A new form of proposed zoning has some in the city on edge, worried that it could be used to force out poorer residents.
Nearly 200 people attended an information session last week at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center to learn about form-based code, a different type of zoning ordinance that focuses on a building’s size and style instead of its use. The new code could accelerate development, while dramatically changing the appearance, function and occupancy of buildings within the Ridge Street, Belmont and Martha Jefferson neighborhoods.
The meeting, entitled Gentrification, Zoning and Form-Based Code, was an attempt to shed light on the city’s recent move to develop a form-based code that could be applied to many of the residential units—and numerous other mixed-use and commercial buildings—within the Strategic Investment Area. It was sponsored by Legal Aid Justice Center, the local NAACP chapter and the Public Housing Association of Residents.
The SIA is a large swath of land south and east of downtown, and “one of the only remaining areas in Charlottesville with significant (re)-developable land available, especially so close to downtown,” according to a 271-page report issued in 2013. In 2012, about 3,000 people were living in the SIA, with a median household income of $28,309. The current median income for the city is $84,100, according to the Virginia Housing Development Authority.
Kim Rolla, an attorney with Legal Aid, told the crowd last week that from 2000 to 2012, African-Americans shifted from making up 51 percent of the population in the SIA to 38 percent. “That means that 180 black residents left that area,” Rolla told the audience, adding that in that same time period, 429 white people moved into the SIA. Rolla suggested that this shift could be the first signs of neighborhood gentrification.
On February 10, the city issued a request for proposal to secure a planning firm to develop a form-based code that it can implement in the SIA. The bidding process closes on March 2, and a form-based code is expected to be complete within 12 months of a contract’s signing.
Within the bid request is a promise to the area’s poorer residents: “It is essential that lower-income residents and people of color understand how zoning issues may impact the development or redevelopment of the Phase I SIA Area, and understand the range of choices that may be available for successful implementation of a Form Based Code.”
Dr. William Harris, a former chairman of the city’s planning commission, spoke alongside Rolla at last week’s event, telling the crowd that form-based codes are a pared down, prescribed version of a city’s traditional Euclidean code, which typically is more complicated and lengthy, and requires more continuous government oversight. A form-based code allows private building companies to move forward more quickly with projects and not ask the city for permission as often, said Harris. “Form-based codes are designed to make it—in a nutshell—easier for developers to do things by-right,” said Harris. “It cuts out the middleman, i.e. the local community, almost exclusively.”
Charlottesville’s current zoning code separates buildings by use—residential or commercial, for example—while also stipulating their density—how many people can live in them or occupy them at any given time.
Form-based code focuses more on the shape and appearance of buildings—how tall or where they are, for example. Many cities that implement such codes first hold public input meetings called charrettes, said Rolla.
Councilor Kathy Galvin said the form-based code would only apply to buildings in the SIA currently zoned “Downtown Extended,” which can be built by-right as high as nine stories tall. The new code would regulate their size “to be more respectful of adjacent existing neighborhoods along the edge of the SIA,” said Galvin in an e-mail, adding that the new code would specifically benefit lower-income residents.
“Form-based codes are absolutely compatible with incentives to promote affordable housing, from allowing more variety in lot sizes and building types to expedited reviews and diminished development fees for projects with affordable housing.” Galvin stressed that community input is essential to this process.
Rolla raised concerns last week that the charrette process of gathering public input might be well-intentioned, but could result in only the desires of developers and planners being represented. “One of the common questions in the literature is: Who is participating in the charrettes and who controls the outcome?” she said. “Basically the idea being that—my apologies to planners—that planners are not sensitive to power dynamics sometimes. That there may be elite groups that are able to control the charrette process, whose reviews are more thoroughly reflected in the outcome, and those tend to be elites with education, money and experience in formal processes.”
Dr. A’Lelia Henry served on the SIA Steering Committee in 2013. She lives in public housing and says that although the SIA process heard from many public housing residents, the eventual SIA plan does not reflect many of their requests. She fears a similar process could result from the implementation of form-based code.
“When you do these things, why do you always have to have permanent losers?” asks Henry. “We’re the only ones really being asked to give up something. We’re being asked to give up our land. We’re being asked to give up public housing to live in a mixed-income area, where we’re surrounded by a bunch of white folks.”
Pete Armetta, president of the Ridge Street Neighborhood Association, says several other neighborhood associations, along with the IX Art Park and the city, will host an educational workshop on form-based code for area residents and the public the third week of March.
Affordable housing effect
Under a local ordinance, developers who request a special-use permit to increase the number of people who live on a property either have to make a percentage of those new units available to lower-income residents or pay into the city’s Affordable Housing Fund. Critics say with form-based code, developers may not have to ask for as many special-use permits and could skip paying into the fund or building affordable units.
• Since its creation in 2007, every developer has paid into the fund.
• The city also pays an annual average of $1.3 million into the fund.
• The city has set a goal to have 15 percent of all housing be affordable by 2025.
• Over the last six years, affordable housing in the city has decreased slightly from 10.5 percent to 10.06 percent, largely because of the influx in market rate units along West Main Street.