Meeting Reports

Council moves forward with long-range planning package

*programming note – the newscasts are on hiatus for a  few weeks following initial proof of concept. For now, I will be experimenting with these non-audio stories. Feedback welcome*

The Charlottesville City Council has voted unanimously to spend nearly a million dollars to hire a consultant to help complete the review of a state-mandated vision for the future.

“The acute need is to get the Comprehensive Plan finished and to have an integrated affordable housing strategy within that Comprehensive Plan and then to roll immediately into the rezoning citywide,” said City Councilor Kathy Galvin.

Council also agreed to move forward with hiring a new position of “long-range planner” who would oversee the overall planning vision, including implementation of small-area plans.

“Now is the time to use the dollars for long-rage planning and to hire an individual with the skill set to shepherd these and other projects going forward and to have that person report directly to the city manager’s office,” said Mike Murphy, the city’s interim manager.

The city Planning Commission has been working on an update of the Comprehensive Plan for two years, and the plan’s review took a turn following the Unite the Right rally in August 2017. The commission’s membership changed, with four new members added in the last year on the seven person body.

Council got an update on the plan at their meeting on December 18. One area of concern related to a Future Land Use map that depicted more intense density in several areas of the city. Council indicated they wanted to take a pause and help the Planning Commission complete their work.

“One of the directives to the city’s manager’s office was to bring back what resources might be required for competion of the Comprehensive Plan,” said interim manager Mike Murphy.

A list of resources was compiled after consultation with the Planning Commission, the Housing Advisory Committee and others.

The total amount before Council to complete the plan and and hire a firm to do the zoning rewrite would be $975,890.

Just over $85,000 in the funding comes from a $100,000 Council previously allocated but has not yet spent. Another $200,000 was funding that had been set aside for a housing needs assessment. Another $600,000 would come from the capital improvement program fund contingency fund.

It is widely assumed and expected that a rewriting of the city’s zoning ordinance will be required upon completion of the Comprehensive Plan.

“We’ve been hurting terribly for a long time because our zoning is out of sync with our community vision,” Galvin said.

The funding for the long-range planner would come from a position that Council authorized and funded in the current fiscal year, but the city has yet to fill.

“We are going to be at least three quarters of the year having never used dollars that were in this year’s budget that were in for a long-range planner of assistant city manager,” Murphy said.

Councilor Wes Bellamy wanted to know if the new planner would have staff. Murphy said no.

“Think about this position as somebody who is making systems more effective, refining processes, steering big picture items and maybe relieving some burden from staff to direct things like the small area plans,” Murphy said. “They are operating from a level that’s not wedded to one department’s point of view. They’re operating across all silos.”

Earlier in the night, Council took action on a rezoning on River Road for a mixed-use development with apartments and storage units.

Mayor Nikuyah Walker said the discussion of the River Road rezoning helped her appreciate the reason for why the position was being proposed. But Walker expressed concern about filling the position before the city manager is hired.

Galvin said staff is overwhelmed with development review. She also said the position could change once the city has a new leader.

“The new city manager could decide that he or she wants to restructure everything,” Galvin said. “But that person is still an important and essential professional with skills that are going to be needed regardless.”

Walker said she heard loud and clear from the planning commission that they needed assistance following their five-hour meeting on January 5.

Murphy said he felt the position should be independent of the planning department.

“I find it pretty difficult to imagine that someone who reports to the NDS director and is [also] the agent-of-change in the development process,” Murphy said.

The position was one of several recommendations made by the Novak Group in an efficiency study of NDS. The draft budget for FY2020 will also include a support services manager in NDS to help with the caseload.

Council was unanimous in its vote.

Meeting Reports, Placemaking, Urban Design

Urban design group takes look at Emmet Streetscape plan

 

Conceptual design for streetscape between Ivy Road and the railroad bridge

A $12.1 million plan to update Emmet Street in Charlottesville could offer both the city and the University of Virginia the chance to turn a suburban thoroughfare into a place less dependent on motorized vehicles.

However the outcome of the project will depend on the totality of public comment from stakeholders.

“It’s hard to get 100 percent consensus and direction from the public because some people would say widen it and say increase the speeds to 45 miles per hour,” said Mike Callahan, a planner with the engineering firm EPR. “Most people are saying they want it more walkable and bikable and to slow the traffic, especially the University community.”

Callahan made his comments at the December 13, 2018 meeting of the PLACE Design Task Force, an advisory group formed in 2012 to advise City Council on urban design issues.

The scope of the project runs the roughly half mile between the Ivy Road and Arlington Boulevard. While most of the land along the corridor is owned by the University of Virginia or its real estate foundation, the public right of way is governed by the city. Over 25,000 vehicles a day passed through the corridor in 2017 according to traffic estimates from the Virginia Department of Transportation.

In 2016, the city was successful in obtaining the funding for the project in the first round of the VDOT’s Smart Scale program. The community engagement process began in April.

“We’re really at an important stage of locking in on the preliminary design of what the best improvements we can fit into this that will function well,” said John Stewart, an engineer with Clark Nexsen, a firm hired by the city to design the project. EPR is working as a subcontractor.

The final design will be finished next year. In 2020, the firm will begin utility relocation and right of way acquisition to prepare for a construction start date the following year.

“In early 2023 we would like to have this constructed,” Stewart said.

Several changes have come to the area in the past year. The University of Virginia has demolished the Cavalier Inn. In October, granted a special use permit that will allow the eighty-foot-tall Gallery Court Hotel an eight-story hotel on the site of a smaller structure that burned down in May 2017.

The streetscape project gives a rare opportunity for the city to help inform the plans of the University of Virginia. Earlier this year, the Board of Visitors approved a new master plan for the athletic facilities centered around University Hall, a structure that is also slated to be demolished.

While of the land in the area is vacant, there are homes in the corridor. The eastern side is the location of both the 174-unit Lambeth Field Apartments and the 69-unit University Gardens complex.

Working out the details

The existing public right of way in the corridor is 64 feet. The draft streetscape shows that being extended to 79 feet.

One item that has yet to be determined is the location of a shared-use path that was specified in the Smart Scale application.

“Does that go on the east side or the west side of the corridor?” Callahan asked. “We started out on the east but as we got going and talked to the steering committee and the public, a lot of concerns were raised.”

One of those was that the new hotel will be built much closer to the street than the previous structure.

“It meant the trail and the tunnel would have to go behind it,” Callahan added.

During community engagement efforts, Callahan said participants were clear that they want a physical barrier of some sort between the vehicular lanes and the bike lanes.

Another concern raised by the public is amount of time it takes to cross the intersection of Emmet Street and Ivy Road.

“We saw during our walking tour that it takes a lot of time to cross there,” Callahan said. “We want to make that a much safer intersection for bikes and pedestrians.”

UVA has plans to eliminate a lane that will allow motorists to turn into the Lewis Mountain Parking Garage from Emmet Street. That means the design team is considering adding new space for vehicles as a replacement.

“A lot of people use that according to our traffic analysis so adding a southbound right turn-lane that’s dedicated onto Ivy westbound was something people raised and we included,” Callahan said.

Another topic that has come up is whether there needs to be both bike lanes and a shared-use path in the project. The answer to this question will inform the amount of right of way that will need to be purchased or donated.

“A bike lane is going to be used by bicycle commuters going 20 miles an hour,” Callahan said. “A shared-use path is going to be better for those bicyclists that are more recreational and those who don’t feel that comfortable being that closer to [vehicular] traffic.”

City Councilor Kathy Galvin, an ex officio member of PLACE, pointed out that the John Warner Parkway has bike lanes as well as a shared-use path.

“If I’m in a rush and in more of a contemplative mode, I’ll go on the multi-use trail,” Galvin said.

Can the road be slowed down?

While one stated goal of the project is to make Emmet Street safer and welcoming for non-vehicular traffic, Galvin expressed concern existing conditions would make that difficult.

“My concern is that it’s just going to be a very fast road no matter what you do because you don’t have buildings on the edge of the right of way,” Galvin said. “You have nothing but an open field. Eventually there will be buildings on the west side but on the east side it will be [mostly] empty.”

Frustrated by the apparent widening of the Ivy and Emmet Street, a PLACE member who is a assistant professor in the UVA School of Architecture suggested removing that turn lane from the concept and routing vehicles bound for the parking garage to turn left onto Massie Road and then Copeley Road instead.

“This then becomes a viable pedestrian and bicycle Complete Street from Massie Road down to Ivy,” said Andrew Mondschein.

However, the scope of the streetscape doesn’t cover that possibility.

“It may be outside the scope but it’s up to the city to decide on a turn lane,” said Mike Stoneking, chair of the PLACE Design Task Force and himself an urban designer.

The University of Virginia’s Office of the Architect is developing a long-term plan for the Ivy Road corridor. No representatives from the office were at the PLACE meeting, but Galvin remarked that the draft plan calls for the Cavalier Inn site to remain open space.

“When the University just wants to keep open space at its gateway, it is just going to be a fast road,” Galvin said. “You’re not going to get any notion of place until you get to the Barracks Road area.”

In contrast, Mondschein argued there are opportunities due to the future hotel and the fact that traffic has to slow down once it travels north on Emmet into Grounds, where the speed limit is already 25 mph.

In recent years, Council has made several land use decisions to allow autocentric uses on Emmet Street between U.S. 250 and Barracks Road, such as a car wash at 1300 Emmet and a drive-through for a restaurant at 1248 Emmet Street. Galvin said those decisions have limited the ability to turn the rest of the roadway into a place more befitting for pedestrians.

“That boat has sailed and the only thing I can see as probably creating an urban place is at the intersection of Barracks and Emmet,” Galvin said. In 2017, the city received $8 million funding through another Smart Scale project to address that intersection. That project has not yet begun.

A developer who serves on the PLACE group said there are market reasons for why autocentric uses are prominent in that section of the street.

“There is overwhelming private sector demand for that type of use,” Henry said. “When you have 30,000 cars on the street, it’s like flies to honey for fast food.”

However, PLACE members were adamant that this streetscape project help inform a future where fewer people drive.

“I believe that from the bypass down to [Ivy Road] it’s going to be a tight urban condition one day,” Stoneking said. “The sooner the infrastructure projects that, the better.”

Stoneking summarized that PLACE would like to see a design with shared-use paths on both sides of the road, want to minimize widening of the Emmet and Ivy intersection and wants to find a way to improve the design of the passageways that travel under the railway embankment.

The project went before the Charlottesville Planning Commission on December 18, 2018.