ON ARCHITECTURE- RiverBluff: Green or slick marketing scheme?

At first glance, "smart growth" trends in urban planning seem pretty, well, smart.

Take the rural development model called "conservation subdivisions," for example. Introduced in the early '90s, it's a design strategy that's been called "twice green" because it protects land while allowing developers to make a profit with clusters of houses.

On the money end, developers get to sell the same number of house lots, yet costs plummet for excavation and street construction. In addition, the growing national interest in all things "green" make these developments easier to market.

For example, Charlottesville's newest experiment in "conservation subdivisioning," the new RiverBluff development overlooking the Greenbelt Trail, sounds enticing. The development of 22 upscale, eco-friendly lots and spec houses comes courtesy of PS2 Properties LLC, the three-man development team of architects Frank Folsom Smith, Richard Price, and construction manager Jeff Smith.

Smith's design firm, The Folsom Group, has been practicing sustainable design and development for years, probably most famously at the McGuffy Hill condos downtown and Peacock Hill, a 350-acre sustainable development out in Ivy that he designed in the 1970s, long before terms like "conservation subdivision" were even invented.

"I've worked in the sustainable design field for 10 years," says Smith's colleague Price. "And I wanted to finally practice what I preach. This kind of development is not only marketable, it's a feasible way to promote sustainable design."

Online, the partners advance the idea of "smart growth" so far as to seem almost utopian. According to RiverBluff's website, "The houses are clustered on the brow of a hill, leaving the majority of the 19 acres as common land for the enjoyment of all residents. The community has been designed to embrace environmental conservation and healthy living."

RiverBluff takes the conservation development model a step further by calling it a "conservation community" and encouraging buyers to actively participate in conservation. "The common land has been designated as a natural area," the website continues, "allowing homeowners to participate in the on-going restoration of the native riparian ecosystem."

One look at NASA's recently developed time-lapse satellite animations of urban growth, which show developments spreading out over cities like massive paint spills, and it's easy to see why city planners have nightmares.

Even the greediest developers would have to admit that urban sprawl's big picture projections are pretty grim. Without wise strategies for managing growth, popular and rapidly growing cities like our own could be in real trouble.

However, not everyone thinks that "smart growth" projects like RiverBluff are as smart as they think they are.

"It's a noble idea, a nice idea," says Riverside Drive resident Rob Hull, a social worker, DJ, and critic of the RiverBluff development. "That is, if you're thinking about yourself and your eco-friendly friends. But if you think about the actual community and how it affects the people who live there, it's not a cool idea."

Hull is talking about RiverBluff's location at the end of Riverside Drive. The sophisticated development project stands in close proximity and sharp contrast to that more humble neighborhood.

It's a dynamic that's impossible to miss. Riverside Drive serves as the only entry to the RiverBluff development. Although there are some owner-occupied townhouses, many of the properties along Riverside are low-cost or federally assisted rental properties. Some public housing buildings are so box-like and bereft of design that they resemble army barracks.

As Hull points out, "People don't have a lot here, so they don't have a lot of choice. It's what they can afford." RiverBluff, on the other hand, offers lots for $140,000 and designer houses in the $450,000 to $575,000 range.

Price is well aware of the differences between the two communities. "We scratched our heads over that one," he says. "We decided to avoid creating a barrier, to avoid creating some kind of gated community." So far, Price admits, they haven't had much success engaging the Riverside community in the process.

"Don't get me wrong," says Hull. "I'm not against environmental development, but I just don't understand the idea of developing in a flood plain. I just think it's all about making money. I mean, why not just put up four or five houses there if you're so concerned about preserving the environment? Instead, they're putting in like 20 houses. So don't give me this BS about wanting to preserve the ecosystem."

Price points out that the land was being sold for development, and the zoning permitted 60 houses. Theoretically, a developer could have bought the property and put in more townhouses like the ones along Riverside. "Considering the possible alternative," says Price, "I think the city is lucky to have this development. I'm proud of what we've done there."

In the short term, however, Hull may have a point. During the development's excavation process, in which a large number of native trees and dirt have been removed, silt from storm flooding has already disturbed the Greenbelt's sensitive ecosystem. It's a mistake that Price readily admits to.

"I have expressed my regrets to the City," he says. "We made some mistakes out here and had some erosion problems." Price says there are plans to do extensive landscape restoration at the bottom of the hill to fix the problem.

Ironically, most of the conservation-minded RiverBluff development could have become a city park if a land-swap had gone through several years ago. In 1999, developer Stan Tatum proposed purchasing the RiverBluff lowlands and swapping them to the city in exchange for a smaller parcel at the end of Locust Avenue. However, members of the Locust Grove Neighborhood Association vehemently opposed the proposal and ended up defeating it in City Council, an outcome that many saw as a victory for a little neighborhood and a defeat for the City.

"It [would have been] a grand slam for the city," Wilson Crop II told the Hook in a July 2004 cover story. Crop owned the RiverBluff property at the time and had wanted to sell to Tatum. "But you had one little neighborhood group that got up in arms, and had a lot of energy, and they killed it for the rest of the City."

Now, instead of a park– and instead of 60 more townhouses– the RiverBluff property has become a unique architectural, sociological, and development experiment. Whether it turns out to be smart, only time will tell.

Smart growth or clever marketing?: RiverBluff is an experiment in more ways than one

"It's a noble idea, a nice idea," says Riverside Drive resident Rob Hull of the RiverBluff development,"...But if you think about the actual community and how it affects the people who live there, it's not a cool idea."