The intersection of Rio Road and U.S. 29 is currently surrounded by parking lots, storage facilities, and single-story shopping malls, but Albemarle County has a new vision for the region. After more than two years of meetings and planning, the Rio29 Small Area Plan has been unanimously approved by the Albemarle County Planning Commission. The plan will go to the Board of Supervisors on Dec.12 for the final decision on whether to incorporate it into the county’s Comprehensive Plan. “We’ve had input at every point and the public has had input at every point. This is about as finished as it can get, I would assume. I think you’ve done a very good job with the size of the project that’s in front of you,” said Commissioner Daphne Spain at the hearing on Tuesday.
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The area has unique potential for redevelopment. Parking lots fill 39 percent of the area covered by the small area plan, which excludes single-family residential properties. Included in the region are Fashion Square Mall and the 29th Place, Rio Hill, and Albemarle Square shopping centers. According to the small area plan narrative, the malls that dominate the region have far more parking than they generally use. “[Parking] is not the most productive use of land,” said Sean Tubbs, a representative of the Piedmont Environmental Council. “We’re hopeful that the property owners will come to the table and see this as a starting point for the conversation.” Tubbs is a former senior reporter for Charlottesville Tomorrow. The plan divides the region into areas of more intense development that scale down to the residential neighborhoods surrounding the area under the small area plan. The urban core, which would run along Rio Road, would have the widest sidewalks and bike lanes and the tallest buildings. “It’s hard for me to picture … exactly how a road like that can be a pedestrian-friendly, street-level, active street and have the cross-section that is depicted in the plan,” said Commissioner Bruce Dotson. “It seems like U.S. 29 is a corridor and Rio is a corridor and the neighborhood feel happens on the interior of the four quadrants.”
Both the commissioners and members of the public weighed in on what the county’s next steps should be. “Form-based code is what’s very forward-thinking and potentially a big change in our approach here, as well as transit-oriented development. So in order for it to be a transit-oriented development plan, in the implementation we really do need to think hard and long about prioritizing that as some of the initial investment,” said Commissioner Pam Riley. After hearing commissioners’ concerns about transit during a work session on August 21, staff prioritized a U.S. 29 commuter bus stop in the plan as a “catalyst” project, which could take place within the next five years. The plan also presents the possibility of a transit station near the intersection. Other commissioners and members of the public suggested that a partnership to build a parking garage would be crucial, to ensure that people who live far from Rio Road would be able to visit the area. At Tuesday’s meeting, the commission also discussed the University of Virginia’s plans for Fontaine Research Park and the UVa Foundation-owned Birdwood Mansion and Birdwood Golf Course, which are located near the Boar’s Head Resort.