NEWS- Hollymedium: There grows the neighborhood

There's Target and Starbucks, but the only center in the ever-expanding Hollymead Town Center on 29N is the huge sweep of asphalt parking lot. While that may be expected in a roadside plot zoned "highway commercial," developers say the neighborhood model is coming. Just give it about 12 years.

Growth is inevitable, urban planners say. Smart growth, however, is not, and that's why Albemarle County is minding its edge nodes. That's why it took four years– "four years," stresses developer Wendell Wood– to launch Hollymead. Collectively known to sprawl-watchers as suburban "edge nodes," the clots of development creeping down 29N do have one central theme: they're everywhere and nowhere.

One solution the county has incorporated into its Comprehensive Plan is the "neighborhood model," an urban design trend that borrows from traditional town grids in an effort to reduce traffic and sprawl. Yet it remains to be seen whether Places29, the federally funded mechanism for discussion of growth in the northern corridor, will supplant a Placeless29.

A February 14 meeting between a Places29 consultant team, County officials, and the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission presented three growth alternatives– all of which suit planners, not residents, according to Supervisor Ken Boyd, whose district includes the affected neighborhoods.

While the planners say these are just options on the table, Boyd believes that when it's time to finalize the master plan later this spring, it will be too late for residents to make changes.

From Hollymead Town Center to the proposed site of the embattled North Pointe, just beyond Proffit Road, 1.4 million square feet of commercial space is a work-in-progress.

Out on the fringes of the city where the debate sizzles over roads and retail, some are just happy for a view.

Adam Aegee works in the Hollymead Town Center Starbucks, surrounded by construction and traffic. While he isn't sure where the 270-acre North Pointe would be sited, Aegee gets his bearings by thinking of his store's plot as "Hollymead Central."

If you live in the distant Hollymead subdivision on the opposite side of 29N, however, or in one of the two sections of Forest Lakes on either side of it– one directly across from the new complex– you might wonder how it got its name.

"Hollymead as a name is especially confusing," says Supervisor Sally Thomas. "First it was an Inn, and that gave the name to the suburban development where Hollymead Elementary School is– which is now surrounded by two parts of the Forest Lakes subdivision – all that on the east side of 29N."

Wood, also developer of the Hollymead subdivision, says he chose the name for a logical reason: it's in the Hollymead vicinity. The current project is now down to two developers, Wood says: his United Land Corporation and Charles Hurt's Virginia Land Company.

Within 90 days, Wood says, construction will begin on the first of the residential units: 300 townhouses next door to Starbucks that he has named Abington Place. While a sign does say "luxury townhouses," Wood says 10 percent of the mixed-use development will be affordable units.

Assisted living facilities and numerous paths between homes and shops are planned, although the actual location of the center of the Center may never be known. Thomas says the development is intended not only to have a "center," but has also been zoned for a hotel and movie theater.

Aegee notes one benefit of the elevated site: "It's pretty." Through the window, across a parking lot half-filled with cars on a weekday afternoon, over 29N and beyond a cemetery, one can see the snow-covered mountains. "You get the sunrise every morning," he marvels.

The only pedestrians – one touted hallmark of the neighborhood concept– enjoying the view are folks hurrying between car and shop.

For decades, developers have built in homage to the automobile, in the process creating fresh fodder for planners, like the "drive to lunch" syndrome. And studies suggest that such car-friendly construction has encouraged growth somewhere else: around Americans' waistlines.

Thomas says the county expects each development "to have sidewalks, and have the developments be pedestrian oriented– which is a higher standard than simply providing sidewalks."

Asked about the sidewalks, Wood says wryly, "We don't build sidewalks until we put in the streets." He says Hollymead will eventually boast 2.5 miles of sidewalks.

No, there may never be a pedestrian entrance or sidewalk frontage along 29, but Wood says it's not fair to "start knocking a project," that's been through so many modifications.

"We couldn't have done it any other way," he says. He's sure that Route 29 will never veer from auto-dominance, anyway, and believes the answer lies in a parallel road that's already part of the $11 million package of off-site roads and other proffers the development is donating to the state.

"Not a penny of taxpayer dollars" will fund the project, he says, referring in part to the additional lanes on either side of 29. "We built it, private enterprise; we built the water lines, we built the sewer lines."

But Thomas says residents need to be vocal about walkability, especially when it comes to North Pointe, which is still in the planning stages. "Developers, by and large, resist anything that isn't totally automobile-dependent," she says. "If the politicians aren't strong in their demands for building to help pedestrians, it won't happen."

The county "can extract many conditions from developers before giving a rezoning," Thomas says, but if neighborhoods don't speak out at Places29 sessions, there's far less incentive for politicians to quash auto-centric planning.

Residents have called for walkable development. At a May 25, 2005 Places29 workshop, participants offered a number of related comments and suggestions: give us real neighborhood design and alternatives to strip malls; adjacency doesn't equal walkable development; Route 29 is not pedestrian-friendly; we need pedestrian walkways over Route 29 and from neighborhood to neighborhood; Forest Lakes needs connection with the other side of Route 29; shoppers have to have a car to use retail on Route 29.

Of course, the convenient shopping does reduce the need for lengthy drives for some, but Forest Lakes residents say that shorter drives are not all they've gotten in the bargain.

Hollymead Town Center has also given them sediment.

Later this month, residents plan to hold a meeting with the County and Department of Conservation and Recreation to discuss "the cost of cleaning up the sediment deposited in our lakes from the construction of the Hollymead Town Center," according to a petition distributed by Jim Grace of the Forest Lakes Homeowners Association.

Critics complaining of "Fairfaxing" or "Loudounizing" can take comfort from this. There are only 1.4 million square feet of commercial space here. To become an "edge city" requires 5 million square feet of commercial space.

Hollymead Town Center rises out of the mud a year ago.