential and medium intensity residential categories, each seeing a reduction in maximum height as well as additional affordability requirements;
- Addition of a “sensitive communities” layer to, as the presentation says, “identify and support the communities that are most sensitive to displacement pressures and at risk of displacement,” a theme that came up often in community input.
The consultants made some smaller, but no less important, adjustments as well, such as adding density around schools and most parks, with Belmont Park being the exception. Koch said they heard from many community members asking that the map preserve the view of and from Belmont Park and ensure it isn’t blocked off by housing.
According to Planning Commissioner Rory Stoltzenberg, who referenced public records for this information, the two public comment periods totaled 180 minutes, more than half of the 330-minute meeting. Koch’s presentation accounted for 58 minutes, Planning Commissioner feedback for 50 minutes, and city councilor feedback 25 minutes (the rest is pleasantries, procedure, and recesses).
Fifty four people spoke during the two public comment periods, across 57 comments (three people were allowed to speak twice). Of those 54 commenters, 48 own homes in Charlottesville, 1 owns a home in Albemarle County, and 5 rent their homes. The neighborhood that was most represented was Barracks/Rugby, with 20 residents calling in for comment; the next-most represented neighborhood was Belmont-Carlton, with 5 residents calling in.
No one who spoke at the meeting — not one resident, not one planning commissioner or city councilor — was satisfied with this draft of the FLUM.
The public comment period opened with a slew of voices focusing on their own neighborhoods, asking for less density, less intensity, little change. But as it went on, the seesaw tipped in the other direction, with more people speaking about the broader community, asking for more density, more intensity, more change, in the hope of solving the city’s affordable housing crisis.
Many homeowners acknowledged the need for more affordable housing in the city, and supported the idea overall. But many homeowners also expressed concern that increased density in their neighborhood will decrease their property values, bring noise, traffic, and unattractive buildings. Some said they’ve worked hard to earn and maintain their homes and that they chose their neighborhoods based on aesthetics, quiet streets, location, and more.
One commenter mentioned that he did not know what affordable housing actually is, and asked whether the problem is not affordable housing, but poverty.
A number of people expressed concern about the “destruction of neighborhoods.” If those areas currently zoned R-1 (single-family residential) are allowed more density, developers will begin buying up and tearing down single-family homes and constructing multi-story, multi-unit apartment buildings in their stead.
Some folks asked that the process be postponed further, asked why this process is being so rushed, why they didn’t know about it until recently, and admonished city leadership, Cville Plans Together, and local media about lack of engagement and transparency in this process. One commenter mentioned she didn’t know this was happening until she read about it in the New York Times in August.
Others pointed out that this process has been going on for more than four years, and there’s been a lot of opportunity for community comment — thousands of residents have commented, either of their own accord, because of the organizing efforts of groups like the Charlottesville Low Income Housing Coalition, Livable Cville, and Citizens For Responsible Planning, or because of the outreach process.
There was a plea for “smart change, not just change,” another for “creative solutions,” and a few for more seriously considering the effects of, and our effects on, climate change, and how that can be reflected in the FLUM.
Andrew Grimshaw said, “I do not share your goal of increasing density in the city, and I don’t recall that ever being on any ballot presented to the citizens, and I’ve voted in every election since I was 18, except once, when I was overseas.” He also said that the new draft throws his street, Alderman Road, “under the bus,” because he’s certain that allowing further density on that road would mean more students, not more residents.
Another commenter called the whole thing “a hail Mary,” referencing the football term for a long pass made out of desperation and with little chance of success.
A few people acknowledged that while their homes are in historically exclusionary neighborhoods that once prevented people of color and/or people of low wealth from purchasing homes in those areas, they feel they should not be punished for decisions made many decades ago.
Other speakers pointed out that residents of historically exclusionary neighborhoods continue to benefit from those exclusionary practices, because the effects of those policies still remain.
More than an hour and a half into the meeting, Crystal Passmore, one of the few renters to comment, was the first to suggest that the feedback the consultants based this new draft of the FLUM off of, particularly in the reduction of height and density in historically exclusionary neighborhoods, may not be representative of community opinions or needs as a whole. Instead, she said, they represent the opinions and desires of those folks who have the time and the resources to attend hourslong meetings, to organize, to write emails and make phone calls.
“Your feedback summary is 33 pages long,” Passmore said to Koch and others from RHI. “The top comments you received [were] to make historically exclusionary areas more dense, to protect minority communities, and to generally increase density across the city. Those were the top three comments by email and by voicemail, which is where you received the most comments, over 1,000 comments. I feel like these are the closest thing to representative of how the city actually feels.
“It does not seem like you took any of these notes. This current draft, you specifically allowed less density in the historically exclusionary areas, where most people asked for more. You [decreased] the maximum building height when people asked for an increase in density city-wide. Over and over again tonight, I heard you say that the things we want out of these areas, that the things we want are still possible — you kept saying ‘still possible’ without saying the rest of the sentence, which is that they’re still possible even though this draft makes it harder. … You’re giving us the opposite of what we asked for in the community.
“Homeowners bought their home, they didn’t buy the city. If a homeowner does not want to turn the house into a duplex, they do not have to do that. More than half the city rents, and the people who rent want more housing. They want more affordable housing. They want housing in areas actually close to jobs and stores. The people who are talking tonight are often not the ones with young families. They’re not the people working two jobs. They’re not the people who need affordable housing. They don’t have the problem the city is trying to address, and I can tell it’s hard for them to even imagine a person having those problems. […] I hope the next map will reflect the actual community we live in, Charlottesville as a whole, not just the demographic of people who have limited time to come and speak at these meetings,” Passmore concluded.
Immediately after Passmore spoke, Benjamin Heller focused his comment on how students, many of whom claim little income but pay high rents, negatively affect the low income and rent-burdened households counts in the data being used to form the plan. He said he thinks it is irresponsible to move ahead with a map, a plan, based on data with those skewed numbers.
“It’s not fair for the city and its residents to have to bear the entire financial and physical cost of customers of a rich institution — rich in money and rich in land,” Heller said. “The only question I have, is, is this a result of laziness? I don’t think it is. You’ve all worked hard. Is it a result of incompetence? I don’t think so; we have award-winning consultants. Or is this dishonesty? And that’s what I think it is, plan proponents trying to create a false crisis narrative with exaggerated statistics. Without proper consideration of students, you haven’t given us a plan for Charlottesville. You’ve given us a plan for a city that doesn’t exist.”
As the meeting progressed, more and more speakers repeated many of the points Passmore made, particularly that the people speaking up in meeting after meeting are generally not the people who are directly affected by the affordable housing crisis.
Some also pushed back on the insinuation that homeowners contribute more to the community, because homeowners pay property taxes and renters do not. Renters, who make up more than half the city’s residents, contribute plenty, they said.
A number of speakers in the later half of the meeting said that they preferred the May draft of the FLUM to the August draft. Some also voiced their desire for more neighbors, more diverse neighbors, because to them, that — and not the buildings — is what “neighborhood character” means. Others asked for more density and intensity so that they can walk to get a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread at a possible neighborhood market, instead of having to take more time to drive, or take public transportation (which many also noted needs to improve) to a big box store.
At least one person asked for more “missing middle” housing, like duplex, triplexes, and fourplexes, that occupy the space between single-family homes and large apartment complexes.
Another speaker asked the community to consider what we collectively lose if we don’t increase density, noting that in this process, too many people are thinking about what they themselves stand to lose, rather than gain, by having more neighbors and more diverse neighbors.
Near the end of the meeting, Andrea Massey asked the consultants, the Planning Commission, and City Council, as well as the community, to acknowledge that the needs of higher wealth folks have always been, and always will be, taken care of, and it’s time we collectively prioritize the needs of community members with low and medium wealth.
While community commenters were divided in their opinions, the Planning Commission and City Council were more unified. All of them expressed disappointment in the new draft, and most voiced support for the affordable housing overlay proposed in June by the Housing Advisory Committee, asking if that could be considered more seriously for the next draft.
Planning Commission chair Hosea Mitchell added that the HAC affordable housing overlay seemed to “buoy” affordable housing, and he wants to see it embedded into the FLUM to guide zoning. He also mentioned that it’s important that the community address its history of exclusionary zoning, and he doesn’t see how the current FLUM draft combats the lingering effects of that history.
Commissioner Liz Russell also voiced concern that the way the “sensitive areas” layer on the current draft works, it would limit wealth accumulation for longtime residents of majority-Black and lower-wealth neighborhoods by saying they couldn’t turn their single-family home into a duplex to earn some extra income, but an individual or a developer could still come in and buy, flip, and/or rent a single-family home and build their own wealth. A number of councilors and commissioners both vocalized and gestured agreement with her point and asked, again, for the consultants to consider the HAC overlay instead of the “sensitive communities” designation.
Commissioners and councilors alike emphasized the importance of moving forward with the process and not delaying it further, as some members of the community and at least one organized group have requested. City Councilor Lloyd Snook reminded folks that the purpose of the comprehensive plan — of which the FLUM is one part — is “to deal with current and emerging problems,” and that the plan update that was supposed to be done three years ago floundered “because we were afraid to confront these same values” that some community members still do not want to confront, including exclusionary (racist and classist) zoning practices.
Mayor Nikuyah Walker spoke emphatically in support of prioritizing affordable housing, saying that as a community it is something we must do. “We have a lot of work to do as far as our wellbeing as a community,” she said, and “if we are talking about collective wellbeing, to arrive at that place, we’re going to have to work together.” Walker urged “the public to think about why they’re making the comments they are. People deserve decent, quality housing.”
Councilor Michael Payne added that “every day that we aren’t making these changes, the status quo continues. And we know what the status quo is, and that is gentrification, and it is not working.”
Mitchell agreed. “The longer we extend this, the longer we [prolong] the housing crisis,” he said. “Density that privileges affordability is smart,” and vulnerable communities must still be protected. He also noted that it seemed as though the Planning Commission and City Council want to go in one direction, but the draft FLUM presented that night is going in the other.
With the decision-makers’ points made, as people’s phones buzzed and screamed with National Weather Service tornado warnings, director of Neighborhood Development Services Alex Ikefuna said the path forward to the next draft FLUM, which the RHI consultants will develop and bring back to the Planning Commission, was clear.
Wednesday night’s Cville Plans Together Steering Committee meeting was shorter — about two and a half hours — and less contentious.
Koch presented the most recent FLUM draft once again (the same one she presented the previous night), and a few concrete requests came out of the meeting:
Much like the Planning Commission and City Council, the steering committee also voiced support for the HAC affordable housing overlay rather than the “sensitive communities” designation.
Steering committee member and local realtor S. Lisa Herndon asked, as she had in previous steering committee meetings, for a redlining overlay to the FLUM, and allow that to help guide the rezoning process. Such a map would “consider the overlay of historical wrongs” on the city as it is today, she said, “so that the city can be welcoming to everyone.”
Many folks on the committee supported Herndon’s request, including Val Washington, an organizer with the Charlottesville Low Income Housing Coalition, who said that including an explanation of redlining with the map would (hopefully) help those folks who are living comfortably in those historically exclusionary communities see how they benefit from redlining to this day.
“Wealth creation for whom?,” was the first question for Joy Johnson, co-founder of the Public Housing Association of Residents. Johnson said that she knows people losing their homes every day in 10th and Page. “Before, it was Fifeville. Next, it’ll be Rose Hill.” She doesn’t see how this particular draft of the FLUM would stop gentrification, and adds that she’s not the only person struggling to see that.
Brandon Collins, an organizer with PHAR, asked for more direct engagement with community members from city leadership, both city councilors and planning commissioners.
They discussed other things as well, such as balancing use of data with personal stories from community members, striking a middle ground between allowing development to happen responsibly without preventing development altogether.
A new draft of the FLUM will be out in time for the Cville Plans Together group to meet once again with the Planning Commission in October. [See the upcoming meeting schedule here.]
It’s likely that public comments will only get more heated as time goes on and we near the dates when the Planning Commission votes on whether or not to recommend the comprehensive plan as a whole to City Council (October 12), and City Council votes on whether or not to adopt the plan.
And between now and then, Koch and others at RHI have a lot of work to do on yet another revision of the draft FLUM.
“Planning Commission and Council have both made it clear to us that they would like to take a vote on the comprehensive plan in 2021,” said Koch in an interview separate from the meetings. Both groups will participate in a joint hearing on October 12 where, Koch says, “Planning Commission would (in theory) vote to recommend the comprehensive plan to Council for adoption.” City Council will then take two meetings to consider adopting the plan, and the first of those meetings is scheduled to take place in November.
“Though this is our current schedule, it will depend on how the next few weeks proceed. If it proceeds with this schedule, there will be public notifications in a variety of ways as we get closer to the date,” said Koch.
Already, various citizen groups are putting together another round of letter, email, and yard sign campaigns spurred by the developments in this week’s meetings, aiming to influence the future of whichever version of the city they desire.