Albemarle seeks to give design advice earlier in development process and calls for reconsideration of relegated parking

The Albemarle Architectural Review Board passed a resolution Monday supporting the addition of an ARB representative to the county’s site review committee in an effort to streamline the development review process.

The committee, which contains a representative to assess each aspect of a development project, such as transportation issues, fire and rescue considerations, and engineering, is intended to prepare a development request for review by staff, the Planning Commission or the Board of Supervisors.

For plans requiring ARB review, applicants could take advantage of a “pre-application” phase where basic site plan information, including building location and size, would be given to the committee for review. This initial evaluation of plans would serve to identify areas of applicants’ proposals that may need adjustment.

“The pre-application submittal would allow someone to submit some basic information and staff would then have 10 days to review it and provide a response,” said Bill Fritz, Albemarle’s chief of special projects. “What [the committee] would be doing is identifying major issues at that point.”

Although a representative of the ARB would sit on the committee and review the pre-applications, all comments made would be considered recommendations. Only plan changes supported by specific ordinances would be compulsory.

Approval of pre-application proposals would only grant applicants a grading permit, allowing them to prepare the building site. All further aspects of the proposal would still require advance approval from the ARB.

“We’re looking at it as an erosion sediment control plan only,” Fritz said. “Anything they might do beyond that … it’s at their own risk.”

The object of the committee would be to enhance the efficiency of the design and development process. The pre-application would be an optional tool afforded to applicants, but the added layer of oversight would not affect the ARB’s authority in any way.

“There is no change whatsoever to the authority granted the ARB,” explained Fritz. “So anything you could do under the old ordinance, you can still do, anything you couldn’t do, you still can’t do.”

The ARB members passed the resolution, amending it only to ensure that all board members be provided with the comments discussed by the committee following a pre-application meeting.

In other business, the ARB raised concerns about relegated parking, a key tenet of Albemarle’s Neighborhood Model, the guide in the Comprehensive Plan for urban area development. The goal of relegated parking is to ensure an attractive building façade fronts a street or entrance corridor, as opposed to having it set back at a distance and separated by parking spaces.

“I think that [relegated parking] is the No. 1 architectural problem that we have in the entrance corridor, by far,” said board member Paul Wright. “I think it relegates mediocre architecture … to all around the building.”

The Neighborhood Model is being reevaluated as part of the county’s ongoing update of its Comprehensive Plan. The goal of relegated parking has put developers in the position of having to carefully design both the front and back of commercial buildings to appeal to both the ARB, drivers and customers parking to shop.

“As architecture critic Craig Whitaker noted in his book, “Architecture and the American Dream,” if the cars are moved to the back, the front doors will start following the cars,” Neil Williamson, president of the Free Enterprise Forum, said during public comment.

The board members agreed to ask the Albemarle Board of Supervisors to review several aspects of the Neighborhood Model and they asked to have a joint meeting as soon as possible to present their concerns and recommendations.

“The Architectural Review Board recommends to the Board of Supervisors that certain provisions of the Neighborhood Model relating to building frontage, limited parking in front of commercial buildings of certain sizes be reconsidered,” said board member Bruce Wardell in a draft of the resolution. “ARB has found on numerous occasions that the quality of design … is compromised by needing to address frontage on both the entrance corridor and the relegated parking facades.”

Board members said they felt that a review of the model would better serve the community.

“Tell the Board of Supervisors that [ARB] representatives are significantly unhappy with this almost allergic reaction to cars,” said Wright. “There’s got to be a happy medium … I think builders would jump at the chance to have a small amount of parking in front of their buildings.”