Last week, members of the Charlottesville Planning Commission got their first look at a nine-story, 240-unit student housing complex planned for the corner of West Main Street and Roosevelt Brown Boulevard, across the street from the UVA Medical Center’s trauma center, and they weren’t thrilled.
The $50 million project—for now referred to simply as 1000 West Main—includes plans for ground-level parking and retail, an on-site fitness center, and a rooftop pool. It would require a special use permit; by right, builder and eventual property manager Campus Acquisitions (CA) would be restricted to seven stories and about a fifth as many units.
If it moves forward, the project would become the third high-density mixed-use student housing complex within two blocks of the western end of the corridor that connects Grounds and Downtown. Both the Flats at West Village, which will have 595 beds in eight stories, and The Standard, planned to rise six stories and have 240 rooms, have won approval from the city.
The commissioners’ reaction to the third successive special use application was tepid at best. Some cited concerns over its proximity to the hospital, and the way the imposing L-shaped building would look from the street. But their strongest objections had to do with the new project being too much of the same thing.
“Quite honestly, I don’t know why you want to do this,” said Commissioner John Santoski. “I’m starting to feel we’re maxed out on the kind of student housing we want to have there.”
The commission also questioned the company’s estimated price point, a hefty $700 to $900 a bed. UVA might be perceived as a rich university, said Commissioner Lisa Green, but “a lot of students are really struggling.”
The company said it knows its market, and that more student housing on underutilized West Main is exactly what the city asked for a decade ago.
“We have studied this market exhaustively, examining data about the low vacancy rates at all the existing apartment complexes in the area, and are absolutely convinced that the demand is there, particularly in a location that is so close to the University,” said CA’s Senior Vice President of Acquisitions Stephen Bus in an e-mail interview. Charlottesville took steps to prepare for that demand in the mid 2000s, he said, when it was zoned to allow for taller buildings that could accommodate high-density housing. A short building boom around 14th Street followed in 2006 and 2007—Wertland Square, the Grand Marc, the “V”—which sated demand for a time, especially once the financial crises put a damper on residential growth.
But now, the city is facing an inadequate housing supply and an influx of 1,500 more students within five years, Bus said, so “you are really looking at just keeping pace even with the three new projects under construction or proposed along West Main Street.” The expanded volume of student apartments would also lift pressure on affordable family units elsewhere in the city, he said.
Bus said it’s not a feeding frenzy, as one commissioner put it, but rather the market giving the city what it wants and needs.
“What is being proposed with these three projects is precisely what was envisioned for West Main, to bring people, vitality, and economic opportunity to a street that is universally seen as an important street that has unfortunately stagnated for decades,” he said.
So is CA being unfairly scrutinized just because it was the last project in the door?
“I think the planning commission has a legitimate concern about the impacts they see coming from that much student housing,” said Jim Tolbert, the city’s director of neighborhood development services. “It’s the cumulative effect of all those rooms.”
But there’s no denying the city’s own comprehensive plan marks that stretch of West Main for housing—and height.
“The plan says we want higher density there. It doesn’t get into who it is that lives in those areas,” said Tolbert. As for whether the project would oversaturate the city with luxe student living space, “I’d never believe these guys would spend tens of millions without doing the adequate market research,” he said.
And it’s clear that to developers, UVA’s student body looks like a goldmine.
“They may all show up as a demographic that has no money. The reality is they don’t, but mommy and daddy do,” said Tolbert.
Bus pointed out that it’s not just developers that will benefit from the next collegiate housing boom. UVA is actively seeking the kind of students who would want to live in a high rise like the one CA is planning. “Other premier institutions, including many Ivy League schools and medical schools, are constructing new housing to continue to attract high-caliber students—so we do not necessarily think of it just in terms of ‘high end,’ it is new housing built to meet the market expectations of residents, students, and parents who have options in where to work and where to attend school,” he wrote.
Of course, Charlottesville’s coffers would benefit, too. Bus said the project would generate an estimated $500,000 a year in city taxes.
For now, the company is going back to the drawing board, adjusting its site plan ahead of a meeting with the Board of Architectural Review this week and another round in front of the Planning Commission in December. But there’s a high degree of confidence on CA’s side. When asked if the company would go ahead with a smaller, by-right version of their building if its special use permit is ultimately shot down, Bus made it clear that scaling down wasn’t the game plan.
“The SUP proposal now before the Planning Commission, with adjustments pending, will be the highest-and-best use of the site and provide the greatest benefit for the community,” he said.