Charlottesville Planning Commissioners Discuss Updates to the City's Comprehensive Plan

The Charlottesville Planning Commission voted earlier this week to recommend approval of the city’s updated Comprehensive Plan. The review has been in the works for the past two years.

While public attendance was sparse at Tuesday’s joint public hearing with the City Council, comments on the five-year planning document focused on small area planning, affordable housing and poverty.

“I think we did a good job of being disparate people representing different points of view in different areas of the city and achieving a remarkable degree of consensus without sacrificing those points of view,” said commission Chairwoman Genevieve Keller.

The plan’s Land Use chapter states that “Charlottesville’s land use patterns will create, preserve and enhance neighborhood character,” and the strategy the city is using to achieve this desired outcome is the Small Area Plan.

The city has identified 13 small areas to be studied for future development, with initiatives that range from streetscaping and transportation to economic development.

Currently, a team from Cunningham Quill Architects is studying the area south of downtown to Elliott Avenue between Avon and Ridge streets with an eye toward economic development. It’s been dubbed a Strategic Investment Area by the City Council.

Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Travis Pietila praised another of the city’s small area planning efforts along West Main Street.

“The planning process that has begun for the West Main Street corridor aims to make sure that the needs of all users — pedestrian, bike and automobile — are taken into account,” Pietila said.  

“And [small area planning] will hopefully result in a clear vision for the multi-modal transportation infrastructure and streetscape of this corridor that will help shape future development patterns and help to revitalize this area,” Pietila added.

With respect to the Comprehensive Plan’s Housing chapter, Commissioner Dan Rosensweig suggested rewording language about affordable housing. Rosensweig is executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville.

“Throughout the process we’ve been very mindful to try to keep the tone consistently positive … and avoid value judgments to the extent that we can,” Rosensweig said. “As it reads, there’s an assumption that affordable housing creates negative impacts.”

The plan states that the city will “Attempt to incorporate affordable units throughout the city, considering the proximity of existing units and the effects of unit location on schools and neighborhood demographics, and associated infrastructure.”

Charlottesville planning manager Missy Creasy said that the language didn’t strike her as negative.

Rosensweig suggested that the language in Charlottesville’s new housing objective mirror that of Austin, Texas, which says that “affordable housing throughout the community or city benefits the entire community.”

Keller liked Austin’s language and suggested adding a second clause to read, “Consider the effects of all housing decisions on schools, neighborhood demographics and associated infrastructure.”  

City Councilor Dave Norris made the point that affordable housing is what would be attractive to the city’s workforce.

“You don’t want to paint affordable housing with a broad brush and conflate affordable housing with [low-income] housing,” Norris said. “I don’t think that the average person, when they’re thinking about low-income housing and how it might impact the schools, is considering housing that is really workforce housing.”

Two former members of the city’s School Board now on the council, Kathy Galvin and Dede Smith, connected challenges of poverty to education outcomes.

“Is there a feeling that there is no research to substantiate the concern about concentrated poverty in a neighborhood affecting outcomes in schools?” Galvin asked. “We’re hearing you say that’s a value statement when there really is research that does say that [concentrated poverty] does have an impact [on school outcomes].”

Smith suggested that Charlottesville’s Comprehensive Plan go to greater lengths to address poverty in the city.

“Is there any place in the Comprehensive Plan that does address a very hard reality in Charlottesville, that concentrated poverty does have a very big impact on schools?” Smith asked.

Creasy said that poverty was outside the Comprehensive Plan’s purview, but that poverty’s effects on the schools regionally is addressed in other regional planning documents. The city’s Comprehensive Plan does have a chapter on Economic Sustainability with six major goals related to creating employment opportunities and providing support for businesses.

“So it wouldn’t be part of the Comprehensive Plan unless we intended to remediate it in the next five years?” Smith asked.

Keller said that the City Council could add a section on poverty, but noted that there are sections on income disparity and free and reduced-price lunch in the Community Characteristics chapter.

The Comprehensive Plan is expected to get further review by the City Council in May.