Dense debate: Rugby-Venable balks at controls

Development and preservation have long been at odds. In the opening days of summer, Charlottesville's Board of Architectural Review (BAR) proposed that the Rugby Road, University Circle, and Venable neighborhoods be designated an Architectural Design Control (ADC) district. As such, any new construction or maintenance of existing buildings would genuflect to a strict– if grossly subjective­ set of guidelines in the interest of historic preservation.

This kind of event is not unusual for Charlottesville, with seven ADC districts already in place. But this proposed ADC district would be different from the others– in its history and necessary density– largely as a function of the vast number of UVA students, faculty, and staff who have lived and always will live there. Consequently, it's an area both high in rental properties and in volume of historic structures.

As you might expect, conflict has erupted between real estate developers in those neighborhoods and the BAR, in light of the recent city ordinance that has rezoned the area from medium to high density. The lingering question is how Rugby Road, University Circle, and the Venable neighborhoods can be high density if ADC restrictions limit the number of units that can exist there.

The Blue Ridge Apartment Council (BRAC), a non-profit association composed of rental-property owners, is concerned that the ADC designation would severely limit their efforts to take advantage of the density allowance. Representing this side of the argument is the newly formed University Neighborhood Association (UNA), with 215 property owners on board.

According to UNA and BRAC member Rick Jones, "We do business in other cities, and I would say that Charlottesville is the only one I know of with a desire to make the entire city a historic district." While this is a slight overstatement, there is a kernel of truth to it. Do we really want to live in a museum?

But there's a more solvable issue at hand. Rental-property owners want to make money for themselves, but they're an essential part of the tax-base in Charlottesville. The BAR has no real interest in cash-flow, but wants to set our cultural and architectural assets in amber. Both interests are noble and, like everything else, they both come down to "value" of one sort or another.

Essentially, this is an example of the epic battle between enriching the city tax base and enriching the place-identity of a neighborhood. Other cities certainly struggle with preservation v. profit, but few are as old as Charlottesville. It's no surprise, then, that some people think the entire city is a historic district.

But the greatest enemy to permanence is impermanence. The Rugby-University Circle-Venable circumstance is unique because, unlike existing ADC districts, it's a transient area. How can the City be the custodian of a priceless history in the face of a cash-cow juggernaut? The same way you handle a hostage negotiation-­ with trade-offs.

On September 6, City Council will address these conflicting interests when it takes up the BAR's "Rugby subcommittee" recommendation to change the ADC district guidelines to be more flexible. The hope, it seems, is to negotiate rental-property owners' interest in pumping up density and the BAR's interest in respecting the existing fabric.

According to BRAC member Jim Stultz, "All we can do is talk to City Council and talk to city planners, and try to get them to handle this the way they handle zoning issues­ with input from everyone. We want to slow down the process so we can discuss it."

Certainly, private business interests should not be crippled­ they are too valuable to the fiscal health of a city. But the public interest in retaining the built memory of its city should not be ignored, either. The health and wealth of the community depend on it.

Jim Stulz