May 2 • 17M

May 2, 2022: Charlottesville City Council to consider Corner apartments conversion to a hotel; COVID cases up sharply today in Virginia

Plus: Charlottesville is removing ash trees at a key intersection today

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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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It’s been three months since February 2, prompting the question: Has anyone checked to see how the groundhog is doing? Still, May 2 is the 122nd day of 2022, and we are now mathematically one third of the way through. Perhaps nothing is still. In any case, this is Charlottesville Community Engagement and I remain Sean Tubbs, here for another week and another months of newsletters and podcasts that are hopefully informative. 

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On today’s program:

  • Charlottesville crews are taking down dead Ash and Oak trees this ye

  • COVID cases are up sharply across Virginia this morning

  • Charlottesville has a new Fire Marshal

  • A Buckingham County resident has died following a fatal crash this morning in Albemarle County

  • City Council will take up two land use items tonight, one of which would double the already approved residential density on a property near the University of Virginia

First shout-out goes to the Piedmont Master Gardeners for their annual plant sale

In today’s first subscriber-supported shout-out, the Piedmont Master Gardeners are pleased to announce the return of their annual plant sale! That’s happening on Saturday, May 7, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Albemarle Square Shopping Center. The sale will offer thousands of annuals, perennials, shrubs, vegetables, herbs and houseplants, including a large selection of native plants.

In addition, shoppers can purchase garden implements, yard ornaments and other “Green Elephants”; have their tools sharpened by an expert; and drop off their surplus plastic nursery pots for recycling. The sale will also feature a Help Desk for gardening questions and information tables on native plants, soil and composting, invasive plants, conservation landscaping and much more.

For more information, visit piedmontmastegardeners.org

COVID-19 update: Numbers trending upward again?

As the week and month begin, it’s worth checking in with the COVID-19 pandemic statistics in Virginia. Brace yourselves for this number.

The Virginia Department of Health reports another 4,192 new cases today, and the seven day average for positive PCR tests is at 9.8 percent. The seven day average for new tests is at 1,870 new cases a day. 

However, these cases have not yet resulted in a higher number of people in the hospital for COVID. According to the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, there are 166 COVID patients currently in hospital care across Virginia and 28 are in intensive care units. Eleven are on ventilators. Those numbers are drastically lower than three months ago when the Omicron surge was at its peak. 

On Friday, the VDH reported 1,705 new cases. That’s the same day the UVA Health System held its weekly briefing, which included Chief Executive Officer Wendy Horton. She encouraged vigilance. 

“Among our employees and our workforce, we are seeing an uptick in community exposure in COVID so it isn’t going away in our community and I think a lot of friends and family are experiencing that this week,” Horton said. 

Dr. Costi Sifri, the director of hospital epidemiology at the University of Virginia, said the actual case counts are likely higher due to the number of home testing and due to the spread of a variant in Omicron. 

“They are increasingly more transmissible and because of that it’s very reasonable to take precautions,” Dr. Sifri said. “Masking works. It’s always worked. It will continue to work.” 

Dr. Sifri also encouraged people to investigate whether it is a good time for them to take an additional booster if eligible. 

“I think the first and foremost thing is to make sure that you are fully vaccinated and that you have completed what we consider the three dose vaccine series,” Dr. Sifri said.

With allergy season in play, Dr. Sifri recommends self-testing to protect those you spend a lot of time around. 

“Your sniffles or scratchy throat that you may wish to attribute to hay fever may not be that but it could be a sign of COVID and to test yourself,” Dr. Sifri said. 

The trendline of cases is beginning to increase again after a steady decline from the peak of Omicron. Visit the Virginia Department of Health dashboard to view more.

The Friday briefing also covered another emerging medical issue across the globe. 

So far there are no cases at the University of Virginia of severe unexplained cases of hepatitis in children, but doctors are keeping an eye out. Dr. Debbie-Ann Shirley is a pediatric infectious disease specialist who says more study is needed after an alert went out in late April.

“Both the Centers for Disease Control and the Virginia Department of Health put out health advisories to notify health care providers about an increase in clusters of cases of severe liver diseases in children which we call hepatitis,” Dr. Shirley said in a briefing last Friday. 

One potential commonality is an adenovirus which can cause a variety of different ailments. The United Kingdom has seen a relatively high number of cases, some of which have required liver transplants. 

“It’s really the severity of these cases in young children that is causing concern and alarm and the reason that we want to investigate urgently to find out more information,” Dr. Shirley said. 

Local physicians are encouraged to reach out to UVA Health officials if they see pediatric patients with elevated levels of liver enzymes that are otherwise unexplained. 

“For parents who are trying to understand what to do when they hear this message, if they see signs and symptoms of hepatitis then to talk to their health care provider,” Dr. Shirley said. 

That includes yellowing of the eyes and skin, belly pain, and fatigue. I’ll have more on both issues as time moves on. 

Fatal crash at Hillsdale and Rio intersection this morning

A 20-year-old from Dilwyn has died following a fatal crash this morning at the intersection of Rio Road and Hillsdale Drive. According to the Albemarle County Fire Rescue department, Mr. Kyjuan-Shallah Anthony Maurice Bell died at the scene after a collision with another vehicle.

“The cause of the crash remains under investigation by the Albemarle County Police Department’s Fatal Crash Reconstruction Team,” reads the press release. “This is the third traffic fatality investigated by ACPD in 2022.”

City to remove dead trees

The biological war between the Emerald Ash Borer and ash trees is still being waged, but it’s very much in the favor of the invasive species. That’s been confirmed by the city’s new urban forester, Steve Gaines.

“The beetle larvae tunnel under the bark, and damage nutrient and water flow throughout the tree – basically girdling the tree,” Gaines said in email Friday afternoon. “Once infested, the trees usually die within 2-5 years after initial infection.”

This morning, Charlottesville’s Parks and Recreation Department began removing six dead ash trees at the intersection of McIntire Road and West Main Street. That will take place Monday through Wednesday between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. and motorists can expect delays. 

Gaines said it is hard to tell how many more ash trees across the city will die but there will be a focus on removing ones that can cause harm. 

“It is safe to say that the city will be removing Ash hazard trees for quite a while,” Gaines said. “Standing dead Ash trees are particularly dangerous because the dead limbs are brittle and can easily break and fall during wind/weather events.”

Gaines said the city is seeking to treat some ash trees with injections, but this often requires a landowner or organization to help cover the cost of treatment. 

Later in the week, crews will remove three dead Oak trees from Belmont Park. Gaines said there are many possibilities for why they have died. 

The Charlottesville Tree Commission meets virtually Tuesday at 5 p.m. (meeting info)

Fire Captain Phillips elevated to Fire Marshal

A veteran with 23 years of experience on the Charlottesville Fire Department has been named as the city’s new fire marshal. Joe Phillips will replace Deputy Chief Joe Powers, who had been in charge of Community Risk Reduction. 

According to a release, Phillips joined the department in January 1999 as a firefighter and medic. He has served as a battalion chief and has been in the Fire Marshal’s office since 2017. That’s where the fire department’s Office of Community Risk Reduction is located. A national search is underway for a new Deputy Chief for risk reduction. 

Fire Marshal Joe Phillips (Credit: City of Charlottesville Fire Department)


In today’s other three shout-outs

Code for Charlottesville is seeking volunteers with tech, data, design, and research skills to work on community service projects. Founded in September 2019, Code for Charlottesville has worked on projects with the Legal Aid Justice Center, the Charlottesville Fire Department, and the Charlottesville Office of Human Rights. Visit codeforcville.org to learn about those projects. 

In the middle, I’d like to take the opportunity to wish my nephew, Ryan Craig, a happy 29th birthday. Where did the time go? 

The final comes from another Patreon supporter who wants you to go out and read a local news story written by a local journalist. Whether it be the Daily Progress, Charlottesville Tomorrow, C-Ville Weekly, NBC29, CBS19, WINA, or some other place I’ve not mentioned - the community depends on a network of people writing about the community. Go learn about this place today!

Council to review two land use items this evening

Last month, the Charlottesville Planning Commission recommended approval of one land use item and recommended the denial of another at a joint public hearing with City Council. Tonight, City Council will hold final votes on both of them.

The first is on the consent agenda. Southern Development seeks an increase of residential density at 209 Maury Avenue near the University of Virginia. Here’s city planner Matt Alfele.

“The subject properties were rezoned from R-2U (residential two-family University) to R-3 with proffers in December 2019,” Alfele said. “The original plan called for residential development with 33 units. The new proposal calls for the same configuration but removes the parking underneath building 2 to accommodate additional units.”

The new maximum count would be 64 units. As part of the proffers, six affordable units would be built by Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville at the Flint Hill development in the Fry’s Spring neighborhood. Flint Hill is also being developed by Southern Development and that required eight affordable units. Habitat will be building those, as well. 

Charlie Armstrong is vice president at Southern Development. 

“Yes, it would create more units if we have more density on this site,” Armstrong said. “It does create more affordable units. Those will need to be off-site and we like the idea of doing them with Habitat at Flint Hill. We need to get Flint Hill through the approval process and built.”

Armstrong said University of Virginia students do not drive as much, but the company has agreed to develop a parking plan for the site. They’ll also build a seven-foot sidewalk along Maury Avenue.  An existing structure on the property will be kept as part of the project. 

The Commission voted unanimously to recommend the increase. Council has opted to put it on their consent agenda rather than discuss it in open session tonight.

A look at what 209 Maury Avenue would look like (Credit: Mitchell Matthews Architects and Planners)


Planning Commission recommends denial of conversion of apartments to hotel use

In the other matter, developer Bill Chapman sought permission to convert an apartment complex on 14th Street into a hotel. Here’s city planner Dannan O’Connell. 

“The subject property is currently developed with a 21-unit multifamily condominium use and the applicant wishes to renovate the existing building to accommodate a 19-unit hotel with one residential apartment,” O’Connell said. 

The structure was originally built as a hotel in 1964 but converted to apartment use some time later. 

Tonight’s consideration by Council comes just over a year after the city adopted an Affordable Housing Plan that seeks to increase the number of units and nearly six months after a new Comprehensive Plan was adopted.

“The proposed redevelopment does meet some of the 2021 Comprehensive Plan’s goals regarding sustainable reuse of existing buildings, protecting the existing identity of city neighborhoods, and retaining successful businesses and jobs,” O’Connell said. “The proposed change of use would also result in a reduction of available rental housing within the city and this area. However, the existing apartment use is non-conforming in nature and located in an area of dense residential apartments geared towards short-term student housing.”

Current conditions at the Alcove Apartments. Look them up on apartment.com!

Much of the discussion at the Planning Commission was whether the residential units should be removed from circulation. Commissioner Rory Stolzenberg noted that the units rented at what would appear to be what’s known as “naturally occurring affordable housing.”

“The studio rents for $770 a month and that includes utilities,” Stolzenberg said. “And then I go look at what that is in terms of [Area Median Income] and it’s right at the 45 percent AMI range for a one-person household.” 

O’Connell said the application made clear that none of those units were participating in a subsidized program requiring the rents to be that low. 

“The reason these units are affordable is because they are older and so people can afford to live in them,” said Planning Commissioner Liz Russell. 

Developer Bill Chapman said the conversion would be similar to what he and his business partners did at the Oakhurst Circle and Inn project at the corner of Jefferson Park Avenue and Jefferson Park Avenue.

“My partners and I own nine buildings over here on the south side of UVA in the Oakhurst Gildersleeve Historic District and some of them are apartments and some are private homes and some are hotel rooms,” Chapman said.

And here’s how it might look as a hotel once more

Chapman said he thought the end result of the renovations of those buildings has made some of those streets better than they been. He said he wants to do the same at 207 14th Street.

“The block just down the hill from this property on 14th Street is one of the dirtiest blocks in the whole city in terms of trash and we’re going to transform that a little bit because being in the hospitality business it needs to look good,” Chapman said. 

Chapman said the apartments are run down and cheap because they are old hotel rooms. He is a contract purchaser, and does not currently own them. He said financing their renovation as an apartment would result in much higher rents. 

“This property was built as a motel and I think it’s best operated as a hotel especially since it needs this new life brought to it,” Chapman said. “Now, could it go for a few more years as an apartment building? Yeah. Could it go for 20 more years as an apartment building. No.”

Russell said she did not think the people living in the apartment were necessarily students. 

“We have to remember that not just students live in the area around the University but it seems like a pretty great proximity to the UVA Health System,” Russell said. “So many people can’t live in this community let alone proximate to UVA. 

Russell said she would vote to recommend denial because she housing is more important than hotel rooms. 

Commissioner Karim Habbab also could not support it.

“This is currently exactly the missing middle housing that we are trying to develop in the city and given our affordable housing issue, I cannot see how this would help with that,” Habbab said. 

The Commission voted 4-2 to recommend denial. Now it’s up to Council to make a decision. 

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