As Charlottesville’s construction boom continues for a second year, some on the City Council are questioning whether new buildings are conforming to the city’s vision of development.
“Are the projects that we are approving really creating the kind of environments the aspirational language in our Comprehensive Plan is always striving for?” Councilor Kathy Galvin asked at last week’s council meeting.
Galvin’s comments came during a briefing of various construction projects underway within city limits.
“There’s a lot going on and sometimes we don’t realize what all is happening,” said Jim Tolbert, the city’s director of neighborhood development services.
In 2012, more than $211 million in construction projects were built. Tolbert said the city will have a similar amount of building this calendar year.
Since 1996, the city has averaged $84 million in construction projects each year.
West Main Street is undergoing a major transformation as three buildings are at different stages of construction. The Battle Building will be the new home of the University of Virginia’s Children’s Hospital; the foundation is soon to be poured for the 243-unit Plaza on West Main; and buildings will soon be demolished to make way for a Marriott Residence Inn.
“It’s looking like they’re going to start construction [on the hotel] this fall,” Tolbert said.
Other projects currently under construction include the 300-unit Arlington and Millmont apartment complex; the 35-unit Oakhurst Inn and Apartments at the corner of Jefferson Park Avenue Extended and Emmet Street; and the 301-unit City Walk on Water Street.
Galvin said the scale of the City Walk project is too massive and does not create an area where pedestrians will feel welcomed.
“You can see this towering parking garage from many different points around, and when you’re on Carlton, the retaining walls are taller than I am, creating a fortress effect,” Galvin said. “The public environment at the street gets degraded when we don’t have rules in place.”
“We have our limits with the code that we have, and we have our limits with what we can do with the code under Virginia law,” Tolbert said.
“That makes it very difficult for many members of the public to wrap their arms around the concept of development and density,” Galvin said. She called for the city to conduct a “smart growth audit” to ensure that policies match language calling for walkable and bicycle-friendly streets.
Galvin cited a 48-unit apartment complex under construction on Wertland Street as another example of poor design. She said the structure looks fine when viewed from the front.
“But if you’re coming down from 11th Street at Page Street, it looks like a 50-foot tidal wave and its dwarfing a historic neighborhood,” Galvin said.
That prompted Councilor Dede Smith to point out that the eight-story Plaza on West Main will dwarf Fifeville when it is completed. Smith was the lone vote against the project when it was approved in December.
“An eight-story building on the highest point in Charlottesville is not going to be shaded by the trees,” Smith said.
Smith also wanted to know what population was being attracted to Charlottesville based on the nature of the new developments.
“Who is going to live at City Walk?” Smith asked. “Our number of families is declining in the city and it has been stated as a priority that we would like to at least maintain or grow housing for families.”
Tolbert said City Walk likely will be marketed to young professionals, but the many townhouses under construction in the city could be rented or sold to families.
Not all councilors were critical of some of the current development.
“Let’s not lose sight of the fact that we are having development in our communities and the city is vibrant and growing,” Mayor Satyendra Huja said.