Charlottesville is one tenth the size of Virginia Beach, but city officials say we have a lot to learn about smart development from the coastal town. After the PLACE Design Task Force met for a video conference with Virginia Beach city staff and watched an hour-long presentation on its efforts to develop strategic growth areas, staff and officials are looking at a new approach to developing Charlottesville’s own strategic investment area.
“It posed the question, are we creating places or are we just developing parcels?” said PLACE member, landscape architect, and City Councilor Kathy Galvin.
Virginia Beach established a strategic growth area office in 2009 to keep up with the city’s expansion while protecting neighborhoods from urban sprawl and incompatible development. Made up of 17 staff members, the office consists of five departments: a parking division, engineering and project management, financial and economic analysis, transportation planning, and resort management with special event planning.
About 2 percent of Virginia Beach’s land has been divided into eight separate strategic growth areas, according to city planner Ashby Mos. The underlying principles and goals of the strategic growth area designation, Moss said, are all about place-making, and allowing the city to grow while still maintaining historical integrity and the culture of individual neighborhoods and parts of town.
“We have some fantastic neighborhoods that are why people love Virginia Beach, and we wanted to protect them,” Moss said.
Strategic Growth Area Manager Barry Frankenfield showed the group before-and-after slides of a Virginia Beach street corner. The first shot, with a remarkable similarity to the Random Row buildings at the corner of West Main Street and McIntire Road, consisted of old, rundown one-story buildings, unused sidewalks along uneven parking lots, and no trees. The second photo revealed a multi-story, mixed-use building covering several blocks, with storefronts and colorful overhangs, expansive sidewalks, and street trees every few yards.
“We went from a place where you can have a $1.99 waffle and a cup of coffee to now, you can get a piece of meat for $48,” Frankenfield said. “I think that’s progress.”
Galvin said last week’s meeting gave the task force food for thought.
“The creation of a Strategic Growth Area Office independent from the planning department, with the ability to harness and focus a wide array of city resources and expertise on developing specific geographic areas, was critical to getting from just making a plan to building a real place that reflected the community’s values,” Galvin said.
Galvin said implementing a system like Virginia Beach’s could make city development smoother, and she worries that projects like City Walk, the massive apartment complex under construction on Carlton Avenue near the Woolen Mills neighborhood, are being developed solely for the sake of growth and density. Just last month, the owners of Beer Run approached City Council with concerns about parking—if construction of the new trail on Meade Avenue began before City Walk was finished, Beer Run would lose about 30 vital parking spaces. City staff negotiated with the Virginia Department of Transportation to postpone the trail project, and agreed to paint parking lines on Meade and create 17 spaces for Beer Run. It was a simple fix, Galvin said, but the city operates in crisis mode too often, and it seems that economic goals are being implemented in isolation of the city’s other priorities.
“We’ve got to make sure we’re utilizing all our land as efficiently as possible without compromising the beauty of the place or the livelihood of our existing businesses,” she said.
The PLACE Design Task Force will present its findings at an upcoming City Council meeting.