May 25, 2021: Oversight group discusses Cville Plans Together initiative; Democratic Council candidates offer their views

The public comment period for this phase of Cville Plans Together has been extended to June 13

  
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In today’s edition:

  • A summary of a recent steering committee of the Cville Plans Together initiative 

  • What do the three Democratic candidates for two party nominations think about the process to date? 


The steering committee overseeing the Cville Plans Together initiative met on May 19 to take a mid-month review of the latest round of the public engagement efforts. To recap, Rhodeside & Harwell is overseeing an update of the city's Comprehensive Plan as well as a rewrite of the city's zoning code. They’ve already produced an affordable housing strategy that City Council adopted in March. (review the plan

In February 2019, Council voted to approve spending up to $1 million to hire an outside consultant to take over oversight of the Comprehensive Plan. For background, read my story from then to explain the reasons behind the decision. 

The work got underway in January 2020 and continued during the pandemic with virtual meetings. There were two previous community engagement periods last year in addition to the one underway now. 

Jennifer Koch is a project manager with Rhodeside & Harwell.

"We fully recognize there are folks in the community who may not have been aware of this process that was going," Koch said. "We've been working hard to reach folks but it's been quite a year... We've been doing a lot of virtual engagement for the past year and we don't anticipate that will completely go away as we move forward but we also know it's really nice to speak with people in person."  

First, members of the steering committee had the opportunity to weigh in. One of them is City Councilor Michael Payne, who will be one of five votes to adopt the Comprehensive Plan and the updated zoning code sometime next year. At this stage, he wanted to suggest a change in the title of one of the draft chapters.

"With the Economic Prosperity and Opportunity [chapter], I know it mentions community wealth building in the update but I still wonder if it may make more sense for the chapter itself to be focused on community wealth building, again to try to gear that chapter towards more system change thinking about things like community land trusts, community development corporations, [and] community gardens all interconnect as a system for wealth creation that's different than the normal way of doing economic development," Payne said. 

Christine Jacobs, the interim executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission, applauded language about regional partnerships. However, she wanted her organization to be more specifically referenced given the number of bodies it runs on which Charlottesville City Councilors serve. 

"The TJPDC does have the Charlottesville-Albemarle MPO," Jacobs said. "It also has the Regional Transit Partnership and the Regional Housing Partnership." 

Diana Dale represents the leaders of neighborhood associations in the city, some of which have expressed concern about too much density. She drew attention to the chapter on Land Use, Urban Form, and Historic and Cultural Preservation. 

"And I'm thinking in particular of goal two," Dale said, reading from the chapter summary. "Protect and enhance existing distinct identitiess of the city's older neighborhoods while promoting housing options, a mix of uses, and sustainble reuses in the community." 

Dale said some residents of neighborhoods are concerned that some of their portions have been changed from low-intensity to medium-intensity, such as most of the Lewis Mountain neighborhood and some of the Martha Jefferson neighborhood. That could allow between four to 12 units per lot, but that will remain unclear until it is time to rewrite the zoning code. 

“What is aspirational? And what is actually codifiable?” Dale asked.

The zoning rewrite will be conducted by the firm Code Studio, a subcontractor whose work will be informed by the affordable housing plan and the Future Land Use Map. 

“I’m not certain that we have a whole lot of the answers,” said Lee Einsweiler of Code Studio. “We were hoping we could work through things at the more generalized level of the Future Land Use Map and then begin to craft strategies for implementing those tools.” 

Einsweiler said that each category on the future land use map will not be represented by a single zoning district. 

“There would be two, three, four implementing zoning districts that might all have appropriate strategies for different types of the community but those can’t quite be figured out until we can understand where they are likely to be applied,” said Lee Einsweiler. 

Dale remained concerned. 

“The vagueness is not helping people’s confidence in the plan,” Dale said.

Dale also expressed concern about the impacts of a more people on the existing infrastructure. She said roads might need to be widened to accommodate additional traffic, and stated the city has issues delivering on infrastructure projects such as frequent buses and a consistent bike and sidewalk network. 

“The guidance is recommending multimodal strategies, and that’s going to take time and funding to implement and that’s been a long struggle for a lot of improvements over time for those of who have been in the city,” Dale said. 

There are 19 neighborhoods across the city, and the 2007 Comprehensive Plan contains an entire appendix of specific requests from neighborhoods that came from a city-wide design day arranged by a now-defunct non-profit called the Charlottesville Community Design Center. That approach was abandoned for the 2013 Comprehensive Plan and the 2017 process did not seek a thorough capturing of what residents of neighborhoods wanted. 

Ashley Davies, who represents the Charlottesville Area Development Roundtable on the steering committee, suggested an approach that built upon previous efforts to plan at a neighborhood level. 

“I think people are hungry to give you feedback that is more specific to their area and I think it’s a shame that we can’t have the time right now to do the small area planning because I think that’s what a lot of people want to inform the land use plan,” Davies said. 

There’s a lot of discussion of what role the Future Land Use Map plays. Is it advisory? If so, what does that mean? Ron Sessoms is with Rhodeside and Harwell.

“The future land use map is a critical component of a Comprehensive Plan and sets the stage for the city’s long-term vision of how it’s going to grow,” said Ron Sessoms of Rhodeside & Harwell (RHI). “You can think of this as the 10,000 foot view of the city and defining where there are opportunities for growth.” 

Sessoms said the land use map is a guide for development, but is not binding like zoning. 

“As we think about the future land use map, it’s much more broad and the zoning code is much more detailed with specifics of what it means to fulfil the future land use map,” Sessoms said. 

The medium intensity residential category is new with this comp plan update, and encourages construction between four and 12 units per lot. Sessoms said that did not have to be out of scale with existing buildings. 

“They can be integrated into the fabric of a neighborhood,” Sessoms said. “They don’t have to be five stories to get fourplexes or any of the medium intensity development types.” 

Ashley Davies said she liked that the future land use map begins a process of reducing the amount of areas colored as low-intensity residential, but thought there should be some sense of what types of housing units are prioritized. 

“It seems to me the strategy for adding units in the city and adding residential, maybe we need to talk about the hierarchy of that can truly happen in Charlottesville,” Davies said. 

Dale said the Martha Jefferson Neighborhood Association’s Board of Directors supports soft density by adding accessory units and permitting apartments within structures. But they don’t support being colored as medium intensity. 

“Is there an opportunity to merge the ambitions of transforming Charlottesville to general residential, which is a big step to begin with, and to merge some of the intentions of the medium intensity?” Dale asked. “I recognize this may happen as you move to more strata, more levels of medium density.”

This draft also includes a name change for Low Density Residential to General Residential, which recommends up to three units per lot. 

Lena Seville, a Belmont resident who is on the steering committee, wanted to know why General Residential didn’t recommend allowing four units per lot. 

“There are plenty of little houses that are split into four,” Seville said. “At two stories, it’s four apartments. They’re easier to build. They mirror each other. They have the same footprint.”

Much of what is happening in Charlottesville is patterned off an effort in Minneapolis, where their City Council voted to permit duplexes and triplexes in all R-1 areas. Here’s Lee Einsweiler with Code Studio again. 

“You may have followed the exercise in Minneapolis in which they began talking about four but ended up adopting three,” Einsweiler said. “Part of the conversation was about the likelihood that the existing house would be replaced as opposed to split. The three is most likely an additional building on the property and a main unit carved out of the main house.” 

At the meeting, some members expressed concern about a perceived lack of engagement. Valerie Washington represents the Charlottesville Low Income Housing Coalition

“While this process has been going on for a while now there are still many folks in the community that I’ve spoken to who have no idea about this process,” Washington said. “Is there any plan to really put some education out there for folks who are having difficulty understanding the planning process so they can better participate?”

LaToya Thomas of the firm Brick and Story acknowledges that many people are not knowledgeable in planning issues, but the Cville Plans Together initiative wants to educate more people especially as the pandemic recedes.

“We are reaching out to as many people that we can get connected to, but we also know that many of you are connected to folks and so we will continue to make ourselves available if there are groups of folks that you want to convene,” Thomas said.

Dale suggested a pause while people get caught up on the planning process. That would give people the chance to read the many recommendations in the affordable housing plan adopted by Council in March. 

“Most of the community doesn’t really understand how it informs the plan,” Dale said. “It was previewed with the public last fall when everyone had their head down dealing with Zoom school and Zoom work and health care and everything else. It was a 100-year health event.”

S. Lisa Herndon is a Realtor on the steering committee who wants to see a map that depicts where redlining occurred which overlays areas proposed for more intense development. 

“Going back to the history of Vinegar Hill and Gospel Hill, there [are] communities that were negatively impacted and now we’re going through redevelopment again and we see a lack of equity in terms of participation and I see nothing within this which shows where we were and how we’re going to prevent that negative effect in communities of African-American historical context,” Hernson said. “I don’t see that.” 

Sunshine Mathon, executive director of the Piedmont Housing Alliance, said he has been through this process in other communities where he has worked.  He reminded people the intent of the initiative is to guide change. 

“One of the things that gets lost in the translation is that change is constant and people have this assumption that their neighborhoods are a thing and have always been that thing which is fundamentally not true,” Mathon said. “One of the changes that we are seeing across the city regardless of the form of the city, one of the real changes is a dramatic increase in the cost of living in the city. That’s a fundamental change. The plan itself can’t be the change that solves that on its own, but it is an ingredient in that tool set.”

Comments will be accepted through June 13 now that a two-week extension has been granted. The Planning Commission is expected to have a work session on June 29. 


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Last week, the Martha Jefferson Neighborhood Association held a candidate forum for the three Democratic candidates running for two party nominations. The Future Land Use Map and the Comprehensive Plan came up. Moderator Paul Miller asked this question:

“Charlottesville is currently undergoing a significant update in Comprehensive land use plan and zoning in decades,” Miller said. “Proposals significantly change the approach to residential areas, eliminating single-family lot zoning and replacing it with three new categories that allow increasing densities of multifamily through subdivision, infill and redevelopment. A significant section of the Martha Jefferson Neighborhood may undergo significant change. Since the vote on these proposals will occur under the next City Council, we hope you have been paying attention. What do you think of the public engagement process that has been conducted under the pandemic? What do you think about these new approaches to residential areas to address housing and affordability issues?” 

Juandiego Wade went first. To hear the full response, listen to the podcast version. The following text are just highlights. 

“We know that single lot zoning was established as an exclusionary type of zoning many, many, many years ago and we’re dealing with that today,” Wade said. “As a Councilor, I would have a more engaged public input process because I had input on the last process but it was virtual and I think this was as engaged as it should be.” 

“Maybe we need to look at some type of rezoning but I think there’s so much more we can do before we touch that third rail,” Wade added. “Like work with the University of Virginia to address affordable housing and that is something that they are doing. Work with places like Habitat for Humanity and [Albemarle Home Improvement Program] to address that. But more importantly, also get the localities to address affordable housing. Right now Charlottesville is the main player in the game putting in $6 million or $7 million in and I think the place I work for, Albemarle County, is putting in barely $1 million in. We need to get other players as well and I think that would alleviate some of the burden on Charlottesville.”

Next, Carl Brown but did not seem to directly address the Cville Plans Together initiative in his response. 

“The Realtor’s association is a big player in this that we haven’t included and haven’t been included for a long-time in terms of how we solve this problem,” Brown said. “There are a lot of individuals in this area but we don’t bring them all together. 

(S. Lisa Herndon represents the Charlottesville Area Association of Realtors on the steering committee. Here is a link to the full list of members.) 

Brian Pinkston went next. 

“Two year ago we were all talking about having a plan for affordable housing when I ran and by golly if they didn’t go out what I think is a decent consultant,” Pinkston said. “I feel like the affordable housing plan… is a strong good plan. The density is one component of it, but only one component of it. There’s a whole lot of other stuff that’s included that plan.”

“I largely agree with the sentiments of the folks on the Planning Commission that are really working with the consultant to have higher density,” Pinkston said. “I think we need to think closely about what increased density looks like and how we can operationalize that as opposed to just talking about it. My sense in looking at the map and the conversations I’ve had is that it is a tad too aggressive. I don’t think we’re ready for that. Having said that, I think we’re ready for something. We’re ready for accessory dwelling units. We’re ready for soft density. I do think we need to put out money where our moral mouth is in terms of creating affordability and part of that is going to be a denser city.” 

Pinkston said the real details will come in with the zoning ordinance. 

What do you think? Have you made your comment? 

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