Get out of the zone: Outdated zoning in Rose Hill leaves some lots vacant

A property at 902 Forest St. in Rose Hill (above) was put up for auction in 2003, and eventually demolished. It’s now one of 18 vacant lots in the neighborhood. PC: Staff Photo A property at 902 Forest St. in Rose Hill (above) was put up for auction in 2003, and eventually demolished. It’s now one of 18 vacant lots in the neighborhood. PC: Staff Photo

Back in 2013, Julie (who asked that we not use her last name) bought a house in Rose Hill, a small, historically African American neighborhood roughly bordered by Preston Avenue, Madison Avenue, and Harris Street. The house had gone into foreclosure during the housing market crash, and had been neglected for a while. 

After determining that bringing the house up to code would be too expensive, Julie considered demolishing it and turning it into a small brewery. But the property was zoned B-3, a type of intensive commercial zoning that would require her to provide more parking than seemed feasible for the mostly residential neighborhood, along with other requirements like making retail sales and staying open till 1am.

While a majority of Rose Hill is zoned for single-family residences, and parcels along Preston Avenue are zoned for mixed-use, others are still zoned B-3 for major commercial uses—what planning commissioner Lyle Solla-Yates calls “our worst zoning.”

Business zoning “is the least efficient…and least useful for the city,” says Solla-Yates. “It’s been thought for a long time that mixed-use is the better way to do cities. If you have housing above and businesses below, that’s more pedestrian-friendly, welcoming, [and] prettier. And it gives you housing in areas where you need housing.”

That was the intention of another owner in the neighborhood, Julie says, who originally submitted a site plan for an office space below, and residential above. “But his site was not zoned for that,” she says, “so he went back to [Neighborhood Development Services] with an office space.”

Julie ultimately decided to submit a site plan for a small warehouse, but after learning from a neighbor that the site planning process could take months to complete, she called it quits.

Lately, she’s noticed more and more houses like hers being demolished in Rose Hill—“and the lot just sits there.” There are currently 18 vacant lots in the neighborhood, six of which are zoned B3. 

“I’ve attended a couple of [site plan reviews],” she says, “and it just seems like they don’t go forward.”

Some projects run into issues with sewer and property lines, Julie says, but others, like hers, have faced restrictions with zoning. 

Since the ’90s, the city has gotten rid of “almost all of its B zoning,” Solla-Yates says. He guesses that it kept B zoning in Rose Hill because “it was small.”  

He adds that the city “hasn’t given a lot of love and attention to Rose Hill.” Like 10th and Page and Fifeville, two other historically African American neighborhoods, “there’s some pretty serious social justice issues with [Rose Hill] not getting infrastructure and services at the same level as the rest of the city for decades,” Solla-Yates says. “Which is also part of why we’re a little bit slow to think about [its zoning] seriously.” 

The city’s upcoming zoning overhaul will get rid of business zoning, as well as other out-of-date zoning practices, Solla-Yates says, and will have an “integrated look at zoning and housing.” While consultants are still in the process of reviewing the zoning, he predicts that business zoning will be replaced with mixed-use.

“Business-only zoning doesn’t have a future in Charlottesville,” Solla-Yates says. “We are not fine-tuning the existing zoning. We are replacing the zoning. We want something better, and we’ve waited long enough.” 

Read Brodhead, a zoning administrator with Neighborhood Development Services, agrees that mixed-use zoning is generally more practical, but doesn’t think the city should get rid of business zoning entirely, as “there’s traditionally been a lot of commercial uses of it.” He points out, for example, that MarieBette Café & Bakery, on Rose Hill Drive, is zoned B-3, and that the four vacant parcels across the street from it (also zoned B-3) could also be used for a business “that’s significant for the neighborhood.”

But until any type of new zoning is approved, Julie remains concerned about the future of Rose Hill. Every week, she receives phone calls and postcards from developers wanting to buy her property, and is ultimately concerned that a large developer will come in and buy up all of the vacant lots and create a large commercial business, since a developer would have “the time and resources to go through the whole approval process.”

“That would just be out of scale with the neighborhood,” she says. 

And as for the other property owners with deteriorating houses or vacant lots, “they are sitting there and wondering what other people are going to do,” she says. 

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adrian pols

The real difficulty with B3 isn’t the zoning designation itself, but the fact that the area was zoned B3 some time ago, probably with the expectation of many of the older houses being torn down and the lots consolidated. But that didn’t happen and many of the currently vacant lots cited are simply too small for B3 use, what with the off street parking requirements. In fact, mixed use is allowed in B3, as activities, such as residential, are lower level uses subsumed within the B3 category and the owners of those lots are free to build houses there. Of… Read more »