The Charlottesville Planning Commission has voted 6-1 to recommend approval of a special use permit that would allow for a 595-bedroom multi-story apartment complex on West Main Street between the Hampton Inn and the Amtrak station.
A majority of commissioners agreed that the Plaza on West Main is consistent with the wishes of previous city leaders who rezoned the corridor for dense residential and commercial development.
“Both the Planning Commission and City Council approved this zoning back in 2003,” said Commissioner John Santoski. “I’m assuming that they realized how tall these buildings were going to be and wanted to promote development along the corridor.”
The mixed-use development is a joint project between Ambling University Development Group of Georgia and locally based Riverbend Management.
City Council must approve a special use permit to allow for a density of 98 dwelling units per acre. By right, there can only be 43 units per acre. The permit is also required to increase the building’s height from the 70 feet allowed by right to 101 feet.
Existing structures on the site will be demolished to make way for a complex consisting of a six-story and an eight-story building. There would be 219 separate apartments, almost 12,000 square feet of commercial space, and three levels of underground parking.
Several members of the city’s Fifeville neighborhood spoke out against the project at Tuesday’s public hearing.
“I wanted to be excited about this project,” said Angela Ciofli of Nalle Street. “But I can’t get over the size of it. I wonder whether it’s the right fit for our historic district.”
However, staff said that the existing zoning was put in place to encourage redevelopment into both commercial and residential development.
“The purpose of this zoning district is to encourage pedestrian-friendly mixed-use development, at an intensity slightly greater than that to the north of West Main,” said city planner Ebony Walden. “The proposed development is harmonious with the vision and purpose outlined in and encouraged by the zoning ordinance.”
Catarina Krizancic, also of Nalle Street, organized a neighborhood campaign because she disagreed with that view. She argued the project would have too large a visual impact.
“[The site] is located along the crucial corridor between the corridor between the downtown and University/Corner Districts,” Krizancic wrote. “It sits on the crest of a hill that drops off on all sides which makes it visible as far away as Monticello.”
In written comments to the commission, Oak Street resident Antoinette Roades said voting for the project would be irresponsible.
“The project proposed is simply too big by every measure — footprint, building height, resident population, vehicular count, and, for those reasons, potential impact on surrounding neighborhoods,” Roades said.
Other residents expressed concern that the project would cause noise from student parties. The developers said they have the experience with student housing to address those concerns.
“We’ve built about 35,000 bedrooms in 20 different states,” said Ryan Holmes of Ambling Development. “We do not like to be known as a party place.”
Holmes said a large rulebook would govern residents. For instance, no kegs will be allowed in the development. He added that the units could be rented for as much as $700 a bedroom.
Members of Charlottesville’s development community urged the commission to approve the project.
“This is the area of the city that is best suited for development,” said Donna De Loria of the law firm Payne & Hodous. “Your actions need to show the development community that this is what you want.”
“I’ve driven up and down the corridor for years and I’d like it to change from an area that has been underperforming,” said Ivo Romenesko of the Appraisal Group. “When I look at the buildings there now, I see one-story buildings. I think it’s time to change from that.”
One issue at the meeting was whether the developer should be able to use some of the space that’s been designated on the site plan as commercial space.
Commissioner Michael Osteen pushed for commercial space in as much of the building as possible.
“I feel strongly that should be a really vital commercial use throughout the entire [project],” Osteen said.
Holmes said Ambling wanted to retain the ability to use its own space for a leasing office or a club for its resident.
The overall vote was not unanimous.
Commissioner Lisa Green said she supported the density requested, but argued the project as proposed would become an island of students and not a gateway.
“We’re creating a community that is not providing the energy that we want on the street,” Green said. “We’re not creating the vibrancy between the downtown and the university by creating something that’s all brick on the outside.”
Under city code, the developer will have to either supply affordable units or make a cash contribution to the city’s housing fund.
Neighborhood Development Services Director Jim Tolbert said the developer has to either designate five percent of the units as being affordable, or they could contribute to the Charlottesville Housing Fund. He added his estimate would be Ambling would need to make a $400,000 payment.
The Board of Architectural Review voted 4-2 in October on a motion that stated the design of the project would have an adverse impact on the West Main architectural design control district.
Since that time, Members of the BAR have been meeting with the developer on an individual or two-by-two basis to offer guidance on the design before they revisit the issue as a full body at their meeting on Nov. 20.