With Charlottesville experiencing one of the biggest construction booms in its history, a volunteer group of architects wants the City Council to pay more attention to urban design.

“Infrastructure and the public space has to be designed in advance to accommodate greater density,” said Rachel Lloyd, a member of the PLACE Design Task Force.

The task force was created in 2012 to assess the city’s urban design efforts and to identify obstacles to high-quality development. It has recommended the city hire more staff to coordinate planning for infrastructure.

“Great places don’t happen by accident,” Lloyd said. “They have to be planned.”

At a recent joint meeting of the council, the task force and the Planning Commission, one councilor was skeptical the city could easily satisfy all of the group’s recommendations without additional funding.

“If we are talking about more staff and more consultants and infrastructure spending, we need to talk about more taxes,” Councilor Kristin Szakos said. “Otherwise, we’re talking about less police, less education and less other things.”

In its recent annual report, the task force suggested streamlining city government and revising the zoning code to better respond to new development.

“Developers and property owners should be able to follow the codes and regulations, design a project that meets those regulations, and be confident that if they do so, the project will meet community expectations,” said PLACE member Richard Price. “Instead, we find that the development process in the city requires open-ended discretionary review, and there is a lack of certainty about what the ultimate outcome will be.”

Szakos wanted to know if the task force has examined whether its requested changes are consistent with Virginia law.

“Being in Virginia, where property rights are king, how can some of the stuff work well when we know that developers can build a lot of things by-right … that would not be in our vision?” Szakos asked.

“The design of a public space is not going to get you in trouble with state law,” said Beth Meyer, a PLACE member who teaches landscape architecture at the University of Virginia. “The height of buildings and the setback of buildings affects the amount of light that’s on the street, the amount of air that flows on the street and the amount of water that you can catch.”

Planning Commissioner John Santoski expressed frustration that his group is often told by city staff that it can’t consider many of these issues during its reviews of individual projects.

“We’re often told that we have to work within a certain box, and if we go outside of that we are either going to be giving an inaccurate recommendation to council or we may be putting the city at risk of liability,” Santoski said.

Commissioner Genevieve Keller said developers often threaten to build by-right if they do not get the rezoning they want.

“If we’re so scared of by-right, there’s something wrong with our code,” Keller said.

Charlottesville last rezoned the entire city in 2003 after several years of study.

Jim Tolbert, director of the city’s Neighborhood Development Services office, said that before the city changes the zoning code, planners could specify better guidelines for when a special-use permit would be granted.

“We need to articulate [our needs] so that we can share that with developers,” Tolbert said. “We can’t make it up as we go along.”

Meyer said the “strategic investment area” and West Main studies currently underway will provide a template for how to do urban design properly. Both studies together cost the city around $500,000.

The recently updated Comprehensive Plan calls for additional studies, known as “small area plans.”

Szakos said she read the task force’s report, but did not quite grasp what they were asking of the City Council. She said implementing all of the PLACE group’s suggestions could be expensive.

“If we can’t do it all, and we put all of our economic eggs in one basket, such as on West Main, does that mean people in the rest of the city will never get sidewalks?” Szakos asked.

Councilor Kathy Galvin is a vocal proponent of hiring an urban designer to join city staff. A decision is expected to be made during the development of next year’s budget.

Staff has estimated the annual cost of hiring a design professional, an economic analyst and two interns would be $200,000 a year.

In contrast, that amount is also how much the city will spend on new bike infrastructure in the current fiscal year. The city also has budgeted $285,000 for new sidewalks.

By the end of the meeting, members of the PLACE group wanted to know if the council supported their ideas.

“There are a lot of volunteers who want to help the city and who want to be effective,” Meyer said. “Within that first-year report, there’s five years of work and we would love to know what’s going to be helpful.”

“This is the start of the discussion … We have heard you and I think we will pursue some of these ideas,” Mayor Satyendra Huja said.
 

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