Residents voice support for commercial squares, share traffic fears at Rio Road Small-Area Plan Open House

Albemarle County held an open house Thursday to showcase three possible designs for the Rio Road and Route 29 intersection. Over 30 people attended the event led by county consultant Renaissance Planning and spent the evening discussing the merits and obstacles of each design.

The feedback from the community will be shared with the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors to assist in their design decisions.

“Change is going to happen,” said Vlad Gavrilovic, principal with Renaissance Planning. “This is an opportunity to get out ahead of that change and expand the opportunities for what could happen in the long-term future.”

The three designs revolved around different arrangements of mixed-use development, each with a consideration of traffic and pedestrian interactions.

The first design’s focus was a central station, a major transit stop acting as the key junction of Rio Road. This layout featured street level shops with offices and housing on upper floors facing the station. The county described this option as highly walkable with intensity concentrated at the center, fading out in height and intensity as distance from the station increased.

“I like anything that improves the ease of crossing 29 and Rio,” said Albemarle resident Rich Lacasse. “I almost ran over someone with a stroller one night. She was crossing over there and I couldn’t see her. She yelled at me and I couldn’t blame her, but I just couldn’t see her.”

Design B relied on the utilization Hillsdale Drive and Berkmar Drive as both traffic alleviators and social hotspots. Shops along the street and housing, civic uses, and plazas above would create an active street life with high walkability, according to the county.

This alternative may also be implemented in stages, with one side undergoing development over the next 20 years, and the other remaining in its current state until the market produces demand for redevelopment.

Current developed land in the Route 29 and Rio Road area is 1,817,950 square feet and the Renaissance Planning designs call for up to 2.3 million square feet with single level development.

Design C created four distinct “squares” or neighborhoods which today consist mostly of commercial businesses. The neighborhoods would have a central area made up of shops, housing, offices, civic space and green space. Intense development would center in each quadrant, and lessen on the edges.

“I like the [squares] idea, having little separate shopping areas,” said Albemarle resident Jane Lacasse. “Maybe an open area with a market, a fresh food or a craft fair, like they’ve done in Stonefield.”

The three designs were shaped by feedback from the community. The designs were refined at a May 11 meeting held by the county for area designers, property and business owners, and other stakeholders.

Those in attendance stressed a central hub for Route 29 that didn’t try to compete with the Downtown Mall. Other ideas included a transit hub, greenways, and mixed-use development.

In addition to the May meeting, a survey was available online through June 2 for the community to voice their opinions about the same designs. The 116 survey responses highlighted the desire for a walkable, public space that allows for mixed-use development.  Respondents also said they feared increased traffic.

Concern over traffic dictated many of the design preferences, and remains to be the largest reason for apprehension.

With 14 development projects planned for as of June, in addition to several transportation projects, the area is continuing to grow.

Albemarle resident Tom Paoletti is concerned about the shopping centers closing and possible developments creating more residential areas in spaces that are currently commercial.

“I’m very disappointed that the development of [Route] 29, the increased capacity, is going to do nothing but create havoc for this area,” said Paoletti. “It’s not going to be an easy process. It’s going to be a slow painful process and I don’t know how much the county is going to be able to handle it.”

Mike Callahan, project manager, says the small area plan designs are derived from extensive research on the area. The designs will be given to the private developers who the county hopes will take their research into consideration.

“We’re not working in isolation. These design alternatives are planted in a lot of design work that has been done over the years,” said Callahan. “This is about planning for the future of the Rio 29 area.”

According to the Phase 1 Final Report Rio/29 Small Area Plan, phase one of the project was completed in April after a 10-month collaborative effort between the county and the consulting team of Renaissance Planning and Michael Baker International.

According to Callahan, key findings of Phase one were focused on the function and the form of the area.

“In terms of the function, phase one pointed to the need for nodes of development that are connected in the future by transit,” said Callahan. “Then the form, within those nodes, is walkable communities.”

Other guiding principles included the need for place making through creation of mixed-use development, and multimodal connectivity, and open space.

Goals for phase two, the urban design plan, the current phase, include designing and designating nodes for development, enhancing the transportation system, improving area infrastructure, and realigning code provisions to be consistent with goals for .

Renaissance Planning will present their plans to the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors, wrapping up in October with a final design plan.