When The Flats at West Village apartment complex was completed last August, criticism soon emerged about the finished product.
“The Flats is viewed by many in this community as being out of step with the character of Charlottesville,” said City Councilor Kathy Galvin, an architect who is seeking re-election to a second term this year.
Galvin said some people began to wonder how the city allowed eight stories to tower over the Fifeville neighborhood, as well as a six-story brick façade that faces West Main Street. The building is also longer than a typical city block.
“Many people flat-out don’t like The Flats and they feel it’s a foretaste of the future,” she said.
Galvin held a news conference Tuesday to call for changes to the city’s development review process to prevent massive structures like The Flats, which she said is out of scale with the neighborhoods on either side.
However, one architect who has represented two other West Main projects said he hopes the possibility for taller buildings is not removed as part of that reform process.
“I am not a fan of The Flats either,” said John Matthews. “However, we need to be clear what we like and don’t like about it.”
One resident of the building said she agreed the structure looks odd, but to her eyes it does not seem out of place because of the use of brick on the West Main frontage.
“From the side, it’s a little odd that you have different paneling from the front, and it sort of sticks up higher than the rest of the building, but I think they tried to make it look like it fits,” said Victoria Ferrante, an undergraduate at the University of Virginia.
The project’s developer, Atlanta-based Ambling University Development Group, has insisted that the materials used were the ones approved by the Board of Architectural Review. Galvin previously has raised concerns about the BAR having the last word on the building’s design.
West Main Street was rezoned in 2003 to encourage redevelopment.
“This allowed more density, more mixed use and taller buildings by right,” Galvin said. “Developers could exceed by-right densities by applying for a special-use permit. That meant they had to either build more affordable housing or contribute to the affordable housing fund.”
The design, massing and scale of construction projects on West Main Street must be reviewed by the Board of Architectural Review.
When The Flats was approved in December 2012, Galvin said she was concerned the guidelines for the West Main Architectural Design Control District left a lot of room for interpretation among 21 elected and appointed officials about how buildings should look.
“Those 21 people include the seven planning commissioners, nine members of the Board of Architectural review and five councilors,” said Galvin, who voted in favor of the project. “The proverbial horse designed by a committee is a camel.”
Galvin said she wants the review process to provide more certainty for nearby residents, as well as the owners of property being developed.
Earlier this month, Galvin called for a study to rezone the corridor to remove the possibility of a special-use permit for additional height, as well as other zoning changes,
Councilors are expected to discuss, and possibly vote on, the study at their May 18 meeting.
“If we don’t redevelop, we’re missing out on opportunities to get the revenue we need to pay for the services we need,” Galvin said. “But the zoning is also a tool to get the character of the place we want.”
Several other projects already have had special-use permits approved for additional height and density on West Main.
Matthews helped Landmark Development of Athens, Georgia, secure a permit for The Standard, a six-story building directly across from The Flats that was approved by the City Council in November 2013. He also helped Chicago-based CA Student Living secure a permit for 1000 West Main, a 342-bedroom L-shaped building that will front both West Main and Roosevelt Brown Boulevard. Galvin voted in favor of both of these projects, as well.
Matthews said the impact of The Flats will be lessened once those other projects are completed.
“The appearance of The Flats can be traced directly back to the BAR’s comments and ‘design by committee,’” Matthews said. “It may appear out of scale at the moment but in context with other buildings of similar scale and massing envisioned or planned for West Main, it would, in my opinion, be fine.”
To the east, the BAR recently granted developer Bill Atwood a certificate of appropriateness for a multistory building in the 500 block of West Main. Because Atwood stayed under the existing height limit, he did not need a special-use permit.
“For the projects that have been approved, there’s nothing that we can do,” Galvin said.
She said she did not anticipate any legal obstacles if the City Council were to lower the maximum building height because those heights today require special permission.
Galvin’s concerns are shared by other council candidates seeking the Democratic nomination in a June 9 primary.
“I have serious concerns about the new developments on the West Main corridor, particularly The Flats,” said Mike Signer, president of the Fifeville Neighborhood Association. “[It’s] a monolithic and corporate-feeling building that does not reflect the diversity and history of the surrounding neighborhoods.”
“I’m personally not a fan of The Flats,” said Wes Bellamy. “Charlottesville was not designed to be Washington, D.C., and if we are not careful, our cost of living will be on a par with the capital.”
Neither incumbent Dede Smith nor challenger Lena Seville could be reached for comment. However, Smith voted against the special-use permits for The Flats, The Standard and 1000 West Main.
Ferrante said she hopes the city doesn’t grow too much bigger.
“I definitely don’t want to see Charlottesville get too built up because part of its charm is having a nice homey feel to it,” she said. “I don’t want it to be too industrial-looking.”