As Albemarle County prepares for more population growth in its urban ring, the attention of the Board of Supervisors will turn this year to renewing a document intended to guide the development of one of its urban communities.
Supervisors have not updated the Pantops Master Plan since it was adopted in 2008, but they will begin the process of doing so with a briefing at their meeting Wednesday.
“The Pantops area has grown so much,” said Diane Berlin, a former member of the Pantops Community Advisory Committee. “It’s so much more city-like than it was 10 years ago. We have over 21 subdivisions, apartment complexes and senior living facilities.”
Pantops has been identified as one of the county’s growth areas since supervisors adopted a Comprehensive Plan in 1971. Nine years later, they formally set aside 5 percent of Albemarle’s 726 square miles for growth, with the rest intended for less intensive development.
“As an urban area, Pantops and other urban areas at the perimeter of the City of Charlottesville are intended to serve as a regional center,” reads the introduction to the adopted plan. “These areas are intended to be more urban or ‘city-like’ in character and less suburban.”
The county’s master plans are intended to be updated every five years, but limited staff resources led to the delay.
“It’s about four to five years behind schedule,” said Cal Morris, chairman of the Pantops Community Advisory Committee. “But it has stood us in very, very good stead.”
The update will be done entirely by county planning staff; a consultant will not be hired. The goal is to have the plan updated by March 2019.
Some members of the committee say the update will give the community a chance to reconsider the vision.
“While I agree with the urban character, what does concern me is overdevelopment in both residential and commercial enterprises,” said Sara Robinson, a new member of the committee. “In the 21 years I have lived in this area, I have witnessed tremendous amount of traffic growth on U.S. 250 and Route 20.”
Robinson said the intersection of those two roads is one of the most dangerous in the community. For that reason, county planning staff is preparing a potential application for funding from the Virginia Department of Transportation to pay for an intersection upgrade.
Another committee member is hopeful the update can shift toward an emphasis on redevelopment.
“Blacktop and strip malls will hopefully soon be relics of a past paradigm,” said Jason Inofuentes. “Pantops needs to decide for itself what it wants that new paradigm to look like.”
Another issue Morris would like to address is the lack of public indoor gathering space.
“The interesting thing about Pantops is that we are the only development location that does not have a school and does not have a fire station with a large meeting area,” Morris said, adding that the county has to rely on private institutions for community meetings.
Master plans are also intended to signal to developers what the county’s expectations are for future projects. One project currently under construction to the south of Darden Towe Park is Riverside Village, a mixed-use development.
“The original master plan said this was very important to how we conceived of the neighborhood,” said Chris Henry, the president of Stony Point Design Build. “I think it’s a really great exercise that the county does to have these small area plans. It helps guide the overall direction for these developments.”
The original plan called for a park on the floodplain near the Rivanna River just south of Riverside Village. Henry said his company dedicated about 10 acres to the county, adding that he is looking forward to seeing how the master plan is updated to reflect its new status.
Henry said the community advisory committee offers a venue to smooth out projects before they go to the Board of Supervisors. Riverside Village required a rezoning to the county’s “neighborhood model” zoning category.
“As a developer, any of these exercises, planning studies and community outreach that can be done before a developer comes in with a concept is helpful,” Henry said. “In the absence of a plan, which we experience many times in the city of Charlottesville, you have to do it all from scratch.”
However, Henry said there is a risk that advisory committees can become too powerful.
“They are not a regulatory body, they are not elected and they don’t have any real vested power,” Henry said.
Henry also said the plan must address pedestrian connectivity not only on U.S. 250 but on Route 20.
“There are literally hundreds of new residences getting built over the next year or two just on Route 20 north,” Henry said. “We don’t have any crosswalks. There’s a new grocery store planned for the corner of 20 and 250. There should be a way for our residents on the opposite side of the road to get across to that store.”
Last year, the county installed the first signalized crosswalk across U.S. 250 at State Farm Boulevard.
“We finally have a makeshift way of getting from one side of the road to the other side of the road,” Morris said. “It’s not sufficient.”
Berlin agreed. She had been advocating for a pedestrian bridge and said the crosswalk that was built does not go far enough to address the walkability issues that keep Pantops from coalescing as a community.
“It’s so hard to bring the Pantops people together when we have this highway dividing us in the middle,” Berlin said. “The residences are on one side and the retail is on the other side, with very few exceptions.”
Elaine Echols, the county planner overseeing the plan’s update, said the plan has shaped development over the past ten years.
“For new residential development, the county’s standards for requiring curb and gutter, sidewalks, street trees, and interconnections have been implemented,” Echols said. “I believe that if you were to look at redevelopment along Route 250, you would see more sidewalks than were there before and a more urban streetscape in several places.”
Stephanie Lowenhaupt, another member of the committee, grew up in the Pantops area and seen a lot of changes over the past several decades. She would like the update to find a way to keep some of the area rural in character.
“The area was surely more suburban with no businesses around and to shop we went downtown,” Lowenhaupt said. “As the years have passed there has been much more development and the area has become much more urban. Especially with the development of Fontana, Cascadia and Riverside Village. I would much prefer less development and more rural especially on Stony Point Road.”
An open house on the update of the Pantops plan is scheduled for Jan. 22 at the County Office Building on McIntire Road. It will be followed by a series of meetings that will take place throughout the year.