FIRST IN A SERIES
The city has a bold plan to redevelop 330 acres, most of which are privately owned, in the center of Charlottesville over the next 20 years.
Among the goals are improved housing, revitalized neighborhoods, new jobs and economic development. While use of eminent domain is not part of the conversation, the community’s history of urban renewal remains influential in the dialogue.
The 271-page Strategic Investment Area plan was developed by the Alexandria firm of Cunningham | Quill Architects for $190,000. The City Council endorsed the plan in February 2014.
“The plan envisions a strong pedestrian connection between a new civic plaza and the Downtown Mall extending along a newly designed, pedestrian-focused, mixed-use corridor [on] Second Street with ground-floor retail, community service uses and mixed-use development extending east and west along Garrett Street,” reads the document.
Implementation of the plan is expected to happen in phases and over many years. However, the outcome largely will be determined by three major landowners and their willingness to work with the city.
In the two years since the plan was adopted, there are signs that some of its elements are coming together.
The owner of the former Frank Ix and Sons textile plant has embraced the plan’s call for a civic plaza and created the Ix Art Park as a way to bring people to the area, and is working on a concept plan for how to develop the 17.5-acre property.
“We created dozens and dozens of events with a lot of diversity and invited everybody,” said Ludwig Kuttner. “We established that the model is now proven.”
The affordable housing in the area is the result of the razing of Charlottesville’s largely African-American neighborhoods of Vinegar Hill and Garrett as part of urban renewal efforts in the 1960s and 1970s.
Today many of the people who live in areas most primed for redevelopment are some of the most economically vulnerable in the city and many are worried about what their role will be.
“This is our life here,” said Toni Eubanks, a resident of Friendship Court. “This is not just a project.”
A second key landowner is the Piedmont Housing Alliance, which has begun planning for redevelopment of the 11.75-acre Friendship Court as a mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood. The nonprofit has announced it will purchase the property in late 2018 and intends to preserve the 150 units of Section 8 housing.
The third major property owner and the largest landlord in the area in question is the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority, which owns and manages three public housing sites within the SIA’s boundaries. A master plan to guide redevelopment of the agency’s 376 units was adopted in 2010 but the plan is in limbo.
“This is our life here. This is not just a project.”
Toni Eubanks, Friendship Court resident
The SIA plan called for several steps to be taken in the first year, including creation of a zoning overlay district, adoption of a form-based zoning code and an expedited staff review of projects within the SIA area.
One city councilor laments that little public activity has been accomplished in the two years since the SIA study became part of the city’s Comprehensive Plan.
“The plan had a lot of detail in terms of steps for implementation with catalyst projects and a list of priorities,” said Councilor Kathy Galvin. “There hasn’t been any kind of investment on the part of the city yet and the investment that we’re talking about is in road and intersection improvements.”
Galvin said delay in planning and implementing those improvements, such as changes to Elliott Avenue, could lead to more congestion as development occurs.
Habitat for Humanity and Southern Development are building several dozen homes on land next to the Oakwood Cemetery that was formerly owned by the city. That project, part of the Burnett Commons development, was approved before the SIA was adopted.
Galvin and others have called for one person in city government to serve as a point person to focus on the SIA area.
However, staff in the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development Services say they have had a heavy workload with multiple planning initiatives and projects.
“Though one individual is not specifically assigned to SIA implementation at this time, we are beginning to gear up, pending direction from council, to explore next steps recommended in that study,” said Missy Creasy, assistant director of NDS. She added that the council will get an update in February.
The president of the Ridge Street Neighborhood Association said he is hopeful the vision laid out in the SIA will help make the community walkable for current and future residents.
“The Ridge Street neighborhood may very well be the fastest-growing neighborhood in Charlottesville, so with that comes challenges,” said Pete Armetta. “The SIA plan, the bicycle and pedestrian plan and the city’s [Comprehensive Plan] include a lot of things that residents are clamoring for when it comes to infrastructure.”
Specifically, he said he’s hoping the city can follow through with a plan to narrow Elliott Avenue in order to provide better sidewalks and safer access.
Armetta is advocating for the plan because it sets the expectations for what city government has to do to improve his neighborhood. But, he said good relationships between the many players are needed for any of it to be successful.
“Each silo can’t just act on its own, be it Friendship Court, CRHA, Ix, or the neighborhood association or Burnett residents,” Armetta said. “That’s what the challenge is.”
Kuttner said the SIA plan provides a template for how development could satisfy the city’s need for jobs and new homes, but that the local government needs to take some action.
“If the city doesn’t act, everyone else will wait,” Kuttner said. “We’re not going to build nice apartment buildings if people can’t get there.”
ABOUT THE SERIES
as appearing this week in The Daily Progress
Monday: The Strategic Investment Area
Tuesday: The beginnings of a new civic plaza
Wednesday: Mixed-use, mixed-income — mixed feelings