Will Albemarle’s urban ring of the future look more like downtown Charlottesville?  Will it have 10-story buildings connected by bus rapid transit?

In a classroom at Mary C. Greer Elementary School on Monday, the Places29-Rio Community Advisory Committee discussed what the area between the Charlottesville Fashion Square mall and the Rivanna River could look like years from now, when students using the classroom today will have children of their own.

Consultants working on Albemarle County’s Rio+29 Small Area Plan presented several land-use alternatives to the advisory committee. The undertaking was called for in the Places29 Master Plan adopted in 2011 and is supported by a $65,000 grant from the Virginia Office of Intermodal Planning.

Renaissance Planning project manager Mike Callahan said it was a “dry run” of their presentation at an upcoming community meeting scheduled for Dec. 12. Callahan said the land-use alternatives would likely be adjusted after getting feedback from the committee.

Vlad Gavrilovic, principal at Renaissance Planning, said the alternatives discussed were designed to focus the future development of the area into circular nodes of high activity.

“A key principle… is to create these nodes where you’ve got a catalyst, you’ve got a reason for density,” Gavrilovic said. “Don’t have all this high development in between… don’t spread out [development] like peanut butter.”

The presentation identified U.S. 29 intersections at Berkmar Drive, Rio Road, Hilton Heights Road (near Sam’s Club) and Woodbrook Drive (near Lowe’s) as potential nodes. Hilton Heights and Woodbrook were illustrated as “half nodes,” with more development on the western side of U.S. 29 due to existing residential neighborhoods to the east.

Callahan said it would take about 15 minutes to walk from the center of a node to its outer edge. Renaissance Planning recommended that no more than three of these intersections be designated as nodes to allow for open space between these centers of development.

The Renaissance Planning presentation said the tallest buildings in the Rio+29 area would be located at the core of a node —  up to seven stories in primarily residential centers, and up to 10 stories in those with mostly offices. Buildings further from the core would be smaller.

Local businesses and residents voiced conflicting opinions about building height limits in the Rio+29 area at community meetings earlier this year. Business owners desired more height to maximize the use of limited land, while residents generally opposed the construction of tall buildings.

Like the Places29 Master Plan, the Rio+29 Small Area Plan anticipates the addition of new public transportation systems in the U.S. 29 corridor, specifically bus rapid transit routes that are separated from highway traffic.  

A 2014 proposal by Charlottesville Area Transit estimated that bringing bus rapid transit to U.S. 29 could cost more than $70 million. Gavrilovic said he believed the proven economic value of high-quality public transportation would eventually motivate Albemarle County and the City of Charlottesville to implement bus rapid transit or a similar system in the Route 29 corridor.

“If you’re going to add density here, you’ve got to have some way of taking those cars off the roads,” Gavrilovic said. “We always say to plan for transit-oriented development, even if the transit takes decades to get there.”

Callahan said it could take 50 years for the small area plan to be fully realized. This prompted committee member Nancy Hunt to question the planners’ emphasis on the current lifestyle preferences of millennials. She said they should instead focus on attracting businesses to the area.

Committee member Audrey Kocher said there was a need in the area for more outdoor play spaces, such as basketball courts. Gavrilovic said it was important for the public to focus on choosing a broader plan for land use before proposing any specific amenities at the Dec. 12 community meeting. 

“You don’t want someone to totally reject, or love a plan because of one tiny detail that’s there,” he said.


Josh Mandell

Josh Mandell graduated from Yale in 2016 and has been recognized by the Virginia Press Association with five awards for education writing, health, science and environmental writing and multimedia reporting.