Apr 9, 2021 • 23M

April 9, 2021: Charlottesville Council endorses Starr Hill vision, holds first reading of $192.2M budget

Can you believe it's the 99th day of the year?

 
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Regular updates of what's happening in local and regional government in and around Charlottesville, Virginia from an award-winning journalist with nearly thirty years of experience.
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In today’s Patreon-fueled shout-out, supporter Lonnie Murray wants you to know about a series of seminars on spring and fall landscaping with native plants. Plant Virginia Natives has held four of these already, but the next one is coming up on April 20 with Beth Mizell of Blue Ridge Prism on how to identify and eradicate invasive plants in Virginia. 

On today’s show: 

  • A review of Charlottesville City Council’s meeting from this past Monday, including a first reading of the budget and a discussion of performance metrics 

  • Council also adds the Starr Hill Vision Plan to the 2013 Comprehensive Plan as part of the appendix 

  • The eastern entrance to the Blue Ridge Tunnel will close for repairs to the parking lot beginning this Monday 

  • The University of Virginia will live-stream the dedication of the Memorial to Enslaved Workers Saturday morning


The bulk of today’s show deals with the Charlottesville City Council meeting from Monday, April 5. But before we get to that, here’s a few quicker stories. 

The unemployment rate in the Charlottesville Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) dropped to 4.8 percent February, down from 5.1 percent in January. That’s according to data released Wednesday by the Virginia Employment Commission. Statewide the rate in February was 5.4 percent, down from 5.7 percent in January. The unemployment rate in February 2020 was 2.1 percent in the Charlottesville MSA and 2.5 percent statewide.  

Over in the Shenandoah Valley, the Staunton-Waynesboro MSA has an unemployment rate of 4.6 in February, down from 4.8 in 4.8 in January. In February 2020, those communities had an unemployment rate of 2.2 percent. 

Source: Virginia Employment Commission

Tomorrow morning at 11 a.m., the University of Virginia will hold a ceremony to formally dedicate the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, which was completed last year but the pandemic prevented a public dedication. There are at least 4,000 people who built and maintained the University of Virginia from 1819 until Liberation Day in 1865. The event will be live-streamed. (UVA Today article)

Tonight at 6 p.m., a group called the Descendants of Enslaved Communities at the University of Virginia will have its public launch on a virtual event that begins at 6 p.m. Speakers will be Dr. Andrea Douglass of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, Dr. Jody Allen of The Lemon Project at William and Mary, and Dr. Michael Blakey of the Montpelier Descendant Committee.  Registration is limited. (Descendant’s Day event)

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The eastern parking lot of the Blue Ridge Tunnel in Nelson County will be closed for at least three weeks beginning Monday, April 12 so that it can be expanded. The director of the Nelson County Parks and Recreation department sent out an email stating that barriers will be placed on Afton Depot Lane and people will be stationed outside to direct people to the western trailhead which is in Waynesboro. Traffic congestion, over-parking, and litter have been issues on the eastern side since it opened last November. (more information)

The view last November shortly after the tunnel opened for pedestrian passage (Credit: Victoria Dunham)

The rest of this newsletter is dedicated to the Charlottesville City Council meeting from Monday, April 5. Let’s just go through it, more or less in order. 

As reported elsewhere, the Charlottesville School Board has entered into a $1.47 million contract with architectural firm VMDO to conduct design services for the reconfiguration of the city’s middle schools. VMDO has also been hired to put together growth and capacity scenarios for the entire school system.

The capital budget before the City Council includes a placeholder of $50 million for the project, but more detailed analysis will yield a more accurate cost estimate. 

“The initial analysis of the existing buildings of the schools, the two buildings being Buford Middle School and Walker Upper Elementary School, have been completed including building envelope assessments, general building condition analysis, a building 3D digital modeling, and site survey,” Boyles said. 

A kick-off meeting will be held next week and community engagement will begin in early May. 

“An initial assessment of the findings are due back in June,” Boyles said. “While these will be preliminary and an initial assessment, it will begin to start giving feedback and data to the City Council and the Charlottesville School Board.” 

This week, several housing advocacy groups asked Council to help cover the legal costs of preventing evictions. The entire nation is currently under a moratorium imposed by the Centers for Disease Control that has now been extended to June 30, and groups are concerned that tenants will face renewed pressures once it is lifted. Boyles said Council has provided direction at work sessions this spring to provide resources. (CDC order)

“We have engaged discussions with the Legal Aid Justice Center,” Boyles said. “They have presented some ideas of how this could move forward. At this point our recommendation is to utilize the American Recovery Plan funds that the city should be receiving.” 

Boyles said one possibility is for a two-year agreement between the Legal Aid Justice Center and the city. A community outreach person would be funded as part of this arrangement. 

“I do believe that the right direction to go is with contracting with someone like Legal Aid Justice Center and they have begun to work up what the cost estimates would be as soon as the American Recovery Funds are available, we can present that to Council for approval,” Boyles said. 

Virginia is also continuing to offer a rent relief program related to the pandemic. 

Councilor Lloyd Snook noted that many in Albemarle County had asked Council to increase funding for eviction prevention and to push for policies to protect tenants’ rights. 

“I would hope that there would be also be conversations with Albemarle County just as they are having with the city of Charlottesville,” Snook said. “I’ve been interested to note that roughly half of the letters that we have received in the last few days imploring the city to do something have been from county residents. And I’ve asked some of them if they’ve sent a comparable letter to the Board of Supervisors.” 

Boyles said he has already reached out to Albemarle to begin the conversations of working together. 

I put the question to Emily Kilroy, the county’s Director of Communications and Public Engagement. She said Albemarle does not have a specific eviction prevention program, but does fund Legal Aid Justice Center and Piedmont Housing Alliance to provide direct services.

“Over the course of the pandemic, the Emergency Financial Assistance Program that the County is sponsoring through United Way has provided funds for rent, including referrals from the General District Court related to eviction petitions,” Kilroy said in an email. “The Housing Choice Voucher program has been able to increase subsidy payments to owners on behalf of our participants who may have lost their income during COVID and have done so, on several occasions.

Later in the meeting, Council held a public hearing on the budget for FY22 which so far does not include any funding from the American Recovery Plan because staff wants to have a full sense of restrictions that may come with the money. However, Boyles said one of the first uses will be to fill the revenue shortfalls from FY21. Staff have been working to close a multimillion dollar budget gap. 

“While revenue projections are improving for FY21, we still estimate a $9.2 revenue loss for fiscal year 21,” Boyles said. 

Final budget adoption is scheduled for April 13. After that, Boyles is hoping to relaunch the city’s strategic planning process in order to inform future budgets. The current strategic plan was adopted in June 2017 and no one is left on Council from that time. 

“My vision is that as soon as we get through with this budget process, then we begin a strategic planning process that will start to lead us toward the FY23 budget,” Boyles said. 

A strategic plan is not to be confused with the Comprehensive Plan, which is a document intended to direct the development of land and public infrastructure. The strategic plan is intended to create policy objectives which then direct the work of the city’s employees as well as what the city chooses to fund. 

Mayor Nikuyah Walker said one of her main objectives is to ensure city funding for non-profits is tied to performance. 

“One of the major points that came out of the task force or working group meeting I convened or whatever we called it was to figure out how to get citizens input directly and not just have nonprofits be able to say that X people of number participated and thereby just by participating they get the dollars that there are allocated,” Walker said.

For many years, Albemarle and Charlottesville participated in something called the Agency Budget Review Team in which a sixteen member team evaluated requests jointly.

However, Council opted to go its own way beginning with the development of the FY21 budget in favor of something the Vibrant Community Fund. In her comments above, Walker was referring to the Measurement and Solutions Group which had been intended to meet to “identify appropriate measurements, benchmarks, solutions and metrics for the designated priority areas for use in The Vibrant Community Funding process.” Those priority areas are “Jobs/Wages, Affordable Housing, Public Health Care, and Education.” 

However, that process has been delayed by the pandemic. Boyles said the process would be improved for the next fiscal year.

“For FY23 we want to come up with a means to be able to identify some of our nonprofit and community stakeholders and partners that will become more of a line item within the budget so that even though it is an annual basis, it be a little bit more definitive for them to know they’re going to get a funding of a certain amount every year,” Boyles said. 

A work session on the process going into the next fiscal year will be held in May.


You’re listening to Charlottesville Community Engagement. What do you know about rock music? Want to put it to the test? Join WTJU virtually on April 16 for their first-ever Trivia Night at 8 p.m. Join a team in the virtual pub and put your screens together to answer rounds of questions with themes that relate to rock, radio, and local lore. There will be merriment! There will be prizes! Trivia Night is just three days before the beginning of the rock marathon, a seven-day extravaganza to help fund the station. Visit wtju.net to learn more!


The entire plan can be downloaded from the New Hill Development Corporation's website (download)

Council next took up the adoption of the Starr Hill Vision Plan to the City’s Comprehensive Plan. In November 2018, Council used $500,000 from its Equity Fund to pay the nonprofit New Hill Development Corporation to create a small area plan. Alex Ikefuna is the deputy director of the Neighborhood Development Services department.

“Planning Commission and staff worked together,” Ikefuna said. “Originally it was a small area plan that because of the contents and the efficiencies in the land use it was agreed with the consultant that it would be submitted to the Planning Commission and subsequently to the City Council as a vision plan,” Ikefuna said. 

Yolunda Harrell is with New Hill Development Corporation, which was formed following conversations that began in July 2017 with former Councilors Wes Bellamy and Kathy Galvin. 

“This plan intentionally centers the Black community, not to the exclusion of others, but rather to the intentional inclusion of us,” Harrell said. “This plan specifically looks at opportunities to increase the street-level presence of sustainable, well-capitalized, existing and start-up Black-owned businesses.” 

Harrell said part of the work going forward will involved providing gap money to finance entrepreneurial efforts. From the land use perspective, the idea is to create multiple types of housing so as to cover different affordability ranges. 

“Whether you are a first-time homebuyer, a voucher-holder, or someone looking for the next phase of housing along their financial growth path, in this plan we have demonstrated how those opportunities can and will exist,” Harrell said. 

Harrell said the plan would build off of the work the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center has done to curate local Black history. The Jefferson School received $450,000 from the city’s Strategic Initiatives fund in FY2018 and another $500,000 in FY2019. 

“This plan also speaks to the need for gathering spaces where folks can connect or just simply be,” Harrell said. “Where they can be empowered to congregate and co-create, build and own, and innovate and learn.” 

Harrell said the 10.4 acre City Yard property offers the best chance to create new housing. Currently the city’s public works department is located in the space. City Council agreed to fund a $300,000 environmental remediation plan in FY20. Ikefuna said that money has not yet been spent. 

“While City Yard represents a genuine opportunity for new affordable housing as part of a mixed-use development, Starr Hill’s existing residential neighborhood must be sustained and strengthened,” Harrell said. 

Harrell said the plan offers suggestions on what could happen immediately. 

“Which is, creating housing on Brown Street, thus shoring up and strengthening the integrity of the existing residential neighborhood,” Harrell said. “This can be done while we explore other opportunities in the larger plan.”

Looking west on Brown Street, April 8, 2021 (Credit: Sean Tubbs)

Brown Street runs east-west between Cream Street and 5th Street NW and most of the parcels on the northern side are vacant. The city’s property records indicate there are 14 landowners on the street. In addition to the City Yard, the City of Charlottesville owns a 0.13 acre vacant lot at 609 Brown Street. Harrell suggested these properties could be be subdivided to create between 10 and 46 new residential units, including homeownership opportunities to first-time home buyers.  

As for the greater City Yard, Harrell said the vision could yield many more places to live.

“If we just look for a moment at the proposed vision, our city could gain upwards of 250 additional housing units not to mention the additional office and retail space to support the presence of Main Street, Black-owned businesses which can significantly change the social fabric of our community,” Harrell said. 

The plan also calls for the identification of 50 parking spaces for First Baptist Church on West Main Street, which Harrell said will eventually lose 50 spaces when the Amtrak parking lot is eventually redeveloped. There are no plans for that now, but Harrell said the Starr Hill Vision Plan identified that need for the future. But the main idea is to reconnect the city after decades of fragmentation using new infrastructure.

“There is an important opportunity to restore and strengthen the connections between Starr Hill to a broader network of neighborhoods from Westhaven, 10th and Page, and Rose Hill to the Downtown Mall,” Harrell said. 

Councilor Lloyd Snook said he was interested to come up with a future for the City Yard, but had some concerns about adding this specific vision to the Comprehensive Plan.

“A Comprehensive Plan, it seems to me, needs to be more than just here’s a possibility,” Snook said. “It has to be ‘we’ve made a decision that this is the possibility not just a possibility.’”

Snook said the visioning work was a start, but the city is in the middle of a Comprehensive Plan process through the Cville Plans Together initiative. 

“I’m not sure we’re there yet,” Snook said. “I think you’ve given us a great start for a lot of discussions that we need to be having.”

Harrell said they have met with the Cville Plans Together consultants, Rhodeside & Harwell, and have updated them on the plan.

“They are just waiting for this plan to be adopted so that they can then roll it up into consideration of the overall plan,” Harrell said. “We did make suggestions on what zoning should happen and what ways the land could be used.”  

Ikefuna said the Starr Hill Vision Plan did not have enough land use analysis and the level of detail required for a small area plan.

“However, it has several contents such as housing, economic development, and placemaking part of which is the connectivity concept which Yolunda alluded to in her presentation

For City Yard to be developed, City Council would need to approve a plan to move Public Works elsewhere and there is no estimate for how much that would cost the city. But redevelopment would begin with remediation.

“I don’t think you can reuse that site without remediation,” Ikefuna said. “Maybe the areas around Brown Street could be carved out and developed. It has a good potential for development for housing. But in terms of redevelopment of City Yard, there has to be remediation.” 

Harrell said the vision plan addresses remediation. The plan suggests the city consider enrolling in the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s Voluntary Remediation Program which can lead to grants to pay for clean-up efforts. The plan also lists previous efforts to document contamination at the site and noted that remediation may have a preliminary cost estimate of $3.4 million.

Harrell said that the plan has taken previous studies into consideration and designates commercial uses in areas that might need remediation. 

Council voted unanimously to approve a motion to add the Starr Hill Vision Plan to the appendix of 2013 Comprehensive Plan, the same way that the Cherry Avenue Small Area Plan and the Hydraulic Area Plan were added. (see all approved city plans)

That’s still not all from the Council meeting. I’ve clipped out audio for potential future segments on the 4-1 vote for an amendment of the special use permit for new apartments on Harris Street, action on changes to City Council rules related to expenditures of funds, and a presentation on the latest version of the Orange Dot Report from Piedmont Virginia Community College’s Division of Community Self-Sufficiency Programs. 

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