December 16, 2020: Hotel redevelopment for below-market housing in Albemarle moves forward

  
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On today’s show:

  • The first people are vaccinated against COVID-19 across Virginia

  • Albemarle Planning Commission recommends approval of housing project for those with low incomes and the homeless 

  • The president of the Free Enterprise Forum ends the year with a carol 


The first vaccines in our area arrived yesterday at the University of Virginia. The first person to be given the shot from Pfizer was Dr. Ebony J. Hilton.

“I’m an associate professor of anesthesiology and critical care here at the University of Virginia and today is a really important day,” Hilton said. “It truly is one of those moments in 2020. This has been a long year of us waiting for some light at the end of the tunnel. And it’s just incredible that we did have this vaccine and produced and made available here at the University. I’m excited to see truly how we unroll this not only in the hospital, but also local and statewide.”

It will take months for the vaccine to be distributed, but health care workers throughout our region are receiving it this week. 

In the meantime, the Virginia Department of Health reports another 3,931 new cases today, and the seven-day average is now at 3,587. The seven-day average for positive cases is at 11.4 percent today. In the Blue Ridge Health District there are another 63 cases today. 

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The Albemarle Planning Commission has recommended approval of a rezoning to allow for up to 140 units and commercial space to be built on U.S. 29 adjacent to the Red Carpet Inn. The proposal is from three housing nonprofits. 

“The project proponents are Virginia Supportive Housing, Piedmont Housing Alliance, and the Thomas Jefferson Area Coalition for the Homeless,” said Lori Schweller, an attorney with Williams Mullen. “VSH intends to develop 80 units of permanent supportive housing for 50  percent or lower [area median income] and PHA intends to develop 60 primarily one and two bedroom units at between 30 percent and 80 percent [area median income].” 

The motel will be used as emergency housing for the homeless before development begins by the Thomas Jefferson Area Coalition for the Homeless. That agency’s executive director spoke of the benefits of a similar project build by VSH that opened in the spring of 2012. 

“We’ve seen in our community when the Crossings opened in downtown Charlottesville that for the years following it that chronic homelessness dropped by half,” Anthony Haro said. 

The project would be built under Neighborhood Model District zoning, and that requires a look at Places 29 Master Plan. Megan Nedustop is the Development Process Manager for Albemarle County. 

“The master plan does not specify a maximum recommended density for the residential as a secondary use and this proposed development would be between 22 and 38 units per acre,” Nedustop said. 

These units would be in two new four-story buildings. One concern that came up at a community meeting was that residents might want to cross U.S. 29 on foot to get to a grocery store and other services. 

“Currently there is no safe way to cross U.S. 29 for pedestrians and staff requested the applicant study the intersection of Route 29 and Branchlands and Premier Circle to evaluate whether a pedestrian crossing could be installed at the location,” Nedustop said, adding that the Virginia Department of Transportation had not yet completed their feasibility study. 

Transportation planner Kevin McDermott said one option would be create a pedestrian island in the median which would allow people to safely cross the 150 feet span in two cycles.

“There would be some minor impacts to traffic on 29, maybe up to a ten second delay on north and southbound traffic, but it’s fairly minor but if we could get a ped-actuated signal in there it that ten second delay would only occur if a pedestrian actually pushed the button to cross,” McDermott said. However, VDOT would have to approve the crossing, and it would cost at least a half-million dollar. 

Commissioner Karen Firehock used to have an office on Premier Circle. 

“I used to run across that road every week, several times a week, and I stopped doing that after six months because I decided I wanted to live,” Firehock said. “I am just saying that cars don’t behave well and even with the light there we may have red light runners.” 

Another issue staff had is whether the roadway for Premier Circle would remain private or if it would become part of the county’s road network. That would increase the cost of the project and might affect the feasibility of providing low-income housing. 

The advocacy-group Piedmont Environmental Council said Premier Circle should be built to public standards. 

“PEC recommends that the county require that the interior roads be built to the appropriate standards for incorporation into the public network,” said Chris Hawk, PEC’s land use field representative for Albemarle. “If this is not possible due to the 80 percent concurrence requirement and the road maintenance agreement, PEC recommends denial.” 

However, Eboni Bugg of the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation said the benefits of the project were worth a community investment.

“I want to note that homeless in particular during a global pandemic is a public health crisis in addition to a basic human right,” Bugg said. “As a county resident, I do concur with the comments and some of the concerns related to the pedestrian crossing and right of ways. As a foundation, we are also supporters of PEC and recognize the work that they are doing. However, we do not necessarily think that this development should bear the full brunt of the pedestrian need and that as a resident, I believe the county can work with these nonprofit entities to ensure that municipal funding can be used to support the infrastructure and updates needed to make this a success.” 

Commissioner Tim Keller suggested that this could be an opportunity for the county to work with private philanthropy to ensure that the urban infrastructure be in place. 

“It seems to me that the street should be brought to standard and that there should be some significant thought about pedestrians across against 29,” Keller said. 

Commission Chair Julian Bivins liked the partnership behind the project but said he would prefer a different location. 

“That has nothing to do with the collaboration and has nothing to with the goal,” Bivins said, adding that the space was prime commercial space in a county that has limited land for development. 

However, Bivins voted with his colleagues in a unanimous recommendation for approval. The project heads next to the Board of Supervisors. 

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Today in meetings, the Charlottesville Housing Advisory Committee meets at noon. I’ll be listening for any comment on the draft affordable housing strategy being developed as part of the Cville Plans Together initiative. (meeting info)

Then the Albemarle Board of Supervisors meets at 1 for their final event of the year. On the agenda is a work session on the Rio 29 form-based code, an update on COVID-19 from the Blue Ridge Health District and then a pair of public hearings in the evening. (agenda)

Finally today, something else that happened at last night’s meeting of the Albemarle Planning Commission. It was their last of the year and despite the pandemic, a tradition continued. 

“So, we know what meeting this is,” said Julian Bivins. “And I understand having participated in three that we have this tradition of being are caroled by a particular individual. 

The particular individual is Neil Williamson, the president of the Free Enterprise Forum. He delivered a Coronavirus Carol. Listen to it in the newscast, or read it on the Free Enterprise Forum blog