HOTSEAT- Howdy, neighbor: Tolbert rules the 'hoods

Jim Tolbert

Jim Tolbert is to City Hall born. Charlottesville's director of neighborhood development has spent his entire life hanging around government offices, starting in Opelika, Alabama, where his mother was deputy city clerk and his father chairman of the parks board.

"I grew up in a family that was civically engaged in government," he says.

His first job as a planning director was in Opelika in 1985. "I had the same office where I had my sixth birthday party," he reminisces.

Tolbert's office in Charlottesville sports ball caps, bumper stickers ("It's the land use, stupid" and "Zoning saves") and posters that show his fondness for Widespread Panic. In fact, he likes to joke that he only agreed to the construction of the Pavilion if Widespread Panic played there– which it did.

Charlottesville's chief of neighborhood development has lived on both sides now since moving here in 1999.

He liked the Downtown Mall for its neighborhood feel and convenience. "I could roll out the door at five to eight and walk here, versus finding parking and dealing with traffic," says Tolbert, who now commutes from his suburban 'hood on a Vespa.

During his stint residing in York Place, he could go for a week without driving until it became time to go to the store. It's always the groceries– or lack of– that's the major downside to downtown life, particularly finding a place close by to park and unload, he recalls.

As zoning czar, Tolbert sits on a perpetual hot seat, trying to balance the needs of neighborhoods with those of developers. "The perception is our primary role is to advocate for neighborhoods," says Tolbert. "That's not our role. We listen, but we administer development."

He concedes the "neighborhood development" moniker could be a bit misleading, particularly when a neighborhood opposes a project. "They think we should be opposed," he says, and if his department okays it, "They think we're in the developers' pocket." 

Asked to choose the most controversial project– and that's counting the recent closing of a homeless shelter, a Third Street upgrade that went months into overtime, and a proposed $7.5 million Mall renovation–  he picks the Huntley subdivision near Fry's Spring "hands down," a "difficult site" with 110 by-right homes under the old zoning rules, a contractor who started work without permits, and a neighborhood up in arms. "Today," he says, "it would be three to four houses at best."

Part of his job is to balance needs within neighborhoods, between the newcomers who demand traffic-calming versus the old-timers who've lived there 40 years and don't want change. On a given day, Tolbert can be called upon to deal with traffic, zoning, code enforcement, or maintaining the Downtown Mall. 

Upcoming projects that will change the face of Charlottesville? The upscale and under-construction Landmark Hotel will have "a really positive effect on downtown," posits Tolbert. "It'll raise it to the next level and solidify downtown."

He also points to 301 West Main, site of the former RSC Equipment Rental at the corner of Ridge-McIntire that will be a mixed use project with retail and 100 residential units. "We're going to link downtown and the university with this project," he predicts. "This one could be a catalyst."

Over the years in community planning, Tolbert says he's learned the importance of parks and open space.

The most important lessons he brought from Opelika, a mill town joining Auburn that was known as the "land of many swamps." The director of economic development changed that to the "land of many lakes," laughs Tolbert.

Another lesson isn't as amusing. "I watched the downtown nucleus of that city destroyed by development out of downtown– shopping centers," he says. "That could have been avoided with protective zoning, but no one had the guts to say 'no', God forbid, to a predatory retailer like Wal-Mart."

If it's in his court, Tolbert will just say no. He already knows what he wants his legacy here to be: "He didn't screw up what Mr. Jefferson started."

Age: 53

Why here? Great job and place to live. Started looking for quality of life after kids moved out to go to school.

What's worst about living here? No good Alabama barbeque or SEC football

Favorite hangout? Continental Divide

Most overrated virtue? Reverence

People would be surprised to know: HGTV junkie

What would you change about yourself? Would try to be a little less direct when appropriate

Proudest accomplishment? Being first in my family to graduate from college and then get a master's degree

People find most annoying about you: My lack of attention to or concern for the details sometimes

Whom do you admire? Toss-up between Jimmy Carter and Jerry Garcia

Favorite book? Let My People Go Surfing

Subject that causes you to rant? Bureaucracy at all levels of government

Biggest 21st-century thrill? My big-screen TV

Biggest 21st-century creep out? Blackberry

What do you drive? Vespa

In your car CD player right now: Widespread Panic 4/20/02 show

Next journey? Del Fest

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? With my mother for staying out with my son at a frat party listening to a band until 4am when I was 46.

Regret: Not spending enough time at home when kids were young

Favorite comfort food: Peanut butter and jelly

Always in your refrigerator: Orange juice

Must-see TV: Cops on Saturday night

Describe a perfect day. A Saturday in the fall when Auburn wins and Alabama loses and then a great live music show 

Walter Mitty fantasy: Playing guitar in a jam band

Who'd play you in the movie? Matthew McConaghey

Most embarrassing moment? As a senior in high school giving up three home runs, two doubles, one walk, and five runs without recording an out in one of the first games I ever pitched in front of my future wife.

Best advice you ever got? Read the phone book first

Favorite bumper sticker? People don't plan to fail– they fail to plan