When Carolyn Zelikow visits her parents at their Johnson Village home, she often wonders if the single-family homes there could be used for more than just living spaces.
“We have a lot of areas like that in Charlottesville that, to my understanding, are zoned strictly for residential uses, but they would be wonderful and made more vibrant by a slightly less restrictive zoning policy that would allow for small coffee shops, bodegas and even boutiques,” she said.
Zelikow, a program manager for the Aspen Institute, said neighborhoods in many other American cities seem to allow more commercial uses. She said residents of Johnson Village and other single-family neighborhoods would benefit from having more businesses within walking distance.
“There are tons of families there and they’ve got to get in the car to go pick up a coffee or a gallon of milk,” she said.
But city officials say there are many challenges to turning this concept into a reality.
“The market is key,” said Missy Creasy, the city’s planning manager. “There has to be a critical mass for a business to go in and count on mostly neighborhood traffic.”
Creasy said the idea comes up frequently during neighborhood discussions, but it seldom goes far.
“Residents are wary to have the [commercial] use next door to them,” she said.
And that’s where the zoning code comes in.
Like most other communities in the United States, Charlottesville established a zoning code to reduce conflicts between property owners.
According to Charlottesville’s municipal code, some of the purposes of zoning are to “regulate and restrict the location of trades, industries and residences” and “to facilitate the creation of a convenient, attractive and harmonious community.”
Others are to “protect and enhance the character and stability of neighborhoods” and “to encourage economic development activities that provide employment.”
Charlottesville’s zoning map is a mosaic of many colors, with each hue representing a different classification.
Yellow and light yellow represent the four types of single-family zoning districts, each of which are used “to provide and protect quiet, low-residential areas wherein the predominant pattern of residential development is the single-family dwelling.”
None of the business types advocated by Zelikow is allowed in single-family or two-family districts.
Home offices — known in the code as “home occupations” — are available through a provisional-use permit.
Special-use permits are required for daycare facilities.
But there is no provision for art galleries, professional art studios, coffee shops, bakeries, catering businesses, electronic gaming cafes, museums or retail establishments of any sort.
But that suits many in Johnson Village just fine.
“To change the zoning codes for the entire city would be unnecessary,” said Walter J. May. “One can get permission for an intellectually based business such as editing or consulting from home if the activity does not disturb the neighbors in any way.”
Jay Levine said he was not aware of any problem that would be solved by expanding business uses.
“I have lived in Johnson Village for 48 years and have never missed any shop not being closer,” Levine said. “Adding a commercial activity will change the character of the area.”
The idea resonated with one member of the city’s PLACE Design Task Force.
“I sense people like the idea of being able to walk down the block to pick up a newspaper, a small bag of groceries or a cup of coffee, but most people still get in their car to take care of those errands.”
Rachel LloydRachel Lloyd
“I sense people like the idea of being able to walk down the block to pick up a newspaper, a small bag of groceries or a cup of coffee, but most people still get in their car to take care of those errands,” said Rachel Lloyd, who is also president of the Venable Neighborhood Association.
Lloyd said she can see the benefit of allowing some business uses in residential neighborhoods, but that would have other effects.
“The downside of scattered commercial uses in a residential area is that they usually get regular and loud delivery trucks, might need extra parking and generate more traffic,” Lloyd said.
Tom Bowe, of the Kellytown Neighborhood Association, said adding businesses in residential areas concerns many in his community who are already fearful that commercial uses on Rose Hill Drive could threaten their quality of life.
“It’s not that neighborhoods are anti-business. It’s that the ‘step forward’ is coming at their expense,” Bowe said. “Neighborhoods feel a sense of distrust.”
Bowe said his neighborhood could benefit from a corner store or coffee shop, but these should only be allowed in the blocks on Rose Hill Drive that have the light-pink-colored zoning for businesses.
“The idea of having neighborhoods within the city requires zoning practices that maintain the in-tegrity of neighborhood boundaries,” he said. “When it comes to neighborhoods, I see zoning as a moral defense that protects the most vulnerable zones.”
Bill Emory, a former member of the city’s Planning Commission, has spent many decades pushing for protection of the character of the Woolen Mills neighborhood. He suggested one provision for residential businesses would be to require owners to live on the property.
“Once upon a time, businesses were neighbors,” Emory said. “The store was downstairs and the owners and proprietors lived upstairs. That arrangement promoted civility and neighborliness for ob-vious reasons. That connection has been broken.”
Michael Barnes is the president of the Greenbrier Neighborhood Association and the planning director in Waynesboro. He said he would love to have a corner store or coffee shop in his neighborhood but said suddenly changing the rules would not be good planning practice.
“Changing the zoning at the district level is a poor idea because it changes the rules for everyone,” Barnes said. “Everyone, including my neighbor, could have a pub or a coffee shop.”
Instead, Barnes suggested the city could create more areas like downtown Belmont, a cluster of restaurants enabled by the purple Neighborhood Commercial Corridor zoning.
“Perhaps the city should instead develop areas where a very limited amount of commercial would make sense and would create a center that people would walk to,” he said, adding that publicly or privately initiated small-area plans could help determine their location.
Heather Walker, president of the Johnson Village Neighborhood Association, said she has mixed feelings about the idea.
“In many northern towns such as Brooklyn, Queens, Oshkosh or Westport, the neighborhood pub, deli, or grocery is the community center,” Walker said.
However, Walker said introducing that concept into single-family neighborhoods would be disruptive.
“I would hate living near any type of shop that is open early or late or would cause parking problems,” she said.
Once upon a time, businesses were neighbors. The store was downstairs and the owners and proprietors lived upstairs. That arrangement promoted civility and neighborliness for obvious reasons. That connection has been broken.”
Bill EmoryBill Emory
Walker said people in her neighborhood already can walk to stores and restaurants if they are willing to take the time.
“One of the advantages of Johnson Village is walking to Durty Nelly’s on a snow day or to The Breakfast House. Anna’s Pizza is a great place to walk to from Fry’s Spring Beach Club after a swim meet.”
Zelikow said she understands the perspectives of many who are protective of their neighborhood, but she hopes Charlottesville will push the envelope.
“If this is to be a real debate, then we need to level the playing field and create some room for experimentation and learning,” she said.
“What if there was a five-year ‘walkable neighborhood innovation zone’ in two or three Charlottesville communities, so that we could actually see what this looks like instead of hypothesizing in either direction?”
Want to see more stories
How did this series happen?
This story is part of our new initiative to get our readers directly involved in our reporting.
We call it #CvilleCurious.
First we asked you what innovation story you wanted us to investigate.
Then you voted on your top choice.
The question submitted by Carolyn Zelikow received the most votes!
She asked: What would it take to soften residential zoning codes so that neighborhoods could support local corner stores, coffee shops, and boutiques?
Our reporter Sean Tubbs interviewed Carolyn and that started him down the path of telling this story.