City commission incorporates some feedback into Comprehensive Plan

The Charlottesville Planning Commission has moved closer toward completing a draft of the city’s 2018 Comprehensive Plan.

Commissioners on Tuesday set out to discuss the transportation, housing, environmental sustainability, historic preservation, community facilities and economic sustainability chapters of the document.

“This is an opportunity to see if we’re close on some of these, so that those [chapters] can be formatted and moved forward to our December deadline to allow you all the opportunity to spend more time on the land use end of things, which is where a good amount of work needs to occur,” said Missy Creasy, the city’s assistant director Neighborhood Development Services.

But only two chapters were discussed. The housing chapter dominated the Planning Commission’s time, taking most of the two-hour meeting.

“I think this is a good stopping point — that we should go home and marinate over it,” Commissioner Taneia Dowell said toward the end of the meeting as the panel discussed mechanisms for incentivizing developers to build affordable housing within their projects.

In the wake of the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville on Aug. 11 and 12, 2017, affordable housing has become one of the highest priorities for the city. Housing advocates have increased pressure on the commission in particular to engage low-income and nonwhite residents in the Comprehensive Plan process.

The Planning Commission recently completed its fourth phase of engagement, which included online and in-person surveys. Mayor Nikuyah Walker and Councilor Wes Bellamy personally handed out surveys in an effort to reach more of the city’s African-American residents.

The number of people engaged increased, from 127 surveys returned in the first phase to 1,182 survey responses in the fourth, but the demographics of those surveyed did not change dramatically from previous outreach efforts. Respondents who were white increased from percent in the first effort to percent in the fourth, and respondents making more than $100,000 annually increased from percent to percent.

“We received a lot more comments overall in the last phase, which allowed us to look at each group individually and compare, instead of mash it all together like we have in the past,” Commissioner Lyle Solla-Yates said in an email. “For example, affordable housing shows up as a priority in every group, but the parks and neighborhood breakdowns are very different for each group.”

Staff and commissioners incorporated feedback they had heard over the course of the year into the chapter. One change was to specify that developers proffer affordable housing at less than 50 percent of area median income when they seek rezonings. Another change was to make language on racial diversity an explicit part of the housing chapter’s vision statement.

“Charlottesville housing will represent and support a city of well-maintained and inclusive neighborhoods that reflect social, racial, ethnic and economic diversity for all current and future residents of all income levels,” Chairwoman Lisa Green read as the commission finalized the statement.

Green also emphasized that the citywide housing strategy being spearheaded by the Housing Advisory Committee will fill in the details of how to implement that vision.

“I don’t want us to try to wordsmith and second-guess what’s going to be in that and put it all in here,” Green said.

The transportation chapter dominated the rest of the time allotted for the work session. Rory Stolzenberg, who is a new member of the Planning Commission, prompted a half-hour discussion on whether the city should require developers to provide a minimum number of parking spots per dwelling unit.

“There’s nothing in here about reducing parking requirements,” Stolzenberg said. “If people want parking on their properties, they can put parking there … or if developers think they need it to get financing. I don’t think that we need to force people to work against all our goals in the rest of this chapter.”

Stolzenberg argued that parking minimums decrease housing affordability and encourage people who can use more sustainable forms of transportation to own cars.

Other commissioners worried about the consequences of abolishing parking minimums.

“When I first started on the Planning Commission, I thought I had it all figured out. I rode my bike everywhere. I was independent … and then I met somebody with kids,” Green said.

“We do have a lot of single parents around in this town. If you don’t have parking so you can run in and pick up somebody and run in and pick up somebody else, I hate to tell you — we don’t have a transit system right now that allows us to do that.”

The commission also added the goal of providing bus service every 15 minutes from all stops to the draft.

The Planning Commission will send further comments to Creasy, in the hope of streamlining the next Comprehensive Plan work session. The commission is expected to submit the draft plan to the City Council by December.

Virginia requires its localities to review their comprehensive plans — which describes their visions for land use, transportation and other priorities — at regular intervals. Charlottesville’s last update occurred in 2013.