Fry’s Spring is a large neighborhood in a prime location, within walking distance of the booming hospital and university, but with direct access to the U.S. 29 Bypass and Interstate 64.  As the city’s population grows and more Charlottesville-ians commute on foot or bike, demand for housing near the university and hospital continues to grow, much to the chagrin of homeowners.

Recently, the city (somewhat reluctantly) agreed to study the Fry’s Spring Neighborhood Association’s perennial request to downzone the entire neighborhood to “R-1” single family residential.  “Downzoning” means restricting development rights on a property so that less may be built on it.  This request would only allow for detached single-family homes and would effectively ban any new dwelling units from being added to these properties.  Most of the neighborhood was successfully downzoned to R-1 in the early 90’s, but about 200 R-2 properties (allowing two dwelling units) are left, mostly along Stribling, Cresmont, and Shamrock.

You might think this is all irrelevant to you if you don’t live in Fry’s Spring, but you’d be wrong.  Downzonings affect the whole city – and this one is a bad idea.

The neighborhood’s concerns are somewhat understandable.  No one likes additional construction or more cars parked along the roads.  Some want to maintain the “single family” nature of the neighborhood by avoiding apartments and the type of residents they bring.  Neighborhood leaders have attempted to sell this as a “corrective rezoning” to bring the properties in line with the 1991 rezoning.

On the other side, city councilors are concerned about the legality of the request.  Taking away existing development rights reduces the value of a property and not all property owners are in favor of that.  Downzonings have to clear major legal hurdles, incurring costs for the city that are then paid by everyone.

But there are bigger issues at stake than the legal questions.  When thriving cities like Charlottesville, responding to neighborhood protests, use their zoning powers to severely restrict development in high-demand locations, they create unintended consequences that ripple out across the region.

First, downzoning exacerbates the affordable housing problem, which the city has made a priority in recent years.  When demand exceeds supply in the housing market, prices rise quickly.  Rents in Charlottesville have risen due to the attractiveness of the city and the strong regional economy.  Restricting supply makes this worse.  

When thinking about the wishes of a neighborhood, we often leave out discussion of a crucial group of people – those who would like to live there but can’t.  If 100 families want to live in an area of the city and only 50 homes are available, the 50 who can pay the most will get the homes.  This is especially bad if development is only limited to the most expensive form of housing: the detached single-family home.  Residents may feel they are only protecting their territory, but what they are actually doing is excluding people who want to live there and would be willing to take up less space in order to do so.  This is not in keeping with the city’s vision of itself as an inclusive place with mixed income neighborhoods and affordable places to live.

Second, it puts pressure on adjacent neighborhoods.  Demand for housing is relentless when shortages are present, as San Francisco is learning.  If buyers or renters cannot afford a neighborhood, they will move to the next best option – often the neighborhoods nearby.  Fry’s Spring is bordered by several more affordable enclaves that are currently threatened.  The massive upzoning of West Main Street to allow for thousands of new units has helped relieve the pressure, but even this solution has been unpalatable to many.  If Charlottesville residents don’t like the sort of residential towers proposed for West Main, they need to be willing to allow much more intense small-scale development across the city, converting single-family streets to townhomes or narrower lots.

Third, it encourages sprawl and leapfrog development by pushing subdivisions further out into the rural areas of the county, making commuting and traffic worse.  This is especially relevant to the hospital, which already struggles to get parking and vehicle access for its thousands of employees.  If more of those employees can live within walking or biking distance, the results are better for everyone.  Protecting car-oriented neighborhoods at great cost to the rest of the area is directly opposed to the city’s vision for itself.

Fourth, it makes the area costly for the city to service.  That’s because the land value per acre (and thus the property tax collected per acre) is extremely low compared to other areas.  Meanwhile, the amount of public expenditure required is not proportionally less.  From sewers and pipes to power lines, streets and fire stations, low-density neighborhoods require much of the same infrastructure to maintain as a similarly-sized area with ten times as many people.  This phenomenon has been noted by several researchers because it runs counter to the narrative, created by the income tax, that rich people subsidize poor people.  In cities, the opposite is often true.

Finally, it’s bad for residents themselves.  It’s bad for owners, who lose some of their property value and lose the ability to afford a better home by building additional units and attracting renters.  But it’s especially bad for renters, who eventually get squeezed out by high demand.  

Ironically, trying to ensure that a neighborhood’s houses stay exactly the same is a great way to ensure that its residents will not.  If anything, the city should be looking at reversing its 1991 rezoning.


Luke Juday is a resident of Charlottesville and holds a graduate degree from the UVa School of Architecture. He works in the demographics group at the Weldon Cooper Center. He has also worked as a middle school teacher and debate coach. Luke rides a bike because he owes a lot of money for his education and doesn’t like going to the gym – not because he’s training for the Tour de France. The views shared in this column are his own.