Comprehensive Plan consultants consider more seats at the table

This week was the steering committee kickoff for the city’s Comprehensive Plan update, affordable housing strategy and zoning rewrite. While much of the conversation focused on next steps and general goals, consultants and committee members alike pondered who else in the community needs representation going forward. Various people representing an array of residents, businesses, and general concerns from around the city gathered at City Hall for the first part of about two years of work coordinating with consultancy firm Rhodeside & Harwell Inc.In November of last year it was announced that Rhodeside was hired for nearly $1 million to help steer the final stages of Charlottesville’s Comprehensive Plan, along with an affordable housing strategy, and zoning changes that could allow for levels of higher density in lower density areas of the city.Being the first meeting, introductions were made, goals and input was assessed and conversations about how to best engage the community happened.

“While we have all of you wonderful people in the room, we also know that all of you don’t represent everyone in Charlottesville.”

LaToya Thomas, Consultant

A portion of the meeting was dedicated to input from the steering committee, where Lisa Herndon, a local Realtor, voiced concern for diverse representation.“I don’t see a lot of diversity here, so I truly want to see that in the community engagement,” she said.In response LaToya Thomas of Washington, Brick and Story consulting — who is collaborating with Rhodeside in this process — added her perspective and experience.“As a person of color, I intentionally go out with the lens looking for that.”Thomas’ consultancy specializes in “using personal narratives to build bridges.”“While we have all of you wonderful people in the room, we also know that all of you don’t represent everyone in Charlottesville,” Thomas said. “That’s just the reality of most committees that get organized. So part of our job and part of my job in particular — and part of what I specialize in — is looking for who is not in the room, who’s not that the table, and who often is not having their voice heard, or who’s possibly feeling like their voice doesn’t matter.She added that figuring out how to bring such voices into the larger conversation is a goal to foster a more “robust and inclusive” process.

Consultants from Rhodeside & Harwell Incorporated and Brick and Story meet with a steering committee to develop a housing strategy, zoning rewrites, and finish Charlottesville’s comprehensive plan. Credit: Credit: Charlotte Rene Woods / Charlottesville Tomorrow

One idea Rhodeside has is to hire locals who can engage various communities directly and organically as well as participate in pop-up events. Other ideas for important focal points in the development of a housing strategy and comprehensive plan entailed the intersection of transportation with climate resiliency and equity, as well as environmentally friendly landscaping measures and stormwater management.Meanwhile “engagement fatigue” was referenced by several in attendance, as the Comprehensive Plan has been years in the making before Rhodeside was brought in to revitalize and help guide it. Architect Rachel Lloyd also mentioned how so much work can be done before ideas falter in city council votes, adding “it has resulted in a lack of trust in some communities.” She said she was glad to see Councilor Heather Hill in attendance, even though she left early. Rhodeside indicated that they planned some outreach with city councilors so they can stay in the loop along the way.As the process is expected to take about two years, Jennifer Koch, a senior associate and urban planner with Rhodeside, stated that the housing strategy is expected to be complete by the end of this year and that the committee meetings could happen every couple of months. By the end of the meeting, the ideas for best meeting dates and anyone else who should be included was on everyone’s minds. There is an anticipated Planning Commission work session scheduled for the end of February and the next potential steering committee meeting should be sometime in March. In the meantime, Rhodeside will be setting up a website, strategizing engagement, and considering branding to help illuminate the ongoing work.