Zoned out: How neighborhood associations and zoning regulations have shaped our city

Zoned out: How neighborhood associations and zoning regulations have shaped our city

In the early 1970s, City Council adopted a plan to turn Grady Avenue into a four-lane road running all the way from downtown to the bypass, with the goal of providing quick and easy access to I-64. Venable residents worried that the move would ruin their quiet neighborhood, and banded together to form what was later reported to be the city’s first neighborhood association.

They succeeded in defeating the plan (its remnant can be seen in the two turning lanes off Preston Avenue onto Grady), and association members were lauded in the press as “vigilant homeowners.” The experience showed residents how, through advocacy with city officials, they could use their neighborhood associations to shape the kind of city they wanted to have.

Today, there are 32 neighborhood associations, representing communities across Charlottesville. Like the Venable association, they often arose out of a desire to protect and preserve a neighborhood’s character.

But because race and housing have always been connected in Charlottesville, as elsewhere, neighborhood advocacy came with racial implications. When city officials neglected black desires and prioritized white ones, white neighborhoods ultimately were preserved as quiet enclaves of single-family homes, where property values increased over time, while black neighborhoods were left vulnerable to disruption.

Now, Charlottesville’s challenge is to address this legacy of inequality. A post-August 12 soul-searching has focused renewed attention on housing issues, just as the city’s government is undertaking a plan that could guide its future development patterns for decades. In December, as part of the years-long process to develop the city’s new Comprehensive Plan, the city Planning Commission unveiled a new land-use map that calls for zoning laws to permit higher-density housing across Charlottesville.

“The city is 10.4 square miles and has no authority to annex,” says Alex Ikefuna, director of Neighborhood Development Services. “The city cannot grow horizontally, and the community has to come to terms on how to manage its growth and accommodate its growing population.”

In the past, Charlottesville’s growth has been warped, with development directed toward a handful of neighborhoods while others remained untouchable. This continued even as late as 2003, says Planning Commission member Rory Stolzenberg, when the city moved to promote higher-density development in the West Main Street corridor.

“We took this very large, pent-up demand that wanted really to grow everywhere, and we forced it to spill out in a very specific, directed way, directly at the heart of two historically African American neighborhoods,” he says, referring to the 10th and Page and Fifeville neighborhoods.

Through decades of mistreatment, he says, those neighborhoods “really haven’t been subjected to the same sort of zoning protections as many historically white and wealthy neighborhoods have been.”

In discussions over the new plan, Planning Commission and City Council members have clashed over how much density is too much. The debate is a modern iteration of past zoning discussions, and it inevitably will hinge on the question that has long animated Charlottesville’s neighborhood associations: How, and how much, should neighborhoods be preserved in their current forms?

Alex Ikefuna, director of Neighborhood Development Services, says the city needs to find a way to accommodate its growing population. Photo: Amy Jackson Smith

The “good” neighborhood

In the 1970s, the North Downtown Neighborhood Association was formed to stop the construction of a large office and apartment complex that residents considered to be “not in keeping with the character of the neighborhood.” The association took the case all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court; it lost, but by then the delays had caused the developer to drop the project.

Neighborhood associations soon proliferated throughout the city, monitoring home values, encouraging housing upkeep, organizing leaf pickups, and throwing seasonal parties. They advocated for reduced traffic, and focused on security and reducing noise. Associations also developed neighborhood watch programs, complete with block captains to monitor and report suspicious activities, even going so far as to hire off-duty city cops as private security. They closely followed issues at City Hall that would affect their way of life, and considered themselves both watchdogs and advisers of city government.

The organizations didn’t spontaneously become important: Their influence was possible because they didn’t take themselves lightly. They were undergirded by constitutions, boards of directors, and annual dues. In 1975, the individual associations came together under a larger organization known as the Charlottesville Federation of Neighborhood Associations, with a stated purpose of working “for a better quality of life in the neighborhoods and in the entire city.”

But better quality of life for whom?

In 1913, an ad ran in the Daily Progress encouraging people to move to the new neighborhood of Fry’s Spring, which the ad said had all the modern conveniences: sewer, water, electricity, and, “the proper restrictions to make it the most desirable suburb in the entire South.”

As in most Southern cities, Charlottesville’s neighborhoods in the early 1900s were highly segregated. In 1912, City Council overrode a mayor’s veto and unanimously passed an ordinance prohibiting racial mixing in residential areas. Many neighborhoods also used racial covenants when selling houses to prevent black (and sometimes also Jewish) residents from moving in, as journalist Jordy Yager has reported.

Fry’s Spring’s developers created it as an exciting, exclusive enclave, with a ‘Wonderland’ building that had bowling alleys and billiard parlors, a bandstand, room for dancing, and the only swimming pool in the area. All of these amenities were meant for white people. The founder of Fry’s Spring Beach Club, the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development Services said in a 2010 historical survey, “was an avowed white supremacist.” It wasn’t until the 1970s that black people were allowed to use the pool.

Despite its history of explicit racism, Fry’s Spring has often been held up as an ideal neighborhood. In the 2010 NDS survey, historian Margaret Peters said residents of the neighborhood “historically have represented the backbone of the Charlottesville community,” while the name Fry’s Spring “conjures images of what most would like to think are the essence of traditional American communities.”

Fry’s Spring was not alone, of course. In the Daily Progress’ 1985 report on Charlottesville’s neighborhoods, the paper described the expensive Lewis Mountain neighborhood as a “quiet oasis” in the midst of the university community, “virtually isolated” from the development going on around it. Ninety percent of residents were white. The same report praised the Barracks-Rugby neighborhood as housing “some of the most successful and affluent” people in the area, with 1940s-era housing giving the area a “grandeur” of a “bygone era.” At the time, the neighborhood was 94 percent white.

A history of neglect

Black neighborhoods, meanwhile, have historically been ignored, displaced, and overruled. In a 1995 oral history of the Ridge Street neighborhood, longtime black residents Joan and Theresa Woodfolk recounted a pattern of neglect by the city, and described feeling as if they had to beg for basic services. When wealthy white people moved out of the neighborhood, they said, city government stopped caring about the concerns of its residents.

In the book Urban Renewal and the End of Black Culture in Charlottesville, authors James Saunders and Renae Shackelford describe this practice as “municipal neglect.” In looking at requests by black neighborhoods over the years, it appears to be a pattern.

In 1976, representatives of the predominantly black Ridge Street and Rose Hill neighborhoods wrote to City Council describing their need for public works. Ridge Street Neighborhood Association President Mary Page said her neighborhood had been fighting for improvements for 15 years without success, and that many residents were still not receiving garbage service or home mail delivery.

Rose Hill residents attached pages of signatures and noted that “no significant repairs have been accomplished in over a decade.” They asked for sidewalks, repaved roads, lighting, and drainage, and described contacting various city officials and being brushed aside because their area was not considered a priority. Listing eight streets requiring public investment, they closed their letter by saying, “We are aware that our community is not in the exclusive category, yet this does not diminish our pride of ownership and desire for equal consideration as citizens and taxpayers.”

In response, Nancy O’Brien, the city’s first woman mayor, said she didn’t think all of the repairs were necessary. Indifferent responses from city officials were not new: Saunders and Shackelford found that in the 1950s and ’60s, “there was little that blacks could do to influence public policies even if the policies impacted primarily upon them.”

Preston Avenue (pictured at left in 1916), was once lined with homes where African Americans lived. Many of those houses were razed after the city decided to turn Preston into a commercial corridor. Later, Preston was widened from two lanes to four, further isolating the black neighborhoods on either side. Photos: Rufus W. Holsinger, Albert & Shirley Small Special Collections Library; Skyclad Aerial

Zoning disparities

Ultimately, disparities between which neighborhoods were protected and which were neglected became codified in zoning laws.

Zoning dictates how land can be used, and is one of the main ways to control how a city grows. Traditionally, districts have been divided between residential, business, and industrial, but as cities have become more complex, so have the zoning districts. The results can often feel permanent, if not altogether natural.

Inequities in zoning go back to the beginning. The city created its first zoning map in 1929. According to the 2016 Blue Ribbon Commission report on race, early zoning restricted businesses from encroaching on white residential areas but not on black ones. As a result, within a few years, industries like Monticello Dairy, City Laundry, and the Triangle Service Station appeared along Preston Avenue, disrupting the predominantly black neighborhoods of Kellytown and Tinsleytown, in the area known today as Rose Hill.

It was only one of many incidences of displacement and removal for black Charlottesville residents. In 1919, the majority-black area known as McKee Row had been demolished to make way for the whites-only Jackson Park. Black neighborhoods were later razed at the future sites of Lane High School (now the Albemarle County Office Building) and the present-day City Hall, in addition to Vinegar Hill. As longtime community activist Theresa Jackson-Price said in Urban Renewal and the End of Black Culture in Charlottesville, “We just stay on the fringe of the redevelopment all the time.”

As the city’s neighborhood associations developed, they seized on zoning to create the neighborhood character they wanted. But city leaders’ treatment of zoning requests varied by neighborhood. In the summer of 1978, a group of black residents from 10th and Page came before the Planning Commission with a petition of 230 signatures opposing a rezoning of a piece of land between Preston and West avenues from residential to intensive commercial use. The commission overrode their concerns.

Less than three months later, white residents on North First Street asked for 20 properties to be downzoned from high- to moderate-density residential, so the houses couldn’t be used as multifamily rentals. Planning Commission Vice Chairman Lucius Bracey Jr., who had voted to override the 10th and Page residents’ concerns, told the North First Street residents that they should be “congratulated and saluted” for their work in saving their neighborhood.

McKee Row was a majority-black community just west of the Albemarle County Courthouse downtown. After complaints that the houses were “ramshackle,” and boys from the area were “hanging around the Levy Opera House,” the county sold the property to the city in 1914, on the condition that a public school for white children be built there. The homes were demolished in 1919, after Paul Goodloe McIntire bought the property to erect a statue and whites-only park in honor of Stonewall Jackson (today’s Court Square Park). Photo courtesy Edward Lay, from The Architecture of Jefferson Country

Charlottesville today

Today, Rose Hill residents say a lack of zoning protections over the years have left the area vulnerable to continued demolitions, with developers buying homes that have been in families for a century and tearing them down for new construction. (Residents are currently in the process of trying to get a historical designation to protect the neighborhood).

Meanwhile, city neighborhoods that started out white and relatively wealthy, such as Fry’s Spring, Johnson Village, Lewis Mountain, Venable, Barracks-Rugby, and Greenbrier, have remained that way, in part because of a fateful decision by the City Council, formalized in 1991, to discourage construction of any types of housing there besides single-family homes.

In a zoning map released that year, the city created a new R-1A single-family zone, which affected around 4,500 parcels of land. This zoning designation allowed lots that had previously been too small for an R-1 single-family designation to now be included. This was known as downzoning, and it had to be done carefully. In early discussions, then-Deputy City Attorney Craig Brown cautioned council members that any such change in zoning would need to be justified and legally defensible.

The change had the stated goal of protecting neighborhood stability and encouraging homeownership, but even at the time there were opponents. William Harris, a Planning Commission member and the first dean of African American Affairs at the University of Virginia, called the single-family zoning exclusionary and argued it would make housing less affordable.

In prohibiting construction of new multifamily apartment buildings in much of the city, Harris said, the change also advanced the assumption that renting, and renters, were less valuable.

Today, housing activists and Planning Commission members say that strategy has contributed to one of the city’s most pressing problems, the lack of affordable housing.

It has also helped keep neighborhoods racially segregated. Many white neighborhoods that were restricted to single-family use with R-1A zoning originally developed when black people were not allowed to live in them. But even once explicitly segregationist policies faded away, few black Charlottesville residents could afford to move to those areas—in part because of severe income disparities and wealth lost through school segregation and the loss of black neighborhoods like Vinegar Hill. The problem only grew worse as home values increased throughout the years, especially since the single-family zone restricted the city’s housing stock. 

Planning Commission member Rory Stolzenberg says the higher levels of density the commission is proposing will help address the affordable housing crisis, increase economic diversity throughout the city, and allow for better infrastructure. Photo: Amy Jackson Smith

Challenge and opportunity

While zoning is influential, it is also malleable, and the way that a city develops is not absolute. Policies can be changed, and inequities can be addressed.

“We could be gently densifying all over the place in a way that spreads out the impacts evenly,” Stolzenberg says. “But instead we’ve decided to funnel this disruption and flow directly into black neighborhoods; places we see as undesirable or not worthy of protection, and so we treat them differently and force them to bear the brunt of everything we deem inconvenient.”

In the current discussions over the city’s new Comprehensive Plan and land-use map, some council members expressed skepticism over the increased density the Planning Commission is proposing, and the initial map was rejected in a January 5 meeting. Council members are likely not the only ones with doubts.

Brian Becker, president of the Fry’s Spring Neighborhood Association, says current association members care about affordable housing and welcome diversity (he points out that the neighborhood is zoned for Jackson-Via and Johnson elementary schools, both of which are majority black). But the association previously sought to downzone part of the neighborhood, out of concern about “rent-seeking property owners who don’t maintain their property.”

“I don’t think the NA is against density per se,” Becker said in an email. “What we are concerned with is the impacts of density (i.e. traffic, parking, noise, and litter.)”

And as Ned Michie, president of the Greenbrier Neighborhood Association, told Charlottesville Tomorrow: “I, and probably most people, very much like the idea of being able to walk or bike to a coffee shop, a barber shop, or a little grocery store. Yet, no doubt most people will be less happy when the reality comes in the form of a specific proposal that is deemed ‘too near’ one’s own house.”

Stolzenberg argues, though, that density isn’t inherently bad.

“When you have a higher density in a given area it means you can support better infrastructure like bus lines and bike lanes,” he says. “It means that you can support commercial businesses like a corner store or a neighborhood barber shop, all types of things we’ve heard from residents of Charlottesville across all lines that they’d like to see.”

Permitting higher density and moving on from Charlottesville’s rural past, Stolzenberg argues, also means “embracing the fact we are an urban area and a city, and then accepting that we are going to grow, that we’re willing to accept new neighbors, and that new neighbors aren’t necessarily a bad thing.”

For nearly 50 years, neighborhood associations have been active in shaping city policy, often through the zoning and land-use processes. They are a tool that residents use to bend political will to their desires. But when desires clash, who do city leaders listen to?

Historically, all across the United States, it has been white people who have decided how land is used and who is allowed to live where. Charlottesville has the chance to change this narrative. This is the challenge, and the opportunity for our town. It is up to us to shape the kind of city we want to be.

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