March ABODE: Locals wait for green neighborhood dreams to come true

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It was a strange form of pioneering. For a year after Frank and Linda Dukes moved into their new house in the Belvedere development in August 2009, Frank said, “there was no construction going on anywhere.” The Dukes’ house sat nearly alone in what had been envisioned as a 675-home neighborhood, stranded by the 2008 housing market crash in a denuded, empty landscape. “While we were very happy with our house,” Dukes said, “we were wondering what in the world was happening with the rest of the area.”

A priority on open space is meant to distinguish Belvedere from other developments. (All photos by Andrea Hubbell)

Belvedere—which occupies 207 acres off Rio Road East—had made a splash when development company Stonehaus broke ground in 2007. The concept was supposed to go well beyond standard ticky-tacky housing developments, drawing eco-conscious buyers with promises of walkability, sustainability, and true community. Stonehaus planned an organic farm, a “civic core” to foster neighborhood culture, and various types of dwellings all built to EarthCraft standards.

For the Dukes, who’d considered living further out in Albemarle County instead, the draw was multi-faceted. “I wanted access to the river, I wanted trails, I wanted a more compact development,” said Frank. Easy access to town, plus Belvedere’s open space and mixed-use neighborhood plan, felt like a winning combination. But the severe slowdown in construction meant that the reality of Belvedere—at least temporarily—was far from utopian.

Fast forward to the present. Fewer than a dozen lots remain unsold in the first, 116-lot phase of Belvedere’s residential portion. Nearly 90 families call Belvedere home. “We used to know every single person who moved in,” said Dukes. “Now we no longer can keep up with it.”

With construction ongoing, and the commercial portion of the development still roughly a year from completion, Belvedere occupies an in-between state. Its human community has reached a critical mass but is still slated to grow four- or five-fold before it’s complete. Meanwhile, across town, something similar is happening at RiverBluff—another of Charlottesville’s most high-profile sustainable developments that’s currently about two-thirds built.

Though RiverBluff is a much smaller project, with just 22 lots, it hinges on some of the same questions as Belvedere. What does it take to make a subdivision green? Can developers weather the downturn while trying to remedy some of the ills of traditional subdivisions? And what’s it like to live in a place that’s only partway to realizing a promise of sustainable community?

The draw

Many residents of Belvedere and RiverBluff repeat the same list of reasons they chose to live in these neighborhoods: proximity to town, access to hiking (both communities lie near the Rivanna Trail), shared open space, energy-efficient houses.

COMING TOGETHER

Belvedere residents are working hard to create community, and waiting patiently for the pedestrian aspect of their neighborhood to be fully realized. 

“How many neighborhoods with this outdoor space are one mile from Downtown?” asked David Dusseau, a RiverBluff resident since 2007. His community clusters its housing on three acres of a 19-acre property in Woolen Mills; the remainder is preserved as open space. Residents walk through the woods and congregate in a flat open field near the Rivanna. Dusseau’s neighbor, Chris Sprigman, said that his 10-year-old daughter likes to sit on a stone ledge overlooking the river, chatting with friends. Yet the Downtown Mall is a short bus or bike ride away.

Belvedere is further from the heart of Charlottesville, but promises its own center of commercial gravity that’s meant to enable a walkable lifestyle: easy strolling between home and coffeeshop. Kate White may take it further by walking to work. She and her family were Belvedere’s very first residents, and she hopes that her business, Belvedere Healing Arts, will be the first occupant of the “village center” to be completed in 2013. “That village center is in many ways the hub of the wheel,” said Stonehaus President and CEO Bob Hauser. “It’s important to our success and delivering our promise to the community.”

That promise amounts to a rejection of some of the problems for which standard suburbs have become notorious: They’re isolating; they force people to drive; they lack the multilayered character of urban neighborhoods. Indeed, Denise Kirchner, who left her home in Hollymead when she became an empty-nester, considered moving to historic Belmont, where she liked the compact urban feel. But she ultimately chose Belvedere, where she hoped for the same advantages without the old-house blues.

“Looking at the cost and amount of renovation [in Belmont],” she said, “I thought for the dollar, I can build a new home. There was some attraction in being the first occupant.”

While some of her neighbors have come for the energy-efficient houses—and Stonehaus has certainly made them a major selling point—others are more concerned with community. “Families move here to be with other families with children,” said Kirchner. “On the fall festival we were burning a fire, and a new family was there saying, ‘This is exactly what we wanted, to hang outside with the kids.’”

All the parts

Sprigman wanted all of the above, and one other thing. “I like modern architecture, and I knew that living here was the chance to build a house that was more modern in style.” The seven builders represented by RiverBluff’s 13 existing houses have, by and large, favored a contemporary aesthetic. This happens to fit in rather well in Woolen Mills, home to the city’s highest concentration of modern dwellings.

While RiverBluff’s developers can point to amenities that already exist nearby—from the Meade pool to Downtown restaurants—Stonehaus has taken on a demanding task in creating, from the ground up, a community that has everything. Right now, a block of 294 luxury apartments (boasting what Hauser calls “a boatload of amenities”) is under construction and slated for completion in May. His company will break ground on the commercial center soon, plus the next residential phase (40-50 homes over the next 12-18 months).

Meanwhile, two major community organizations will make their homes in Belvedere: the Soccer Organization of Charlottesville-Albemarle (SOCA) and the Senior Center. Still to be worked out are the details regarding an organic farm located on the floodplain of the Rivanna, and there’s also talk of a community garden, a preschool, and shared pavilions.

Hauser guesses it’ll all take “somewhere close to five years” to complete. But that’s just a guess—after all, soon after Belvedere’s groundbreaking, C-VILLE reported it would be “finished in 2011.”

Living with the process

Belvedere and RiverBluff are both full of the ironies of the half-built community. Houses lived in for several years, with furniture on the porches and boxwoods lining the walks, face red-clay construction zones with orange porta-potties and heavy equipment. The sense of orderly domesticity is punctuated by the steady bam…bam…of nailguns, and mud streaks the streets. Still, the pioneering residents who first bought in would rather put up with these conditions than see their communities fail.

OASIS

The first phase of Belvedere’s residential development is nearly complete, but just across the street from Denise Kirchner’s home, construction is still ongoing. Kirchner’s house allowed her to downsize from an older, less efficient home in a nearby subdivision.

“If we knew we had to move in two or three years when we first moved there, we would have been worried, but we don’t have to worry now,” said Dukes, who stressed that he loves his new house even while admitting that challenges abound. “We wish the streets were paved, we wish the landscaping had been done faster. It’s not a utopia by any means.”

White says construction crews can be tough to live with. “I’ve had to go out to the street sometimes and turn off the radios in guys’ cars when they were just too loud.”

For Kirchner, who serves as the residents’ representative to the Belvedere homeowner’s association, construction raises several major concerns. “We’re trying to be as aesthetic as we can in the midst of building and piles of dirt and huge machinery,” she said. “The other piece is the safety. With children out in the neighborhood, there are building materials, nails here and there, and the amount of traffic that comes in and out is a concern.”

Building is a sign of progress—in RiverBluff, builder Latitude 38 is soon to finish its second house, while another new foundation just went up nearby—but the housing market is far from fully recovered, and selling prices reflect the turmoil.

“When Belvedere started, customers were more accustomed to spending say $500,000 or $600,000 and up,” said Hauser. “And when the market changed in ‘08, the market became much more active from $300,000 to $500,000.” In response, Stonehaus developed plans for smaller houses with fewer features.

Are they green?

A chastened housing market also slowed the realization of Belvedere as a model of New Urbanism. Residents may enjoy their walks in the woods, but as Kate White put it, “We don’t walk to anything so functional as a grocery store.” She and her neighbors are eager for carless shopping, but Stonehaus has had to delay construction of its commercial section, reverting to a more traditional, segregated approach to residential and retail space.

One aspect of sustainability—for both neighborhoods—that’s just as robust as anyone had hoped is the functionality of individual houses. “Our bills are amazingly low,” White said. “We always get these notes from the energy people saying your home is 40 percent more efficient than most efficient home near you.”

Every resident of Belvedere and RiverBluff interviewed for this story agreed—with obvious pleasure—that their homes function very well. A variety of green building techniques make that so—from the dual HVAC controls in Kirchner’s home to the passive-solar design of Sprigman’s house. Dusseau praised the air quality in his place, thanks to low-VOC paints. “It makes a big difference,” he said.

HAVING IT ALL

Chris Sprigman says that living in RiverBluff let him combine outdoor access with “the chance to build a house that was more modern in style.” Having recently completed a book, he praises the house as a comfortable place to write.

While the five builders in Belvedere are committed to meeting EarthCraft standards with every single-family home—and the neighborhood as a whole is part of the LEED for Neighborhood Development program—RiverBluff operates on a looser understanding about green building as a shared value. Latitude 38’s current project there is aiming for rigorous Passive House certification, while other homes have earned no particular credentials.

But what about the fact that both developments sit on former greenspaces? Assuming new construction is inevitable, some say, infill beats sprawl. “It’s better for us to be developing closer to town than out farther in the county,” said Dukes.

Residents are looking for ways to weave their brand-new homes into the larger cloth of the natural world. RiverBluff resident Sprigman visits the Rivanna River about three times a week and takes note of birds he sees there. His neighbors share compost bins near the common playground, and planted perennials in the rain gardens that filter runoff from the road.

At Belvedere, White grows blueberries in her yard, blogs about animal tracks that she and her husband find on muddy construction sites, and writes of her plans to create an afterschool program to get kids outside.

The human touch

“Babysitting, dogwalking, we have that covered,” said Kirchner. She’s been impressed with how much sharing goes on among her Belvedere neighbors. “It has certainly met and even exceeded my expectations in terms of sense of community,” she said. “People are very welcoming.” She and other residents describe street parties and potlucks—a cohesiveness that, White said, “people work hard for.”

But both neighborhoods, residents say, also owe their friendly vibes to physical design. “There’s something functional about this size circle,” said Dusseau of RiverBluff’s single, ring-shaped street. “Everybody knows everybody. It’s just the right size where you can have a tight-knit group of people, but not so small like a cul-de-sac.”

ARCHITECT’S PLACE

From their kitchen,
Jim Duxbury and Joann Im can walk out to an enclosed courtyard that provides some protected outdoor space between house and parking area.

In Belvedere, Kirchner said, the larger number of residents will inevitably split into subsets. Still, she’s hoping for some overall cohesiveness, and perhaps the SOCA facilities and the Senior Center—with minivans bringing in loads of kids and seniors congregating for daily activities—will provide some of the necessary social glue.

Developers are attempting to think more holistically—about places, not just products. One goal is to foster some diversity among residents; both RiverBluff and Belvedere incorporate rental units into their single-family house designs. These let developers show they’re answering local government calls for more affordable housing, while offering buyers a chance to offset their mortgages and, in theory anyway, increasing economic diversity.

Kirchner has rented her “carriage house” (a two-bedroom apartment over her garage) continuously since shortly after moving in. In RiverBluff, most apartments go unrented. Dusseau—for one—sees a strong possibility of renting his apartment in the future, but for now it remains unfinished and functions mostly as storage.

An even greater challenge to creating real places—when the mode of creation involves clearing and building anew—is to honor the history of the ground being disturbed. Belvedere overlaps a former community of free African-Americans, called Free State, which now exists mainly as a group of unmarked graves. “I’m looking forward to seeing that recognized, and historic markers placed there,” said Dukes. Free State residents are already being remembered in at least one way. “They are using their names for the street names,” Dukes said, “so there is this identity that can continue.”

There is still a glaring gap between the dream of Belvedere and its reality. But White, for one, is optimistic even after nearly four years of living amidst construction. “Everything is happening that they said would happen,” she said. “It’s been a fabulous thing to watch unfold.”

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