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Albemarle supervisors ponder jobs versus homes in Woolen Mills project

As a development team makes plans to adapt the former Woolen Mills complex into a mixed-use project, Albemarle officials are seeking a balance between the number of new homes that could be allowed versus keeping space open for emerging jobs. 
 
“What Woolen Mills gives to us in the county is the cool factor,” said Lee Catlin, the assistant county executive. “It’s a neat location that is close to the city that kind of has that millennial flavor that we just don’t have in very many places.”
 
Catlin said that means it could be an attractive spot for businesses developing emerging technologies. 
 
The topic came up Tuesday during the Board of Supervisors’ latest work session on the county’s Comprehensive Plan update. The county has been reviewing the plan since April 2011. 
 
The work session was an opportunity for supervisors to weigh in on Comprehensive Plan amendments that have been submitted since the review began. 
 
One of those amendments concerns the old Woolen Mills building that developer Brian Roy wants to convert to apartment units, office space and retail establishments. 
 
Though Roy does not yet know what the exact mix will be, county planning staff have recommended capping the number of dwelling units at no more than 50 percent of the overall project. 
 
However, the current zoning on the property is light industrial, and county staff are concerned about changing the designation. 
 
“Right now these buildings are zoned light industrial and they could be used for [that use] right now,” said Elaine Echols, a principal county planner. “[Roy] wants to do something that’s more mixed-use, which is what our neighborhood model recommends.”
 
However, Echols said there are no other places like this in Albemarle County, which means she may need more time to work on the language needed to reflect its uniqueness. 
 
Roy agreed about the special nature of the project. 
 
“This is an undiscovered diamond in the rough that exists in the county,” Roy said. “I want to make this a not-only attractive residential property but also a semi-public space that would help engage the river and allow for a trail that doesn’t exist currently.”
 
Roy said the site is a unique opportunity for the county to engage in urban redevelopment, but he needs flexibility as the plan comes together. 
 
“It is a tremendous economic undertaking and it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to having light industrial-type businesses in an area like this,” Roy said. 
 
However, many supervisors said they want to keep an eye on the county’s inventory of light industrial-zoned land. 
 
Supervisor Jane Dittmar pointed out that an indoor soccer facility on Broadway Street recently was granted only a temporary use permit because of the importance of keeping space open for emerging jobs. 
 
“This really is a corner of our county that can be really rich for jobs,” Dittmar said. 
 
But Supervisor Liz Palmer said she supports the developers’ intent. 
 
“I want to keep the light industrial but it has been explained to me how unique this property is and how difficult it will be to get light industrial to work here,” Palmer said. “I think they need more flexibility.” 
 
Supervisor Ann H. Mallek said she thinks if half of the site’s 10 acres were developed as residential, that would still be a lot of homes in proximity to potential office space. 
 
“There’s a very strong contingent that says employment is what we should be doing, and when you fill something up halfway even with houses it changes how the rest of it is going to happen because of the presence of all the residential,” Mallek said. 
 
Supervisor Brad Sheffield said he doesn’t have a problem with the proposal but said the city of Charlottesville’s concerns also need to be heard. 
 
“It’s such a unique part of our county because it’s so tucked away into the city’s infrastructure,” Sheffield said. 
 
Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd said the county has frequently rezoned land from light industrial uses to the benefit of the public. 
 
“Because of that we’re going to have a Wegmans in this town,” Boyd said. “Our Comprehensive Plan has to be in conjunction with private ownership of property so we need to make sure we work with people with ideas.”
 
Echols will continue to work with Roy to further tweak a potential amendment to the Comprehensive Plan and it’s expected to return to supervisors at a work session March 10. 
 
Roy said he was concerned that too many requirements would harm the ability to finance the deal. 
 
“The more layers you put on top of this, the more difficult it is,” Roy said. “If you’re talking about a primary light industrial flex-use, that starts encroaching more into the residential portion and it makes it a project that … doesn’t work.”