Charlottesville still has some qualities of a small town—gossip travels fast, you can’t go anywhere without running into someone you know… But anyone paying attention to local news also knows we face big issues from controversial roads to transformative development of critical segments of Downtown to high profile crimes that need solving. Here are a few of the topics we know will be sparking debate over the next 12 months.
We know, we know. You’ve heard it before: The saga of the Western Bypass, Central Virginia’s biggest will-they-or-won’t-they story, is definitely maybe headed for resolution, one way or another. Two and a half years after the long-stalled, highly controversial effort to build a 6.7-mile bypass around Charlottesville’s congested section of Route 29 was revived with the cooperation of state and local GOPers, the Bypass is at a critical point. A design process yielded plans, but fans and opponents of the road agree they’re flawed.
The environmental assessment required by the Federal Highway Administration has been nearly complete for months, but an attempt to find a way to protect a historic African-American cemetery in the road’s path has meant the agency still hasn’t seen the final draft. Virginia’s new transportation secretary voted to fund the Bypass, but his soon-to-be-sworn-in boss and the majority of the local Albemarle County Supervisors who could yank tight the purse strings on the project are Democrats—so far, the party of no-road.
Something’s gotta give.
West Main redevelopment
Charlottesville entered a bona fide building boom in the last year as residential developers who had sat for years on high-potential properties were stirred to action as the economy lurched to life again. Nowhere within the city limits is the bounceback more evident than along West Main Street, the long-underutilized corridor connecting UVA and Downtown. More than a decade after the city loosened regulations to allow for higher-density development along West Main, those zoning tweaks are bearing fruit as a series of new housing projects move forward. More than 1,000 beds in three new high-rises on the western end of the street have been approved or are awaiting a nod from the city. But it’s starting to look like West Main’s boom might be a case of “be careful what you wish for.” The new units are to be exclusively for students, and they ain’t cheap; the most recently proposed project, 1000 West Main, would run tenants $700 to $900 per bed per month. Also on the way at the east end of the street: a new extended-stay hotel just a stone’s throw from the pricey Omni.
There’s evidence some of Charlottesville’s planning powers-that-be are eyeing the rapid ramp-up with some trepidation. The City Planning Commission gave the initial proposal for last-to-the-table 1000 West Main a chilly reception, and last month, the Board of Architectural Review added new protective regulations to half a dozen aging structures on the street, a move one developer called “a backdoor to downzoning.”
One man who would have likely had rather more choice words for the BAR’s regulatory power play wasn’t around to offer them. Gabe Silverman, contrarian architect of several celebrated earlier West Main redevelopment projects—and vocal critic of what he saw as the city’s sluggish and uninspired approach to revitalizing the corridor—died in November at the age of 73.
Sure, there are other development efforts to watch in and out of the city. But in 2014, all eyes are on West Main.
City Market’s new home
Since City Market was given a temporary home in the lot at the corner of First and Water streets in 1993, there’s been talk about the need to find it a permanent home. Could 2014 finally be the year that happens? It’s looking that way, as Mayor Satyendra Huja predicts a final decision could come as early as March. But where will it be?
A Charlottesville Market Economic Feasibility Study conducted by Portland, Maine, firm Market Ventures in 2012 determined there are two best options: improving the amenities at the current location, where a fire recently destroyed the building that housed the City Market office, or moving the market a couple of blocks south to Garrett Street to make way for mixed use development on the site.
As he stepped down from public office, former Mayor and City Councilor Dave Norris voiced his opinion that keeping the market in the same place would be best, even though it means giving up the hefty tax revenue—as much as $318,000 annually, according to the study.
“I’ve come to the point where I think if we can make the site work better if we put bathrooms, access to water and electricity, that’s what should happen,” he said. “Yes, we’ll lose tax revenue, but it will be a tremendous amenity not just for market but for other events and for parking.” Of course, Norris doesn’t have a vote anymore, and current Mayor Satyendra Huja believes the market can coexist in its current location with commercial and residential development. What’ll the other councilors think? Stay tuned.
Alexis Murphy and other missing people
The past five years have been dark ones in Central Virginia with multiple disappearances and murders of young people, particularly women. In February, Randy Allen Taylor, the man charged with abduction in the case of missing Nelson County teen Alexis Murphy, will go to trial in Nelson County Circuit Court. Details in the case have been sparse, and a judge recently placed a gag order on lawyers and investigators in the case, citing the need for Taylor to receive a fair trial.
Taylor has acknowledged interacting with Murphy on August 3, the day she disappeared, but says after she came to his Lovingston-area home, she left with another man. He has also admitted to being the last person to speak with another missing young person, Samantha Clarke, who disappeared from the Town of Orange in September 2010. He maintains his innocence in both cases.
And then there’s Dashad “Sage” Smith, who vanished two days before Thanksgiving in 2012 in a case that seems to have gone cold. Let’s hope 2014 brings the missing home and finds justice for those who won’t ever return.
Who’ll be stepping down, and who’ll be sticking around? Ever since the UVA Board of Visitors’ failed coup against President Teresa Sullivan in June 2012, more attention has been paid to the process of BOV appointments—and the effects they can have on the institution. This June, Governor Robert McDonnell appointees Linwood Rose, Timothy B. Robertson, Marvin W. Gilliam, and Hunter Craig all finish their first terms and are eligible to serve at least four more years. Will new Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe reappoint them? Do they want it?
And will any changes come out of the September report issued by UVA’s Public University Working Group that urged the university to consider operating more like a private institution? Among the group’s recommendations: Allowing only professional board members—those with specific expertise in areas of secondary education—and raising tuition for in-state students. President Sullivan has said she’s not interested in privatizing UVA, but 2014 could bring some big UVA news nonetheless.
The Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority (CRHA), the independent agency that oversees the city’s 376 public housing units, has had a tumultuous few years. There’s been frequent turnover at the top of the agency and staff has dropped from 36 in 2000 to 19 today. As federal Housing and Urban Development funds have rapidly vanished, CRHA has depleted its reserve fund trying to stay afloat. Relations between staff and the city’s low-income housing residents, who officially voice their concerns through the Public Housing Association of Residents (PHAR), are rocky at best.
But after years of dysfunction, there’s a plan in the works to fix the struggling agency, City Manager Maurice Jones announced at the last City Council meeting of 2013. Either the city will pump money and staff hours into shoring up operations, or it will absorb the agency completely, returning it to departmental status within city government. Both options come with challenges, Jones said, and no matter what, it’s going to be costly—possibly up to $500,000, which he suggested should come out of the city’s affordable housing fund.
The extra attention on CRHA comes at a crucial time. Funding for the much-needed overhaul of the city’s aging public housing stock is scant, and as officials mull options, the middle ground between the agency and the residents it serves is razor-thin. Change is coming, but it’s not clear whether it will tip in the direction of compromise or more controversy.