Density in Downtown Charlottesville – If Not Here, Where?

Development off High Street in Downtown Charlottesville, Courtesy Charlottesville Tomorrow
Proposed development off High Street in Downtown Charlottesville, image Courtesy Charlottesville Tomorrow

Charlottesville Tomorrow’s Sean Tubbs wrote last week about a developer seeking 104 units near the old Martha Jefferson – now the CFA/Hemoshear/etc building.

The owners of a medical building at the corner of East Jefferson and 10th Street Northeast in Charlottesville are seeking the City Council’s approval for a special-use permit to allow construction of a mixed-income residential building.

“The applicant proposes to replace the existing two-story medical office structure and associated surface parking areas with a 104-unit multi-family structure consisting of four and a half stories of housing over two and a half stories of parking,” reads the application on behalf of the Jefferson Medical Building Limited Partnership.

The uproar on a facebook post referencing this story was, sadly, unsurprising. The concerns about maintaining the character of Charlottesville resonate; we are a special City with tremendous nooks, crannies, and character. We are also a growing City, and we have only 10.3 square miles within which to work. Spend some time at the City’s GIS site, and use the nifty “swipe” tool to compare aerial images from 2013 to 1994 … a lot has changed in that time.  Even more has changed as you look at the historical archives; change will happen.

My questions posed on that FB post:

One question: if not density here, then where?

Charlottesville wants to be a dense, walkable, bikeable city, right?

The proposed location is an 8 minute walk to the Charlottesville Visitors Center. Isn’t that a great location for dense urban housing?

A few questions, answers to which I don’t have

  • What’s the “right” level of density?
  • Who determines that?
  • Isn’t a Special Use Permitting process a good way to address this question?
  • When was this zoned by-right for this level of density?
  • Albemarle County is projected to have 154K people in 2040, up from 105K today and the City of Charlottesville is projected to have 49K, up from 48K today. 1000 isn’t that many people, but without more dense development, we’re just adding more sprawl and congestion … at higher prices – and cost – to us all.

To speak simply to the affordability question:

Would the city prefer 34 most likely luxury-priced units or ~100+ more reasonably priced ones?

If we keep creating only for the upper end of the market, there will not be a lower or middle left in the city.

We are going to grow; we all struggle with that.



A reader sent me this:

Cities are big.

As in, there’s a lot of land in them, even when that land is constrained.

So, when a developer proposes 104 units, they do so because they want to provide something they think the market wants.

There’s a major employer three blocks away at the CFA Institute.

City policies have called for walkable communities for at least 15 years.

104 units allows the developer to spread the risk out across more units. Builds a better revenue stream.

This also allows the possibility of slightly lower rents.

If city denies it, by right you will see 34 luxury apartments/condos.

Fun fact – some would prefer richer people live there. And they will support this lower density.

We live in a country where we’re all angry at each other for living here as well. And no one knows how any of it works….

The city needs this density at this location. 104 units = more affordable units. 34 units = more financial Balkanization.

No one has the answers, but “no!” isn’t the right one. It’s hard to look at the outcry and not think, “NIMBY.”

Related: C-Ville’s story today on the Future of Charlottesville.

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  1. Chris Farina March 9, 2016 at 14:02

    Isn’t NIMBY simply an expression of democracy of people who want to preserve their neighborhood against change that they might see as not progress, but degradation. Was the Flats development a good thing for the City, is the ugliness of the back of the new hotel on Main Street looming over the Jefferson Center and the surrounding neighborhood an improvement? It seems to me many residents of Charlottesville don’t really trust our leaders to channel new development into positive improvement of the home we love., especially when the influential power of money is suspected as having an undue say in the changes the writer refers to as inevitable.

    1. Jim Duncan March 10, 2016 at 13:59

      Thanks, Chris.

      I think the Flats changed the conversation; it’s an ugly monstrosity that has altered that landscape significantly.

      What’s the alternative? Stagnation? Ever-increasing housing costs?

      The City has long said they want to become a more urban, denser environment. The Landmark, Waterhouse, Oliver Kuttner’s possible tiny apartments … Market Plaza.

      The question I keep coming back to is – would you rather have 34 by right units that are expensive, or 100 more reasonably priced units? (but priced to the market; developers aren’t charities)

      And for me, NIMBY would be less of a negative if those in opposition offered solutions instead of simply being opponents.

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