Albemarle planners are very clear that creating a form-based code for a portion of the county’s designated growth area is intended to speed up the development review process.
“The goal of this project first and foremost is to incentivize redevelopment in this area consistent with the Rio Road Small Area Plan that was adopted last year,” said Rachel Falkenstein, a principal planner in the Albemarle Department of Community Development.
Albemarle Supervisors adopted the plan in December 2018 as a way to transform 20th century shopping centers into a 21st century “place” where people can live, work and play. That lofty vision that could help the county meets many of its housing, transportation and employment goal, but the details remain to be written that will translate the idea into reality.
“The majority of the land in the Rio-29 area is in entrance corridor overlay,” Falkenstein said.
Three members of the Architectural Review Board spent some time on October 7, 2019 discussing the matter. The ARB is charged with judging development proposals against the Entrance Corridor (EC) guidelines, a step that many developers argue adds time to the process.
“Personally I would have no objection to providing a solution where staff could potentially administratively review and approve items,” said ARB member Dade Van Der Werf.
County planner Michaela Accardi said the proposed form-based code and certain EC guidelines are compatible, pointing out that #9 and #12 are of particular note.
“Building forms and features, including roofs, windows, doors, materials, colors and textures should be compatible with the forms and features of the significant historic buildings in the area, exemplified by (but not limited to) the buildings described in Appendix A,” reads number 9. “The standard of compatibility can be met through scale, materials, and forms which may be embodied in architecture which is contemporary as well as traditional. The replication of important historic sites in Albemarle County is not the objective of these guidelines.”
“Architecture proposed within the Entrance Corridor should use forms, shapes, scale, and materials to create a cohesive whole,” reads number 12.
One ARB member said he thought the form-based code could be an improvement over the current system.
“It seems to me that these character areas, for lack of a better word, will be a huge advantage over what we’re dealing with now where we sort of have this one size fits all approach, yet we have areas that are very different in terms of their architectural heritage,” said Frank Stoner. “I think it will be a great improvement.”
Another intent of the form-based code would be to encourage a more walkable community in part by bringing buildings closer to the street. But which street? U.S. 29, or new streets that would be created to serve the new places?
“What is the intended character of Rio Road and U.S. 29?” Accardi asked. “Are auto-oriented designs appropriate along this road? We in this ordinance need to be thinking about where buildings should front and face. Should that be on U.S. 29 or should it be an interior network? That has been an on-going challenge.”
Stoner said there is one reality to consider.
“The highway is not going to go away,” Stoner said. “But most of the plans that I’ve seen at the schematic level are trying to reorganize things and create appealing spaces within these quadrants, not necessarily facing U.S. 29.”
At the same meeting, the ARB approved a final plan for a chain restaurant along U.S. 29. In the near future, they’ll also review plans for a car wash at the corner of Woodbrook and U.S. 29 on land currently occupied by the law firm Allen, Allen, Allen and Allen.
“There will still be uses and businesses that their desire will be to front U.S. 29 for visibility,” said ARB member Frank Hancock.
“We hear from VDOT that they’re going to continue to maximize speed and capacity of this roadway and they’ve put a lot of money into doing so,” Falkenstein said. “I do think that it will continue to be very auto-oriented and perhaps we can think about that in terms of scale of things. The scale of architecture and development along U.S. 29 could be a more auto-oriented scale.”
Before staff gets to the details of how the EC guidelines would become the form-based code, there still need to other considerations.
“We have to write the regulations for the forms and architecture of the building and we can focus on local interior streets,” Falkenstein said. “We have to specify where the buildings orient, where the pedestrian entrances should be, where the roof forms and the facade treatment should go.”
PROCESS TO DATE
The form-based code has gone before the Planning Commission twice this summer and will go before that body again on Tuesday for another work session.
“We’ve heard from the Planning Commission that we should regulate block size or allow for pedestrian passages to make sure we don’t have large expanses of buildings,” Falkenstein said.
Falkenstein said the Planning Commission has recommended a by-right height of four stories with an additional two stories if the structure contains items the county wants, such as additional housing that is below-market.
Another aspect of the code will be to determine where it will be appropriate to require ground-floor retail uses to create active streets.
“There might be an architectural component to this by having higher ceiling heights or more transparency along the first floor,” Falkenstein said.
Falkenstein said another question will be whether the county could relax its minimum parking requirements to avoid large expanses of asphalt.
Much of the work has been done in-house.
“We had a consultant early on back in 2016 and we had a grant from the state of $60,000,” Falkenstein said.
Stoner asked what would happen if an applicant was unhappy with a staff recommendation or interpretation. Planner Margaret Maliszewski said there would be some sort of an appeal process to either the ARB or the Board of Supervisors.
“That would be something that as staff we have to work through where there should be exceptions while balancing between flexibility and ensuring there is not an exception for every place, which would invalidate the purpose,” Accardi said.
July 2020 is the target for adoption of the form-based code. On Tuesday, October 15, the Albemarle Economic Development Authority will be presented with the results of a series of stakeholder groups held with businesses in September.