Planning Commission approves permit for an even bigger Plaza on Main Street

Last week the City Planning Commission approved a special use permit allowing the developers of the Plaza on Main Street to increase the building’s size, but residents of nearby Fifeville are not pleased. Photo: Riverbend Management Last week the City Planning Commission approved a special use permit allowing the developers of the Plaza on Main Street to increase the building’s size, but residents of nearby Fifeville are not pleased. Photo: Riverbend Management

The Plaza on Main Street, an eight-story, 595-bedroom apartment building proposed for the property between the Hampton Inn and Amtrak station, is seen as the final piece of the West Main development puzzle. But while developers, city officials, and the media have been discussing the project’s potential transformation of the stretch between Downtown and UVA, Fifeville residents are concerned about its impact on their neighborhood. At last week’s City Planning Commission meeting, residents asked commissioners to reconsider approving a special use permit that would allow the developers to increase the building’s density, and to take into consideration how the complex would affect neighbors.

After three hours of discussion, the planning commissioners voted 6-1 to approve the special use permit. They voiced some reservations and offered sympathetic caveats, but ultimately decided the project would help West Main reach critical mass and grow economically.

Locally based Riverbend Management and Ambling University Development Group of Georgia are tag-teaming the project. Zoning laws allow a height of 70′ and density of 43 units per acre, and developers requested a special use permit that will allow the building to be 101′ tall with 98 units per acre. The complex will feature units with up to four bedrooms and 12,000′ of “commercial space.” It will be heavily marketed to students, and developers say it will bridge the gap between UVA and the rest of Charlottesville.

Not everybody is convinced that the project will connect the town to the University.

Angie Ciolfi has lived on Nalle Street, directly behind the proposed development, for years. She said she and her neighbors have wanted to see the parcel developed in a way that will invigorate and beautify West Main Street, and in the beginning she wanted to support this project. But she worries that the Plaza will serve as a giant brick barrier instead.

“I just wonder if it is the right fit,” she said.

Ciolfi said she’s concerned about increased traffic and noise, but is especially wary of the club room that “appeared to be public space, but will not be.” Developers promised a certain amount of public space in the building, but the commercial area may only be available to Plaza residents—which means the public space is actually private.

Commissioner Lisa Green said she worries that residents of the Plaza will be isolated from the surrounding area. She was the only one to vote against the permit.

“I don’t want to create another case of exclusivity between UVA, townspeople, and the workforce,” she said.

Commission Chair Genevieve Keller said she has lived across the street from an apartment complex for six years, and “Keep Out” signs and a feeling of separation make it difficult to interact. She said Charlottesville “deserves something special,” and she doesn’t want to see a similar situation with the Plaza.

“I wish she would’ve backed that sentiment with her vote,” said Fifeville resident Catarina Krizancic.

Krizancic said she was disappointed that commissioners seemed to acknowledge what residents were fighting for, but approved the permit anyway.

Residents still have time to voice concern about the project at public meetings; before the issue goes to City Council, the Board of Architectural Review will offer guidance on the design at its November 20 meeting.

  • Giles Morris

    This was sent by e-mail from: Antoinette W. Roades, Charlottesville

    Like those quoted above, I was deeply disappointed that Planning Commission Chairman Ginnie Keller endorsed a massive student rental complex on West Main Street despite reservations about the impact and impersonality of such a structure. But I was further distressed at the example she cited for her concern, i.e. the complex opposite her North
    First Street home. I recognized it by location, but not by her characterization.

    Charlottesville Towers (511 North First), was built in 1967 in a style that will always clash with the historic houses around it. But its residents didn’t clash with those who lived in those houses. I know that because my parents became renters there in 1968 after the City condemned for a public parking lot the house we lived in nearby. Convenience prompted their choice. My father could continue walking to work at the Main Post Office, then on Market St. Coincidence favored it, too. My father’s grandfather, early Charlottesville photographer William Roads (as he spelled it), had 422 North First Street built in 1870, and my father’s father was born there.

    Many of 511’s early residents also had tight local ties, and that remained true even in the years just after the complex went condominium about 1981. Among my parents’ neighbors were several downsizers who’d owned homes nearby for decades. Another old timer, a retired railroad worker, recalled being dispatched from the depot as a young messenger boy with notes for my mother’s train conductor father. Among newer comers were a young chef-restaurateur busily upgrading Charlottesville’s culinary scene and a physics professor emeritus whose wife invited fellow residents to student chamber music recitals in their apartment. Lobby conversation was lively. Residents helped one another. Whenever one couple’s City police officer son visited, he would cheerfully act as ad hoc security consultant.

    Even though the building looked like a blocky island in its asphalt sea, however, its denizens weren’t insular. They walked out to Main Street and the library and church as did the surrounding house dwellers of similar backgrounds – a City librarian, a popular piano teacher, another faculty couple, et al.

    My father died in 1980, and my mother left 511 in 1985 — one year after Ms. Keller’s husband became owner of their house. Certainly, the building’s cast of characters has changed somewhat since then. Notably, some units have been bought by investors. But familiar names still appear in its ownership records – more, in fact, than appear on the rest of North First, where current owners are clearly much more affluent than their predecessors and much less likely to have local roots.

    At the November 13 hearing, Ms. Keller complained that 511 displays a “Keep Out” sign and that neighborhood children cannot ride bikes there. That would be because such complexes have chronic problems with non residents poaching residents’ spaces and that children on bikes are legal liabilities in that they can easily become casualties.

    But even if all who dwell in 511’s 64 units (with about 100 bedrooms) and park in its completely adequate lot were the aloof aliens Ms. Keller implied, her comparison of them to the undergraduates who will turn over constantly in the West Main complex’s 219 units (with 595 bedrooms) and overflow its completely inadequate garage is egregious. Residents of 511 may not “interact” as Ms. Keller would dictate, but I’m quite sure they’ve never prevented her peaceful enjoyment of her own property. Those of us forced to be neighbors of the behemoth she endorsed will not be able to say the same.

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