An architectural rendering showing a possible site plan for a mixed-income housing development on a city-owned dump site next to Oakwood Cemetery in the Ridge Street neighborhood. (Courtesy Southern Development)
One of the largest plots of undeveloped city-owned land near Downtown—long used as a dumping ground for fill dirt and debris—is slated to become a new 47-unit mixed-income neighborhood, ushered into being by a builder-nonprofit partnership that some say is a model for the future of low-income and public housing development in Charlottesville.
In a hearing last week, City Council expressed initial support for a joint proposal from Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville and Southern Development to clear and build on the 3.5-acre lot on Elliott Avenue next to the old Oakwood Cemetery. The city has debated selling off the parcel for years, said Neighborhood Development Services Director Jim Tolbert. Last spring, the city met with residents to talk about what they would want to see on the site—no high-rises, sustainable design, appropriate density—and the city started requesting proposals in October.
Habitat Director Dan Rosensweig said the will to build affordable was evidence that the city has the right idea about development.
“There’s no NIMBY here in Charlottesville,” he said, referring to the “not-in-my-backyard” attitude some communities have toward low-income housing. “We continue to break the mold and find new ways to partner.”
But not everybody agrees on the details.
Besides the Habitat team, one other set of players stepped up with a plan for the site. Local development services company Milestone Partners partnered with the Piedmont Housing Alliance and the Jefferson Area Board for Aging, calling on a professional team that included architect Giovanna Galfione who lives near the site with her husband, former mayor Maurice Cox.
The Milestone team also had the support of adjacent property owners, including former City Council candidate Brevy Cannon, former mayor Blake Caravati and Barbara Pilkey, all of whom agreed to throw in their lots with the Milestone team. The partnership would almost double the site size, allowing it to stretch all the way to Oak Street to the northeast and making room for a total of 50 to 60 housing units.
Both proposals offered up good ideas for the vacant site, said Tolbert. Both planned for a relatively high-density neighborhood with mixed-income units and shared green space. But Tolbert said the Habitat team’s plan came with less risk attached for the city, and forged better partnerships with city and nonprofit agencies.
Milestone and the PHA offered $550,000 for the site, less the cost of cleanup, but they wanted the city to offer them a $500,000 loan to help cover the substantial cleanup. Habitat and Southern, however, proposed paying $10 for the property and assuming all costs of cleanup—no city funds required.
“They’re both very good projects, but our best estimate is that the cleanup costs are probably going to approach a million dollars,” Tolbert said, and if someone else was willing to shoulder all the risk, then all the better.
He said the city also liked the Habitat team’s Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority-backed plan to set aside a quarter of the approximately 20 affordable units for residents coming out of public housing.
But the partnership with adjacent landowners could be salvaged.
“Our first call would be to the other team,” Rosensweig said. He hopes the other property owners will get behind his project, and he said his partners are open to incorporating ideas from the other proposal. They’re delivering a kit of parts to the city, he said, but the site plan is still very much a work in progress.
“All the designs are conceptual at this point,” he said. “All ideas are on the table.”
Cooperation is in the cards, according to Cannon. Caravati and Pilkey, who rent out nearby properties, have been figuring out how best to use their lots for years, said Cannon.
Everyone wants to see the land put to good use.
But they have concerns. They want more points of entry for proper traffic circulation, Cannon said, and they’d like to see another developer besides Southern—responsible for numerous new developments in the neighborhood in recent years—take a crack at building in the Ridge Street area.
But the biggest issue, he said, is the amount of affordable units Habitat and Southern plan to squeeze into the plot.
“For a development this small, the understood best way to do it is to have no more than a third affordable housing,” he said. The Milestone team hit that ratio, but the Habitat plan calls for 43 percent affordable units in what Cannon said is “public housing central.” Another development with a high percentage of low-income housing south of Downtown could do more damage than good, he said, bringing down property values and jeopardizing the long-term viability of the project.
City Councilor Dede Smith offered a similar opinion at the Council hearing.
“I live on the south side of Charlottesville,” she said. “The south side bears the biggest brunt of poverty, and we’re putting more poverty there.”
But she and her fellow councilors ultimately indicated they’ll vote in favor of city staffers’ suggestion to pick the Habitat proposal when they meet again May 7.
Habitat’s Rosensweig said the cooperation bodes well for Charlottesville. He and local officials agree that the city has a high hurdle ahead when it comes to the pressing need to update public housing. The key to paying for it, they say, is forging partnerships between the city and community-minded developers willing to forgo some profit in order to supply new homes for struggling families—with some help from nonprofit groups.
The Elliott Avenue site is a good first step, said Rosensweig.
“I think this is an amazing template for how it should happen,” he said. “Taxpayers won’t have to pay a penny, and the risk is borne by a private entity who at the end of the day will make a little bit of money. Everyone is playing to their strengths.”
Not everyone tackling redevelopment projects is going to agree on every detail, he said, “but there are certain fundamentals where there’s a high degree of consensus.”