City councilors and other Charlottesville officials have been briefed on possible changes to the zoning of West Main Street that would reduce the maximum building size on the rapidly developing corridor.

If the changes are adopted by the council, future buildings would be approved if their blueprints conform to a set of physical and visual guidelines established by the city under what is known as “form-based” zoning.

Developers also would no longer be able to request additional height and residential density in the form of a special-use permit.

“When development review is a checklist, we don’t need to have a negotiation,” Lee Einsweiler, of the firm Code Studio, said at a work session Tuesday. “This changes what the applicant will bring in.”

The discussion was part of an ongoing review of the corridor, which has seen several new buildings go up in recent years and several more approved but not yet built.

The other part of the review is how to configure the public right-of-way into a new streetscape with wider sidewalks, bike lanes and new trees. In January, Mayor Satyendra Huja indicated that he did not support the final plan drafted by the firm Rhodeside & Harwell.

The council is expected to resume discussion of both topics at a work session at 4:30 p.m. Monday at City Hall.

The potential zoning changes stem from the 2013 annual report of the council-appointed PLACE Design task force, which called for a robust review of the street’s zoning code.

“The character of West Main was not matching up with what you had in your code,” Einsweiler said. “In some ways, the prior standards were set up to be problematic, and that’s what PLACE was telling you.”

In 2003, a previous City Council updated the entire zoning code, a process that encouraged more residential density on West Main.
The two sides of the street have different maximum heights, though those are only possible if developers obtain a special-use permit from the council.

Einsweiler has suggested splitting the zoning into eastern and western districts with the railroad tracks as the general dividing line.

The western district would have a maximum height of 75 feet and the eastern half would have a maximum of 52 feet. Ground floors would have to be at least 15 feet tall and there would be a minimum of two stories.

The council has been criticized for granting special-use permits for projects such as the Flats at West Village, allowing for a maximum of 101 feet. However, the zoning code allows structures to be even taller in the form of an appurtenance on a quarter of the building’s footprint.

The council has granted special-use permits for three other projects on the street that have not yet been built. Even if the zoning changes are adopted, these projects would be grandfathered as long as they are built within five years of their approval.

Einsweiler said if the city wants to control building heights, special-use permits should be discarded.

“When we regulate buildings by height only, we get developers pushing against it,” he said. “It’s about making sure we don’t create anything too extreme.”