Downzoned: High-rise district meets JPA resistance

When Charlottesville unveiled its new proposed zoning ordinance, Ellen Contini-Morava realized that her Montebello Circle neighborhood could end up in the middle of a high-rise student "ghetto."

As the city revamps its zoning ordinance for the 21st century, one of its goals is to stem student sprawl into single-family neighborhoods. Hence the more urban, high-density, high-rise districts called "university precincts" off Jefferson Park Avenue and in the Venable neighborhood.

The portions of 14th and 15th streets, where the Venable university precinct is planned, is already composed pretty much of student-occupied multi-family units. The problem for single-family homeowners off JPA like Contini-Morava is that, "My house and street would be surrounded on three sides by high-density zoning," she says.

And in what JPA area residents are calling a victory, the planning commission has backed off putting all of JPA in the university precinct, instead limiting that honor to the already student-infested Brandon Avenue and Monroe Lane.

(On May 15, The Hook reported that on Monroe Lane, six houses on the future site of a 400-car extension of the UVA Medical Center's South Garage will be torn down, and in an April 17 article, residents of the Max Kade German House on Brandon Avenue wondered if the reason they were kicked out of their residence– ostensibly suffering from building code problems– was actually for university expansion.)

Contini-Morava calls the idea of a high-density university district in JPA "a zombie that keeps coming back to life." Currently, she says, her neighborhood is a "mix that works well" of students and long-term residents, the latter of which keep an eye on things while students come and go.

If she gets surrounded by large numbers of teenage transients in high-rises, she fears the quality of life challenges already plaguing JPA residents– parking, traffic, noise, drunken parties, garbage, vandalism, and theft– could intensify. Not to mention the serial rapist who's struck several times in that neighborhood.

"With big high rises, we expect to have more of that," she says. "We know that's true in other cities, and I don't know why Charlottesville would want to walk into that knowing it's a problem in other areas."

Besides, "It looks ugly, and it's an entrance corridor."

Kevin Kotlarski lives on Fontaine Avenue, which was about to be upzoned, too, from its current R2 one- and two-family residential zoning to a "medium density" that would allow multi-family, three- to five-story apartments.

What happened when JPA was made R3 multi-family zoning in 1976 serves as a cautionary tale for the Fontaine Avenue homeowner. "Today, it's 92 percent rental units," he says. "Let's learn from our past."

He describes his neighborhood as a diverse mix of owner-occupied homes, long-term renters, and students. "We enjoy that make-up," he says. And he doesn't want to see three- and five-story apartment complexes dramatically altering the 'hood.

Worse, those complexes would be required to have only two parking spaces for a four bedroom-apartment. "For families, that's sufficient," says Kotlarski, "but for students, they're still going to bring vehicles, and it puts a burden on the neighborhood."

"After a number of meetings with JPA residents, the planning commission decided to reduce the size of the university precinct," says commission chair Kevin O'Halloran.

"I was very happy they were responsive," says Contini-Morava. At the May 15 public hearing, "They said they'd gotten over 100 emails about this."

And to the relief of Fontaine residents, "We're now recommending that it stay the way it is right now with lower density," says O'Halloran.

After discussion of the zoning ordinance at the June 24 planning commission meeting, O'Halloran says, "We may be at a point to vote to recommend it to City Council."

Kotlarski applauds the decision to try out the high-density university precinct on a smaller scale "to see if it works for our city." After all, he points out, "Once it's done, you can't go back."

And as pleased as he is that Fontaine Avenue was spared the higher density edict, he's not relaxing his vigilance. "My concern is that it may come back at City Council level."



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