Supervisors, planning commission briefed on Rio Road small-area plan

Representatives of a firm hired by Albemarle to study future redevelopment around the intersection of U.S. 29 and Rio Road have presented the first phase of their work to the county’s Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission.

“If you’re doing a painting, you’ve got to get the main composition pieces together before you fill in the leaves and the trees,” said Vlad Gavrilovic, a principal with the Renaissance Planning Group

The company was hired by the county with $65,000 of funding that comes from a grant from the Virginia Office of Intermodal Planning.

“Our study area goes from Branchlands Boulevard up to the South Fork of the Rivanna River,” said Mike Callahan, a project manager with Renaissance. “And then on the west side, it goes far enough to capture all of Berkmar Drive, and to the east, it captures the higher-density residential and commercially-zoned land.”

The small-area plan is being conducted to update a section of the Places29 Master Plan, which was adopted in February 2010. One of the transportation elements in that plan — a grade-separated intersection at Rio Road and U.S. 29 — was completed last year, prompting the study.

Callahan and his associates have determined that the vision to transform the area can be implemented.

“The key concept for making this transformation happen is to make a 15-minute walkable community, which would organize future development into nodes,” Callahan said. “Rather than spread future development thinly across the area, focus [it] on nodes, and one of the benefits would be for allowing transit to successfully serve the areas.”

The Renaissance Planning Group has identified the Rio Road intersection, the Rivanna River and the Northtown Center development as three nodes in which to concentrate development.

Supervisors and commissioners were shown several examples of infill development from other cities that seek to create old urban forms in areas that have been suburban in nature.

Arlington’s Village at Shirlington has a walkable center with main streets, structured parking, offices, restaurants and apartments on higher floors. Belmar, a former indoor shopping mall in Lakewood, Colorado, was converted to a 22-block urban neighborhood.

“It’s very successful and bringing in two to three times the revenue of the mall,” Gavrilovic said. “There’s real optimism that this can be achieved in this area.”

Gavrilovic said the nodes in the small-area plan would become attractive places to where people would want to walk, and a network of streets could be built around each. He added that there are people who would choose to live in such a community.

“There’s an opportunity here to meet this rising tide of empty-nesters and retirees that are looking for an alternative to suburban sprawl, and that’s a cornerstone of the future market,” Gavrilovic said.

Callahan pointed at trends that show declining sales for brick-and-mortar retail stores as more consumers go online for shopping. With more people expected to move to Albemarle, he said, landowners could be incentivized to turn commercial property into residential.

“I do think there’s going to be a lot more change as retail restructures,” Callahan said.

There are caveats to the plan, including a transit system that may not be attractive to the people who might live in an urbanized Rio Road area. Another is how to address possible congestion on U.S. 29 that might result from more activity, and another is how to limit the impact on existing residential neighborhoods.

“Height was really a hot-button issue [with stakeholders],” Callahan said. “There were concerns about buildings being too tall, blocking views and being out of character.”

Callahan said these issues will be addressed in a second phase of the study.

Callahan said Renaissance Planning Group estimates that there is a demand over 20 years for between 550 and 850 multifamily units, about a half-million square feet of office space and about 500 to 750 new hotel rooms.

One assumption is that future housing stock in this area will all be multifamily.

“We think that may take a different form than what’s been traditionally been seen in the market,” Callahan said. “We would hope that a vertical mixed-use would be possible here.”

Callahan said redevelopment comes with risk, and the county should consider incentives for property owners to move forward. These could include allowing higher density, creating a form-based zoning code and the provision of tax incentives.

Supervisors were not asked to endorse the first phase but will instead be briefed on more information in February. In March, they will be asked if they want to proceed with the second phase.

Supervisor Brad Sheffield said he would want development in the nodes to face away from U.S. 29.

“I would want to see those secondary corridors be enhanced to take the brunt of the transportation impacts, as well as the multimodal, walkability and transit aspects,” Sheffield said.

Supervisor Rick Randolph said he wanted more consideration of how the Charlottesville Fashion Square mall could be redeveloped, as well as for the role the South Fork of the Rivanna River could play in the area.

“I was [also] struck by the lack of any discussion of cultural institutions playing a role in this corridor,” Randolph said, adding that the county is considering moving its administrative offices from McIntire Road in Charlottesville.

“It could function both during the night and the week as a public space, and it could also function as a performing space,” Randolph said. “That attracts another level of people wanting to live in that community.”

Commission Chairman Tim Keller said he wants to see more information about how bicycles would fit into the small-area plan. He also wanted to know more about the financial reality of getting these projects privately funded.

“There’s a tremendous difficulty in the banking community to accept mixed-use and especially vertical-mixed use,” Keller said. “That discussion needs to be out here and understood as a significant challenge.”