ONARCHITECTURE- Squeeze play: Planners stymie West Main developer

The BAR shot down plans for a CVS on the corner of West Main and McIntire three times. Now the Planning Commission has nixed rezoning plans for a nine-story tower on the site.PHOTO BY DAVE MCNAIR

Are city planners now asking too much? Some developers sure think so.

Unlike Coran Capshaw's coal tower development on the east side of the Downtown Mall– a by-right development that the city Planning Commission has little or no control over– commissioners seem to have plenty of control over a proposed nine-story, mixed-use development just past the west side of the Mall. In fact, last week the Commission rejected a proposed rezoning of the property by Richmond-based developer Robert Englander of the Cathford Group. 

Back in February, Englander stepped in after another Richmond developer, Rob Hargett, finally lost his patience with the Board of Architectural Review, which found his two-story CVS pharmacy-centric plan tacky and ill-suited for the site and rejected it– not once, but three times. Finally, he accused the BAR of trying to be zoning officials, asking more of him than current zoning requires. But the BAR accused Hargett of not understanding the city's desire for a quality, mixed-use development on such a high-profile site. 

Before abandoning his project, Hargett shot back, "The BAR down there doesn't understand economics."

When Englander presented a preliminary site plan to the BAR in February, members were pleased with his ideas, perhaps revealing their zoning prejudices, as Englander proposed a project that would require rezoning the property to allow a nine-story, mixed-use development with 18,000 square feet of retail space, 79 condo units, and over 180 parking spaces.     

"It meets both BAR and planning commission criteria for site use, density, height, access-egress, and parking excellently," said Commissioner Bill Lucy, who voted for the rezoning on August 14.

A professor of urban planning at UVA, Lucy says the project could contribute to the city's Comprehensive Plan by reducing the percentage of people who drive alone to work from 61 percent in 2000 to 50 percent by 2015.

Lucy also thinks it successfully launches the next phase of development on West Main with wide sidewalks and streetscape improvements, to which Englander has offered to contribute $200,000. Englander is also willing to throw in $200,000 for development of 11 to 13 affordable housing units, a gesture that Lucy felt approximated the city's goal to have 15 percent of the development be affordable housing. 

However, a majority of commission members seemed to think those gestures weren't enough, and they recommended denial of the rezoning request by a 4-2 vote.

Planning commission member Michael Osteen, who voted against the rezoning, says that despite all the positive aspects of such a dense development, he's not ready to roll out the red carpet. 

"The city has no leverage in a by-right development," says Osteen, hinting at the situation with Capshaw's coal tower project. "However, if a developer seeks bonus density by way of a rezoning or a special use permit, the City becomes a partner of sorts in that project." 

Indeed, according to the city staff report on the site plan, the rezoning could quadruple the currently allowed density on the site. Osteen cites the increased burden on existing utilities, additional cars on the roads, and the need for more affordable housing to accommodate the new police, fire fighters, and teachers who would be required. In addition, Osteen also believes the city should expect the buildings to be of high quality, with minimal impact on resources and infrastructure, perhaps incorporating green design features. 

Osteen, along with fellow commission member Mike Farruggio, believes that every significant housing project in the city should make an equally significant contribution to infrastructure and affordable housing. Another hint to Capshaw?

"The proposed density was an extremely positive idea," says Osteen. "But we need to mitigate its impact as carefully as possible; and that responsibility should rest with the developer, not the citizens of Charlottesville."

Englander's response to the vote was a bit of déjà vu: he sounded eerily like the frustrated Hargett, who said the BAR didn't understand what it meant to be a businessman.

"If we were to provide 15 percent as affordable housing," he said, "we could not afford to do the deal." said Englander, adding that he had proffered all he felt comfortable with. 

But a day after the meeting, Englander was more equivocal.

"We were disappointed in the actions of the planning commission," he said. "We think it's a great project for Charlottesville, but I guess now we'll have to take some time to reevaluate things."

Anyone wishing to develop this important site is probably wise to expect a little discomfort. The staff report notes that the intersection is surrounded by three different mixed-use zoning designations plus a historic overlay, and mentions the impending Meadowcreek Parkway, which– like the intersection of Preston and McIntire– could include a roundabout. And, of course, there's also that ever-present streetcar idea.

Indeed, one of Farruggio's concerns was that more urban studies are needed on the intersection, the idea of a roundabout, and how a significant building like Englander's might fit into the larger scheme of things.

The by-right development of 10 acres going on at the other end of the Mall  has left city planners sitting on their hands, but officials seem eager to get those hands busy shaping this West Main parcel. 


1 comment

Public hearing Sep. 4 in Council Chambers on how much the developer should pay to break zoning laws and erase more history. The proffers would fund other urban renewal projects. The RSC / Mooney Oldsmobile building is one of the few properties that survived Vinegar Hill urban renewal. Why doesn't BAR follow its own guidelines and preserve this historic and culturally significant structure? super-blair.blogspot.com for story and 1960 photo of this site.