Albemarle County has adopted an ambitious plan to turn the shopping malls and parking lots at the intersection of Rio Road and U.S. 29 into a green, walkable destination. The second development to test that vision went before the Planning Commission at a Tuesday work session.
The first development was architect Greg Powe’s Greenfield Terrace Apartments, which was approved in March. The project presented Tuesday, a rezoning from commercial to Neighborhood Model District, elicited mixed reactions from the commission.
“At this particular point, I’m struggling with how this is even a Rio29 Small Area Plan project,” said Commissioner Julian Bivins, who said it was a good project but not the active, mixed-use project that the small area plan calls for.
The development originally was not a Rio29 project.
In July 2018, Justin Shimp, of Shimp Engineering, began the application process to build a self-storage facility at 664 W. Rio Road, across from The Daily Progress. After meeting with county staff, the development team decided to participate in the small area plan vision and the expedited review process it offered.
Now the development team is planning to build a four-story apartment complex flanking Rio Road with the parking lot, storage facility and a proffered multiuse path tucked behind. The apartment building would be built after the storage building to avoid disturbing residents with construction noises.
The risk county officials expressed is that if the apartment building is never built, the development looks very much like the present-day Rio Road and very little like the Rio29 plan.
“I’m a little surprised that there’s enough demand for storage units [for this],” said Commissioner Daphne Spain. “The applicant has certainly done the work and research. I think what we’re seeing here is that clash between our vision and the market realities.”
To offset that risk, county staff asked the developer, Greenscape Development Partners, to commit to beginning construction of the apartment building within two years after the first building is complete.
However, Jay Garlick, CEO of Greenscape Development Partners, worried that commitment could put his project directly in the middle of the next recession and that a lack of financing would make him unable to build the apartment complex. Garlick said that the failure of a previous project during the last recession had jeopardized his own financial stability.
“My partner got into a divorce, it pushed us into the recession, and we lost that project. I lost my home, and I ended up in affordable housing,” Garlick said.
Shimp said that the apartment complex could cost $10 million or $15 million.
In addition, the county Comprehensive Plan sets the expectation that 15% of housing units developed under rezonings and special-use permits be affordable. County staff said that it was reasonable to exchange a requirement for different housing types in the Neighborhood Model District zoning for a commitment to affordability.
Because the developer was reluctant to commit to a timeline or an affordability quota for the apartments, the county held a work session to get input from the Planning Commission.
Several commissioners, like Jennie More and Pam Riley, spoke in favor of the developer offering some kind of time commitment. Most seemed in favor of at least hiding the vacant lot from Rio Road with trees or another form of screening.
Nearly all the commissioners favored affordability being incorporated into the project. Spain, who spoke first, said that she worried about the mixed messages between this kind of affordability commitment and proffers, which currently are restricted in Virginia.
After the work session, while the development team compared calendars with county planner Rachel Falkenstein, Garlick told Charlottesville Tomorrow that he would be willing to commit to building the apartment complex within a longer time frame, such as five or 10 years.
“Recessions don’t last that long,” Garlick said.
Emily Hays grew up in Charlottesville and graduated from Yale in 2016. She covered growth, development, and affordable living. Before writing for Charlottesville Tomorrow, she produced a podcast on education and caste in Maharashtra, India.