February roundtable between city officials and development community

About 60 people who work in various fields associated with residential and commercial development gathered at the IX Park recently to discuss ways in which they can better explain to the public what their role is in a growing Charlottesville.

“We’re comprised of architects, land planners, commercial brokers, land-use attorneys, developers and site contractors,” said L.J. Lopez with Milestone Partners.

Lopez is on the steering for committee for the Charlottesville Area Development Roundtable.

“We’re all working towards the same goal and that is an effort at promoting the next great thing rather than reacting to the last bad thing,” he said.

The group formed after a February roundtable between developers and staff of Charlottesville’s Department of Neighborhood Development Services convened by NDS’s director, Alexander Ikefuna. At the conclusion, Ikefuna said they would meet again in early 2017.

“A lot of us went in there with a lot of optimism that maybe that was a catalyst for change and we could work more cooperatively,” Lopez said. “We left there with a lot enthusiasm and at the same time disappointment because there didn’t seem to be any follow-up.”

The group wants to focus on ways it can work with city officials and the public to address policy and process changes.

One specific request by the group is to have the city open up its internal permit application-tracking system to the public. Albemarle made its CountyView system accessible to all several years ago.

Other issues the group wants to tackle include streamlining forms required by NDS and improved dispute resolution policies when there are disagreements regarding decisions made by staff review.

Frank Stoner of Milestone Partners said both the city and county’s planning departments are experiencing turnover and that Albemarle officials are considering changes to the county department.

“People are talking seriously about the idea of independent engineering review as an alternative to hiring more staff,” Stoner said. “If they adopted an independent review process, there would be a lot more consistency and professionalism in the review process.”

CADRE members also want to increase the development sector’s representation on city boards and commissions related to growth and building. For instance, several of those panels are part of an effort to review the city’s zoning code.

“There are some members of the Planning Commission who saw there was a huge rift between aspirations in the Comprehensive Plan and the ability to actually do it,” said Dan Rosensweig, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville and a former member of the city’s Planning Commission.

“We need to populate that group with professionals who are in this room to get the expertise that we have into the city code,” Lopez said. “If we’re not participating in it, we can’t complain about it later.”

Lopez said the group also seeks to break down public perceptions that developers work against the public interest. He said that is not a productive attitude for the community.

“Charlottesville is a great city and No. 1 on many national lists and we have a lot of great stuff here,” Lopez said. “Imagine what we could do if we were actually working together.”

That prompted a discussion similar to ones already occurring in both Albemarle and Charlottesville.

“What do we want to be when we grow up?” asked architect Gregory Powe. “Until we get everybody aligned with what it means to be a successful city, then we’re going to be floundering.”

Another participant said a lot of that conversation will depend on the will of the people who live in Charlottesville.

“One reason the process is so difficult politically is because the majority of people who live in Charlottesville like it the way it is and they are not excited about the city going from 40,000 citizens to say 50,000 citizens,” said architect Jim Grigg. “It’s also going to happen whether folks are excited about it or they don’t favor it.”

Grigg also said it’s important to remind people that 30 years ago Charlottesville’s economic outlook was not as bright and that policies were written to encourage growth.

Another attendee said the development community needs to be able to communicate its purpose to the rest of the city.

“We do love Charlottesville and we’re not trying to turn it into a crazy metropolitan area or ruin the charm of it,” said Hannah Mahaffey, marketing director for Martin Horn. “We want to develop it into whatever it needs to be in the next 10 years.”

The group expects to meet again in late June for further discussion about how to organize.

“The overwhelming takeaway from our steering committee is that there’s a lot of enthusiasm and support and momentum around this idea to effectively create positive change in the city,” Lopez said.