A city divided: Should West Main be rezoned?

The Flats required a 101-foot special use permit. Staff photo The Flats required a 101-foot special use permit. Staff photo

Locals voiced concerns about a potential zoning amendment in the plans for West Main Street at a public forum in front of the City Planning Commission and City Council December 8.

Amendments to the current zoning laws could include dividing West Main into east and west sections with the bridge by the Amtrak station being the dividing line, rather than the current division of north and south sides of the street. Building height west of the bridge would be limited to 75 feet, and on the east side, where most historic buildings still exist, the limit would be 52 feet. No special use permits permitting additional height would be allowed for either side.

For some, preserving the historic aesthetic of West Main is a family matter.

Scott Peyton, a lifelong Charlottesville and Albemarle County resident and partial owner of West Main’s Hampton Inn & Suites, says he’s okay with new developments popping up on the street, “but only to the extent that [they do] not compromise the integrity of the context” in which they are built and, for him, that context goes a long way back.

Born in 1848, Peyton’s great-grandfather, Francis Bradley Peyton, was the station master for the city of Charlottesville for several decades. He worked for Southern Railway from about 1874 to 1929 and lived on three acres of land across from the current Amtrak station. Though Peyton never knew his great-grandfather, the land and mid-19th century home were passed down for generations. Peyton remembers many Sundays after church spent visiting family in that home.

His father, Francis Peyton III, operated Peyton Pontiac Cadillac, an automobile business on West Main for 40 years. Sitting now in its place is The Flats @ West Village, a 101-foot-tall apartment complex that required a special use permit and became the center of much controversy once it was built and locals saw how tall 101 feet actually is. The Flats had trouble leasing its 622 bedrooms before it opened in summer 2014, according to a previous report by C-VILLE, which said the complex had leased about 9 percent of its space, or 56 bedrooms, in January. Flats manager Gina Sacco says 99 percent of the rooms are currently leased.

“I realize that times change,” Peyton says, and “I certainly appreciate and respect the right that people have to develop their property according to what they’re entitled to do,” but he remains in favor of proposed zoning changes, especially height restrictions, that would preserve the character of everything West Main used to be.

However, a number of others hope the zoning on West Main will stay the way it is. Earlier this fall, the Planning Commission recommended the amendment for approval, but City Council deferred the decision for further discussion of the zone in which Midway Manor would fit.

Midway Manor, an affordable housing community for seniors, is located on Ridge Street and has been zoned with downtown properties since the mid-’70s to have 101-foot use. Speaking on behalf of Midway Manor Associates, Valerie Long, the chair of Williams Mullen’s land use practice, says the complex is currently 48 feet tall, and if it were to be zoned with West Main East, which only allows for a 52-foot height, “not even a single story could be added,” which would throw a wrench in any plans for expansion.

Planning commissioners voted 4-2 to have the property included in zoning plans for West Main East.

Keith Woodard, a prominent figure in Charlottesville’s sustainability community and owner of Woodard Properties, says the current proposal for rezoning could disallow the growing trend of rooftop gardens, which are heavily desired by urban dwellers. Greg Powe of Powe Studio Architects in Charlottesville agrees, adding “Roofs should not be viewed as only a functional cap to the building.” He encourages developers to use rooftops and valuable real estate for the good of the community.

Part of the amendment requires bicycle parking at new developments, and the front wall of all buildings would have to be at least 10 feet from the front of the property line to provide more room for plants and trees. It would also close the loophole that currently allows penthouses to be built above maximum height limits.

The Planning Commission has recommended that City Council approve the rezoning, and council will take the final vote December 21.

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