As construction continues on two new buildings on West Main Street, Charlottesville officials continue to review possible changes to the zoning code to reduce the height and massing of future structures.

“You’ve gotten really large buildings that people don’t like and they’ve asked you to take a look,” said deputy city attorney Lisa Robertson at a recent Planning Commission work session on the topic.

Construction is wrapping up on a Marriott Residence Inn at the corner of West Main and Ridge Street while construction of the Uncommon apartment building is in its early stages.

The presence of the 300-foot-wide Flats at West Village has become an issue in the Charlottesville’s City Council race.

“You talk to ten different people [about the Flats] you’re going to get ten different opinions about ten different aspects of the building,” said Missy Creasy, the city’s planning manager.

Creasy acknowledged that most people do not have a positive view of the building and proposed zoning changes are intended to minimize the chances of another similar structure.

West Main is currently split into southern and northern districts and developers have the opportunity to ask City Council for permission to go as high as 101 feet.

“People have been concerned about the special use permit and the ability to go that much higher and this is an opportunity to revisit that,” said Commissioner Genevieve Keller.

As part of a $340,000 study of the streetscape, the firm Code Studio has recommended changing that into eastern and western districts with the Drewary Brown Bridge as the dividing line.

Building heights would be restricted to 75 feet on the western side towards the University of Virginia and 52 feet on the east towards Downtown. Special use permits would only be available to increase residential density above the 43 units per acre allowed by-right.

The zoning changes were unveiled to the public in March. Council directed the Planning Commission to review them in June and they did so for three hours on August 11.

Planning staff asked several questions of commissioners, such as whether they agreed with the reduced building heights, whether first floors of buildings should be required to be 15 feet high and whether “building breaks” should be required every 200 feet to ensure to reduce the possibility that structures would be monolithic.

There would still be provision for a portion of buildings to go 16 feet higher in a structure known as an appurtenance. Commissioners were adamant that no residential units be allowed in that space, which can be no more than a quarter of the building’s footprint.

Commissioner Kurt Keesecker said the redefined zoning districts would give the city a chance to define a new vision for West Main.

“It seems like we’ve come to some consensus as a community that we want smaller, fine-grained development on the east side, and we’re generally okay with a little bit taller on the west side,” Keesecker said.  

Commissioner Dan Rosensweig said he had lots of “heartburn” about reducing the building heights but said he could accept that outcome as a compromise.

“I have all sorts of problems with the Flats which is causing this whole problem but it’s not the height that that’s the problem,” Rosensweig said. “It’s the bulk plane, it’s the street front and it’s the rhythm along the street.”

The draft changes would allow residential uses on the first floor, but the minimum ceiling height would be set at 15 feet to allow for the spaces to be re-used as commercial space in the future.

Another question is what district the Amtrak station and the adjacent parking lot should be. Code Studio suggested putting the property in the western district to allow for taller buildings, but some Commissioners want it to remain in the east to only allow four story buildings.

“I understand the logic in terms of the economics but in terms of pure design, in my opinion the right urban design thing to do is lower buildings on that site,” Keesecker said.  “I can’t imagine a tall building there with historic buildings on either side.”

However, Rosensweig said he was concerned that lowering the economic potential of that property would keep it as an undeveloped surface parking lot for many years.  

The zoning changes originally restricted the role that would be played by the Board of Architectural Review by listing specific details of how buildings should look.  West Main is its own architectural district and all structures need a certificate of appropriateness from the BAR.

“The consultants came to us with something that was more of a form-based code,” Rosensweig said. “There was a concern that would take the Board of Architectural Review too much out of the process and so there was some design discretion added back in.”

Commissioners appreciated the restored role of the BAR.

“The Board of Architectural Review is going to be very important and as critical as our review,” said Commissioner Jody Lahendro. “I’m going to depend on them to look at the details.”

“We want to preserve some flexibility in here so that we don’t have a cookie-cutter [approach],” said Commissioner Genevieve
Keller. “We are not some new neo-traditional community somewhere in Florida. It’s a corridor approaching a World Heritage site. We want it to look like Charlottesville.”

The planning commission will hold a public hearing on the zoning changes this fall. That will be followed by action by City Council. Council will also discuss the streetscape at its meeting Monday night.