Work under way for new zoning rules for Strategic Investment Area

A nonprofit hired by the city of Charlottesville to rewrite the zoning code for an area south of the Downtown Mall sought to explain the purpose of their work Tuesday to an audience interested in preserving affordable housing in the area.

The group told the audience it would work to cater a draft form-based code to input from stakeholders.

“We’re going to spend the next two days talking to you and listening, and based on what we hear we’ll write a first draft of the new zoning code that reflects what we heard from the community,” said Marta Goldsmith, executive director of the Form Based Code Initiative.

The group was hired at a cost of $228,000 to rewrite the zoning code for those areas of the Strategic Investment Area that are in the city’s Downtown Extended district.

The current zoning allows for mixed-use buildings up to 101 feet tall without a special use permit.

“The downtown extended is kind of weird because it’s a kind of free for all,” said Marina Khoury of the company DPZ Codesign, a firm hired to contribute technical expertise to the project.

Khoury said a form-based code puts the shape of structure first and puts more of an emphasis on the quality of a place. That means specifying where open space goes, where new streets will go and how.

Around sixty people attended a presentation held at the Ix Art Park’s event space underneath the new Three Notch’d Brewery location.

Some in the audience criticized the city’s handling of the Strategic Investment Area.

Attorney Jeffrey Fogel criticized the process and said the city is putting too many resources in the SIA area.

“You know that’s not going to solve the problems we have in this town,” Fogel said. “We’re talking about aesthetics when there are people who don’t have housing.”

Fogel suggested the city should instead raise taxes and float bonds to pay for new affordable housing projects.

City Manager Maurice Jones said the city’s affordable housing fund has been used to build units and to help rehabilitate existing units. This year, Council committed to additional funding to help with CRHA’s redevelopment.

“We know that’s not enough and we know that there’s more we can do,” Jones said, adding that Council will vote on a proposal to spend an additional $930,000 for a rental assistance program.

“This is not easy stuff,” Jones said. “It’s going to take time and require us to be creative.”

Whatever the consultant comes up with will have to proceed through the public process including a vote before city council.

As they listened, staffers from DPZ Codesign worked on feedback gathered from three earlier sessions held for specific groups, including property owners and those who want to ensure new affordable housing will be built in the area, as well as current residents.

“We have heard loud and clear that affordable housing is a priority for this area,” Goldsmith said.

Much of the presentation was a primer on how the city’s planning process works, with background given on the Comprehensive Plan and the creation of the SIA.

The vision for the 330 acres was developed by Cunningham & Quill and was adopted by Charlottesville City Council in February 2014.

The Piedmont Housing Alliance has developed a master plan to guide redevelopment of the 150-unit Friendship Court apartment complex, which sits at the middle of the SIA area and is restricted to households with extremely low incomes. The nonprofit will take over management of the units later this year but its master plan remains in flux.

The Charlottesville Housing and Redevelopment Authority has two properties in the area.

Crescent Hall was built in 1976 and has 105 units and a history of maintenance issues. There are also 25 units in the 700 block of Sixth Street SE.

Monticello Associates owns the Ix property and has developed part of it into a center for small companies. They have also turned a portion of the space into the Ix Art Park and are fulfilling the SIA plan’s vision for a civic plaza.

All of those properties are primed for redevelopment, and Khoury said the creation of a new zoning code may help ensure that the new residential units are not all built at market rates.

“The code in and of itself is not a housing policy, but what it can do is inform the housing policy,” Khoury said. “We are very much aware of the pain and suffering that has been going on in this community, especially in the last month.”

Khoury said she is sympathetic to complaints that the SIA plan as written does not do enough to encourage the creation of units for current area residents with extremely low incomes. She said a form-based code could help.

“What a form-based code should do is to provide options,” she said.

For instance, to get more building area, developers would have to provide specific benefits under a tiered system. To get the maximum, they might be required to provide even more affordable housing.

Chris Zimmerman, a former member of the Arlington County Board of Supervisors, is vice president for economic development at Smart Growth America. He was brought in to talk about how the cost of housing increases in an urban environment.

“Over the years one concern came to dominate the others and that was affordable housing,” Zimmerman said. “We tried a lot of things and came up against the reality that Virginia doesn’t allow for a lot experimentation because of the Dillon Rule.”

In Virginia, localities must ask for permission to do that which is not specifically outlined in their charters or otherwise enable by the General Assembly. He said the county began instituting a form-based code in 2002.

“Our focus was how to keep [Arlington] the diverse place it was,” Zimmerman said. “How do we preserve the affordable housing?”

Zimmerman said Arlington never had a public housing authority but used tools such as a form-based code to incentivize density and to guarantee that existing tenants of affordable units be relocated as part of the process. He showed one example where the site of a former gas station in the Columbia Pike area was used to build a six-story building with ground floor retail and five stories of income-restricted affordable housing.

Zimmerman said Arlington doesn’t have many units built for people who make less than 30 percent of the area annual median income. Instead, the county provides rental assistance to make up the difference.

“We had a lot of conversations in our community about that,” he said. “You will have to have that conversation too.”