History matters a lot in this town, where people speak of “Mr. Jefferson” as if the third president were still running the show up at Monticello. This reverence for the past is perhaps most fiercely expressed in the debate over how Charlottesville ought to balance preservation of the old with construction of the new.
The latest chapter in this debate is going on right in Jefferson’s backyard, in the Rugby Road/University Circle/Venable neighborhoods northeast of UVA. Arguments over the proper balance between growth and history are not always civil in Charlottesville, and in this case emotions are running unusually high.
Here’s why: In 2003, City Council voted to rezone much of the land around UVA. The new zoning created what City planners called a “University Precinct,” giving developers the right to build at a much higher density than before—up to 87 units per acre. The rezoning encouraged the construction of large student apartment buildings in parts of the Rugby, University Circle and Venable neighborhoods, as well as along 14th and 15th streets. The apartments, said Council, would bring benefits for the City and UVA as well as developers.
Then, on January 17, Council voted to turn the University Precinct into a historic district, giving the City’s Board of Architectural Review a say over demolitions and new construction. Both developers and preservationists fervently lobbied Councilors before the closely watched vote; now, in the aftermath, developers are accusing Councilors of caving in to preservation interests. They say the historic district sets up too many hurdles for new construction.
“It baffles me,” says Rick Jones. He is president of Management Services Corporation, a major developer and property manager for student housing around UVA. “This great idea got trashed,” he says, speaking of the University Precinct. “It’s all politics.”
Fellow UVA-area developer Wade Tremblay, president of Wade Apartments, is also miffed over Council’s decision. “Color me disappointed,” Tremblay says. He says the historic designation “effectively emasculates the development opportunities.”
Preservationists, meanwhile, say developers’ laments are overblown.
“The University of Virginia is one of two World Heritage sites in the United States that have modern buildings on them,” says Daniel Bluestone, director of UVA’s historic preservation program. “The entrance to that site is important.
“For most people, the buildings that are already in that neighborhood are far preferable to the junk that’s being built in their place,” says Bluestone.
The issue touches on some of Char-lottesville’s most enduring political rivalries: Besides the conflict between preservationists and developers, the issue also pits City against County and town against gown. As the City enters its budget season, the issue also raises a more subtle point about money. Some developers estimate that if the University Precinct were built to maximum capacity, it would add a half-billion dollars of taxable real estate to the City’s coffers. If that’s true, it means that at the current real estate tax rate of 1.05 percent, development around UVA could deliver as much as $5,250,000 in taxes per year.
Councilors hope that through compromise the City can have both high-quality new development and historic neighborhood ambiance. However, this Rugby historic district is bringing to the foreground many hard feelings that threaten to demolish a spirit of cooperation.
Internet, fitness rooms and urban sprawl
Drive around the city’s outskirts along Old Lynchburg Road, Sunset Avenue and Route 20S, and you’ll see the source of planners’ fear.
In recent years, apartment complexes with names like Eagle’s Landing and Jefferson Ridge have sprung up in Albemarle County, just outside the city’s boundary. They offer a host of amenities marketed toward UVA students: shuttle buses to campus, high-speed Internet, 24-hour fitness centers, rooms with desks built in and huge parking lots for all those cars.
For the City, these new apartment buildings represent both problems and missed opportunities.
At a time when traffic ranks high on the list of citizen complaints, far-flung student apartments encourage Wahoos to drive more cars into Charlottesville, soaking up parking spaces in residential neighborhoods around UVA. The City has approved various measures, such as requiring permit parking in residential neighborhoods, to ease the ongoing conflict between students and homeowners.
Even more important to the City is the financial implication of these new student apartments.
While townies enjoy mocking UVA undergraduates, the fact is that student apartments are windfalls for taxpayers. Student apartments are huge, expensive buildings; and in Virginia, where local governments rely heavily on property tax revenues, those buildings mean money in the bank. Furthermore, undergraduates don’t cost very much—they don’t send kids to local schools, they don’t need social services like food stamps or child care.
For the past 10 years, City budgets have grown due to increasing costs for social services, public safety and a growing City staff. According to City Police Chief Tim Longo, who has said paltry City salaries have contributed to officers leaving the force, there are currently 15 vacancies in the police department. “In order to recruit and retain good people, excellent pay and benefits are critical,” says Longo.
These facts prompted City Council to try to lure more UVA students inside the city limits. In 2003, then-Mayor Maurice Cox led a complete rewriting of the City’s zoning codes that included the University Precinct district.
Immediately after the 2003 zoning change took effect, developers moved to start building. Jones and MSC, for example, got the necessary permits for a project known as Sadler Court Apartments between 14th and 15th streets. Tremblay began building the 50-unit Wertland Square (charging $1,600 for a two-bedroom apartment) on a 14th Street parking lot.
Then, last spring, City Council and the Planning Commission began discussing putting a historic designation on the neighborhood, complete with restrictions on demolition of existing structures. Jones and other developers say they were surprised by plans for a historic designation in the wake of the rezoning.
“I don’t really know what happened,” says Jones. “This [rezoning] was a huge deal. There was committee after committee after committee… lots of public participation. People felt like the end result was darn good.”
Cox, however, says that the City always planned to create a historic district to accompany the upzoning. He says planners never wanted the University Precinct to resemble Jefferson Park Avenue, lined with what Cox considers unpleasant apartment complexes. “The ideal scenario would have been to create the district first, then pass the zoning ordinance,” says Cox. “But things don’t always work out in an ideal way.”
Regardless, the debate over the historic designation brought many simmering political tensions to light.
Who really loves Charlottesville?
“This is one of the toughest decisions I ever had to make,” says City Councilor Kendra Hamilton.
On January 17 she found herself in the unenviable position of casting the swing vote on this contentious issue. After initially siding with Councilor Blake Caravati, a builder who favored a historic designation that would be less restrictive on developers, she changed her mind and cast her vote with Councilor Kevin Lynch and Mayor David Brown in favor of more restrictions on demolition rights.
“I was always more interested in what gets rebuilt there than what gets torn down,” says Hamilton. Before the January 17 vote, she favored a compromise plan that would create the historic district as well as a “green zone” where developers could demolish old buildings without having to go before the BAR first.
“But that was not what the people I ran with thought should be done, or what the people who voted for me thought should be done,” says Hamilton. “I was elected to support them.”
Fervent politicking and name-calling marked the weeks leading up to Council’s vote. Preservationists cast developers as out-of-towners who couldn’t care less about the fate of the city, while developers cast preservationists as ideologues who want to stop all growth.
“There’s very little sense coming out of the development community that they are stewards of the landscape,” says Bluestone. “They don’t live in our city. They’ve made their money on development in the city, then decided that the city is too nasty to live in. Our city government ought to represent our city.”
Jim Stoltz is president of CBS Rentals, which houses about 1,200 tenants citywide and bills itself as “The Authority in University Housing.” He is president of University Neighborhood Association, a group of mostly landlords within the University Precinct that he and others formed to represent the view that it is developers, not preservationists, who are really looking out for Charlottesville’s welfare. He says historic preservation will backfire and will prompt more students to rent houses in neighborhoods surrounding UVA.
“The sad thing is that the people who made this decision to make this area historic, not a one of the people own property in the area,” says Stoltz.
“The City had a vision. It was working. Houses on the fringe of this neighborhood were going back to single family because students wanted to live on the Corner. Now the only option will be for the tenants to go back into the houses in JPA, Venable, Starr Hill, Fifeville.”
Developers suggest that preservationists have too much power in City Hall, pointing to the fact that Mayor Brown’s wife, Jean Hiatt, is a member of the group Preservation Piedmont. Brown says that while his wife is a “strong preservationist,” “she didn’t have anything to do with my point of view on this.”
As if that weren’t enough drama, some people think that the City’s apparent turnabout could prompt a lawsuit.
Planning Commissioner Cheri Lewis, who is an attorney, says developers are getting mixed messages from the City. “They were told two years ago to build, build, build to higher density. Now, the guidelines would not allow a seven-storey building at all,” says Lewis. “The City is setting itself up for a lawsuit. There are property owners in this district who have said they’re going to look
City Attorney Lisa Kelly says that while people can sue over anything, she thinks the City is legally in the clear. “As a general rule,” she says, “there are very few challenges to this kind of zoning that
Hope for compromise?
Wade Tremblay of Wade Apartments, who has often worked with the City on planning issues, says the effects will be long-term. The apartment projects that got underway before the preservation vote will probably meet student demand for the next five years or so, Tremblay says.
After that, he says growth at UVA (projected to be an increase of 3,000 to 6,000 students over the next five to 10 years) would create more demand for new student housing. Then Tremblay predicts that the BAR could limit demolition and new construction. BAR guidelines forbid the body from approving demolition of buildings designated as “contributing” to Charlottesville’s historic fabric; developers will be able to appeal BAR decisions to City Council, which has more freedom to consider the economic and social benefits of a development beyond what specific buildings might be lost.
“If you look at the history of the BAR, they don’t issue many demolition permits,” says Tremblay. “What you will not see in the future is developers working together to assemble two, three and four properties to do a significant project. That’s not altogether bad, it’s just not going to achieve the density that was envisioned for that neighborhood.”
Councilors say they’re hoping for some future compromises. One proposal on the table is a system that would rate every house in the area on a 1-4 scale, with 1 equal to “most historic” and 4 equal to “not historic.” The BAR could use such a system to grant more demolition permits, but some doubt such a rating system could actually work.
“I think we can have a historic district and move forward with development,” says Brown. “I don’t think they are mutually exclusive. I’m not comfortable with wholesale demolition, because eventually we won’t have anything left. Once you lose it, it’s gone.
“But,” he says, “if this ordinance really does stifle any further development, we’ll have to look at it again and say we’re not meeting the goals of the City.”