At a joint planning meeting last week, members of Charlottesville’s City Council and Planning Commission found themselves tasked with a staff-designed planning exercise. With the group spread out among three tables, poster-sized black-and-white city maps beckoned colored pencils.

City planners Brian Haluska and Missy Creasy asked the officials to color their maps to match existing conditions delineating green space, employment centers, high-density residential, entertainment venues, civic centers and transportation connections. Staff added one caveat — they had to do it from memory.

“If you have any papers, put them under your chair,” said Creasy, sounding more like a schoolteacher preparing her class for a quiz. “If I see that you are looking at any of your papers, then I am going to take your papers. We are going with a clean slate for this evening.”

“We’re just asking everyone to go down the list and fill in the city … the way you see it now,” Haluska said. “You can also do potential [uses] if you wish.”

Some tables started with green pencils to outline parks; others marked up existing business zones in red. All wrestled with whether to document today’s conditions versus a city of the future.

“We wore off the entire lead of our green pencil,” said Councilor Kristin Szakos. “We were more interested in parks that don’t exist yet.”

“We also recognized that the University [of Virginia] and the hospital are major employment centers,” said architect Kurt Keesecker, a member of the Planning Commission. “So we tried to look at how we could bring more multi-family residential or high-density residential to the fringes of those areas.”

After looking at the completed maps, Haluska said an important question was to decide whether the city’s Comprehensive Plan needs a major revision or a fine tuning.

“The question we have is whether this document should reflect the existing conditions or be aspirational and show different land uses rather than what is currently on the ground,” Haluska asked. “The [land use map] and the zoning map [today] don’t allow some of those opportunities that you identified to happen.”

Thursday’s exercise was part of the city’s update of its Comprehensive Plan. Charlottesville and Albemarle County are updating their plans simultaneously in concert with the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission’s three-year Livable Communities Planning Project, which is supported by a $1 million federal grant awarded in 2010.

In the discussion, officials asked whether some of the commercial activity in a neighborhood such as Belmont could be replicated, for example, in Greenbrier.

“It would be interesting to see what kind of reaction we would get if we were to propose little commercial nodes in some of these ‘suburban deserts’ of the city,” Councilor Dave Norris said. “I imagine some people would really like the idea of being able to walk [to a neighborhood store] and others would be up in arms about having commercial activity in a residential neighborhood.”

A half-dozen city residents observed the exercise before they were invited to make comments of their own.

“Certain people live in certain neighborhoods because they like the character of that neighborhood and they are really tenacious about it,” said North Downtown resident Colette Hall. “If you say, let’s change the zoning to put in X, Y or Z, that’s really important to the people who have invested [in their homes].”

The Woolen Mills neighborhood had three residents in attendance, including neighborhood association president Victoria Dunham.

“When we think about commercial activity being in our neighborhoods, we need to think about impacts and buffering,” Dunham said. “We don’t want density in our neighborhood, we really don’t … because those large lots contain many tress, they contain greenery, they contain nature.”

“I don’t think every neighborhood has to be dense,” Dunham added. “We keep saying over and over again we need to grow, but nobody ever says why and nobody ever says what the end result would be.”

Bill Emory, a Woolen Mills resident and former Planning Commission member, said he hopes the updated plan will establish buffers between homes and industry.

“For decades we have asked for the reversal of the split parcel industrial zoning overlaid on our residential backyards,” Emory said. “Having contiguous residential and industrial zoning with no buffer is an outrage.”

Haluska said city staff would start drafting new chapters of the Comprehensive Plan in August and that the process would culminate in public hearings before the City Council next year.

“We’re doing focus groups all through the summer; we still have quite a few of those to go,” Haluska said. “We are also out in the community at events, taking surveys and talking to people about what they want to see in their neighborhoods, improvements they want to make and what things they want to be able to walk to.”