Albemarle planning commissioner Daphne Spain offers a suggestion for the Places+29 Small Area Plan. Credit: Credit: Josh Mandell, Charlottesville Tomorrow

The Albemarle County Planning Commission received an update on the Rio+29 Small Area Plan at a meeting Tuesday.

The Rio+29 Small Area Plan aims to guide development and transportation in the area near the new Rio Road intersection at U.S. 29 in more detail than is in the Places29 Master Plan or the county’s Comprehensive Plan. The project is supported by a $65,000 grant from the Virginia Office of Intermodal Planning and Investment.

In a presentation to the Planning Commission, county staff and consultants highlighted some potentially divisive issues, and shared ideas to further engage younger residents in the process.

Renaissance Planning project manager Mike Callahan said the Small Area Plan would help make existing neighborhoods more interconnected and pedestrian friendly.

“This is an area that was built around cars … but there’s a desire for something different,” Callahan said. “… Perhaps it could become a district where you park once, and can walk around once you’re there.”

Callahan said the plan also would identify types of businesses that would be the most beneficial for the area. “[The Small Area Plan] makes sure that what the county would like to see happen … isn’t out of whack with what the market will support,” he said.

Callahan said the decline of retail business growth in the last decade suggests the county should try to expand other industries, such as health care and technology, in the Rio+29 area.

Albemarle’s Department of Community Development convened a focus group of 12 business and property owners in July, and held a community meeting Sept. 15. The Small Area Plan also was discussed at two Places29 Community Advisory Committee meetings this year.

Senior county planner Rachel Falkenstein acknowledged that younger residents were not well represented at the community meeting. She said the county would seek more input from the 20 to 45 age group at an upcoming “young professionals roundtable” and through social media.

Callahan said that putting height restrictions on new buildings was the most common request from community members. However, businesses and property owners have said that taller buildings will be necessary for development to be commercially viable.

“This is a fundamental point of tension … something that we’ll have to think through carefully,” Callahan said.

Residents also requested that trees be planted along U.S. 29 to separate new development from neighboring communities. Callahan said businesses that depend on visibility from the highway likely would oppose this idea.

Planning Commissioner Daphne Spain said the Small Area Plan should include more consideration of affordable housing. She also asked if it would be possible to build a pedestrian bridge over 29.

Callahan said the Places29 Master Plan illustrates a pedestrian bridge near Fashion Square mall. He said the bridge would be expensive, but possibly a worthwhile investment if built correctly.

“I think pedestrian bridges tend to not get a lot of use if you have to go up a lot of stairs,” Callahan said. “Pedestrians want to take the most direct, fastest route.”

Commissioner Karen Firehock said the “token sidewalks” along 29 should be moved or sheltered from vehicle traffic with new bicycle lanes.

“People just don’t want to walk down them, and they are actually not safe,” she said.

Firehock also said incentives were needed to convince architects and developers to undertake projects in the “sleepy” suburbs of the Rio+29 area.

“We can all draw buildings day and night … To make it happen, we have to do something dramatic,” she said.

Commissioner Bruce Dotson recommended creating a satellite office for the Albemarle County Police Department in the Rio+29 area, similar to the one recently established in Crozet.

Representatives from two local environmental organizations commented on the Small Area Plan at Tuesday’s meeting.

Travis Pietila of the Southern Environmental Law Center encouraged the county to develop a form-based code for the 29 corridor.

Jeff Werner of the Piedmont Environmental Council said more should be done to commemorate the history of the Rio+29 area, where one of the county’s first mixed-race communities formed after the Civil War.

Several concepts for land use in the Rio+29 area will be shared with the public at another community meeting this year. Falkenstein said she would present the favored land-use alternative to the Planning Commission in January.

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Josh Mandell

Josh Mandell graduated from Yale in 2016 and has been recognized by the Virginia Press Association with five awards for education writing, health, science and environmental writing and multimedia reporting.