Rio Road Small-Area example Credit: Credit: Renaissance Planning Group

As Albemarle County prepares for a larger population, officials are seeking ways to encourage the development of an urban community along U.S. 29.

The Board of Supervisors held a joint session Tuesday with the Planning Commission to hear an update on the Rio Road small-area plan, a document that seeks to create a vision for the mid-21st century.

“Change happens,” said Mike Callahan of the Renaissance Planning Group as he pointed to an aerial photo from 1956 that showed nothing but farmland in the area around the Rio Road and U.S. 29.

“What is this area going to look like in another sixty years?” he asked.

The Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia has projected a county population of 141,221 in 2040, up from their 2016 estimate of 105,715.

There has been much government investment in the area over the past few years, including the opening of a new $11.7 million in a Northside Library branch in a repurposed building on Rio Road. Last year, the Virginia Department of Transportation completed a grade-separated interchange that offered a way for pedestrians to move east and west across U.S. 29.

A majority of Albemarle supervisors have indicated their support to move the county’s court system and administrative offices to a new location in the urban to ring and the Rio Road area is one possibility.

The work for the plan is happening at the same time the firm Stantec is preparing a strategy for the county government to enter into a public-private partnership to incentivize redevelopment.

“This is right at the intersection of a lot of goals for the county,” said county planner Rachel Falkenstein.

Many of the properties in the vicinity of the intersection are home to older shopping centers such as Albemarle Square and Fashion Square Mall.

“In this [area] there’s a lot of surface parking that is underutilized,” Callahan said.

The current idea in the small-area plan is to create three “nodes” of development while focusing on the area around the Rio Road intersection first.

Callahan noted that the area is currently heavily retail and that zoning changes might be required to encourage property owners to move forward.

“It’s really important in the future of the success of the development area policy that redevelopment can happen,” Callahan said. “We think it’s an opportunity for the property owners. For the community it’s a win because it creates the opportunity for a walkable community.”

A long-term goal would be to connect the three nodes with an enhanced transit system.

“Perhaps in the short-term that’s some sort of an express bus, but over time you evolve into something like bus rapid transit that has stations,” Callahan said.

The county last considered bus rapid transit in the late 2000s when they explored a regional transit authority with the city of Charlottesville. The idea was shelved after the General Assembly declined to allow the two communities to hold a referendum to gauge public opinion on a sales tax to fund the project.

The planning also informs how the road network might look in the future to create smaller blocks and encourage a walkable town.

“This is meant to inspire,” said Vlad Gavrilovic, a principal with the Renaissance Planning Group. “This is a vision that is going to be implemented by business and property owners.”

Gavrilovic said that no new road connections are planned through existing residential neighborhoods along the U.S. 29 corridor.

Supervisors and commissioners were also given examples of similar new towns. One example shown was Crocker Park in the suburbs outside of Cleveland, Ohio.

This 70-acre development was attractive enough for the company American Greetings to locate their headquarters there. Callahan said they were attracted by the urban main street environment.

“These types of developments are happening in other parts of the country,” Callahan sad.

One planning commissioner said the designs for many urban spaces are generic.

“I have visited places like this around the country,” said Karen Firehock. “I remember walking down a street like one of these and I had no idea where I was.”

Firehock said any new community needs to embrace Albemarle’s geographical character.

“We’ve got mountains and rivers and all this beautiful nature,” Firehock said. “I don’t want to feel like I’m not there anymore.”

The meeting was intended to make sure staff and the developers are on track to have a concept delivered to supervisors by October.

However, one supervisor suggested the deadline be pushed back to help the public better understand the idea of building a new urbanized town in the county.

“Conceptually it’s very clear but operationally they have to be able to see it and I think we’re going to need quite a bit in the way of visualization,” said Supervisor Rick Randolph, adding that extra time may help citizens better understand a possible decision to move the county courts and government building.

One commissioner asked how involved existing property owners have been in the process.

“They can’t say things as freely as you and I can because they represent a group of entities,” said Andrew Gast-Bray, the county’s planning director. He said Fashion Square Mall and Albemarle Square have both been at the table.

The work on a Rio Road small-area plan is going on at the same time that the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission is assisting the city and county on planning for the area around the Hydraulic Road intersection. There will be a neighborhood meeting for that plan at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Holiday Inn on Emmet Street.