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New Charlottesville planning director settling in

The new director of Charlottesville’s Department of Neighborhood Development Services says he is ready to take on the many challenges he’s inherited as the public face of growth and development.

“My role is to help facilitate meaningful planning, development and redevelopment efforts, and to build the pathway I feel is necessary to address challenging public issues and to provide the necessary leadership to accomplish those objectives,” said Alexander Ikefuna.

Ikefuna has been on the job since August. He came to Charlottesville after holding several similar positions across the country, including in Savannah, Georgia; Mobile, Alabama; Salt Lake City; and northern Idaho.

“Charlottesville is a small city with a big-city feel,” Ikefuna said. He sees the community as similar in many ways to Savannah because of its walkability and an active downtown.

Ikefuna took over from Jim Tolbert, who oversaw the department from 1999 to this past January. The new director says one of his first tasks is to build an “excellent relationship” with the many community groups in the city.

According to some, he’s off to a good start.

“When we have disagreed about minor points, I appreciate that he doesn’t simply state his opinion,” said Lena Seville, president of the Belmont-Carlton Neighborhood Association. “Instead, he explains his reasoning so that we can come to an understanding.”

The president of the Ridge Street Neighborhood Association has similar thoughts.

“He has stated a belief in project-led community engagement and the vibrancy of our neighborhoods,” said Pete Armetta. “When he arrived, Alex quickly identified the city being bogged down by many plans and our challenges to execute.”

Ikefuna said he is hopeful the city’s many planning studies can soon be completed. These include the West Main streetscape and the Streets That Work initiative.

“My outlook on things like that is that maybe we need to step back and start concentrating on implementation,” Ikefuna said. “The Strategic Investment Area was completed before I got here but we need to make sure every year we see what we are implementing.”

Another project Ikefuna inherited is the replacement of the aging Belmont Bridge. Planning for the project began in 2010 but stalled after a lengthy discussion following concerns from some about whether an underpass should be built instead.

The City Council unanimously agreed in July 2014 to move forward with a replacement but little work has been done except the formation of a new steering committee. A request for proposals for a new design and engineering firm will be published soon, possibly this month.

“We need to work judiciously to come up with a good design with the consultant and move forward with the replacement of that bridge,” Ikefuna said.

Ikefuna has dealt with tough issues in his previous posts, including the potential location of a hazardous-waste facility that one elected official wanted for economic development but that would-be neighbors weren’t happy about.

“We started that public meeting at 6 p.m. and stayed until 1 a.m.,” Ikefuna said. “My car was pelted with egg for something I didn’t have anything to do with. It was just because I was responsible for organizing the meeting.”

Ikefuna said getting information to the public as early as possible is key to building trust.

This is Ikefuna’s first time working in Virginia, a state where cities and counties are independent of each other. That means his counterparts in Albemarle work for different elected officials.

“What happens in the county impacts what happens in the city,” Ikefuna said. “We have to talk to each other in terms of projects that may have an impact and where we can plan together, we have to plan together.”

Ikefuna also inherits a city that is finally seeing the manifestation of a 2003 zoning that allowed higher buildings on West Main Street. An attempt to lower those heights was delayed recently when one property owner requested to be excluded from a less permissive zoning district.

Ikefuna said he is ready to tackle the concept of a more densely built and populated Charlottesville.

“The city really can’t annex any land so the only way for the city to grow is to grow vertically,” he said. “We have to encourage high-density development. We don’t have the luxury of land and the luxury of annexation.”