Charlottesville planners have decided that a proposed new type of zoning that would specify the type of buildings that are permitted on a parcel of land isn’t ready to be implemented.
The commission on Tuesday voted, 6-0, to table a proposed form-based code for a portion of the city’s Strategic Investment Area. Commissioner Gary Heaton was absent.
Form-based codes are land development regulations that replace conventional zoning and are based on specifying the form and mass of buildings and streets in relation to one another and public spaces.
All the commissioners said they supported some type of form-based code, but the proposal before them on Tuesday wasn’t ready for approval.
“We are not there,” Commissioner Lyle Solla-Yates said. “There’s so much here that is in draft [form].”
Sixteen people spoke against the proposal or urged the commission to delay it. One person spoke in favor, saying only that it has been on the books for several years.
City planner Brian Haluska said the code would “de-emphasize what’s going on in the buildings.”
The Strategic Investment Area covers an area bounded by Avon Street, Elliott Avenue, Ridge Street and the railroad tracks north of Garrett Street. It includes the subsidized housing development Friendship Court and public housing site Crescent Halls.
The code would apply to a roughly 80-acre portion of the 330-acre SIA. The newly designated area is focused around Ix Art Park and properties mostly to its northeast and northwest.
The process to designate the Strategic Investment Area started in 2012 and was soon followed by the development of a form-based code zoning ordinance for a portion of it. The process has been championed by Councilor Kathy Galvin, who is in the lame duck portion of her final term on council.
Supporters of form-based code and consultants hired by the city have said it will promote affordable housing, but speakers at Tuesday’s meeting disagreed.
The code would focus more on height and building type than density for zoning designations. Developers would be allowed to construct taller complexes as a bonus for providing affordable housing. The code wouldn’t include a maximum density under its three zoning designations.
Solla-Yates asked if some of the zoning designations could lead to fewer possible housing units than the existing zoning ordinance. Haluska said it’s uncertain and depends on how open space requirements are met.
“It’s hard to say at this point because you don’t know the design of the buildings and what people are going to do,” he said.
Haluska highlighted a concern about the code’s ability to provide affordable housing. Under the new regulations, developers can get one to four additional stories in building height for providing a certain number of affordable housing units at 50% and 60% of the area median income, which is about $50,000 in the city limits.
However, those units are only required to exist as a percentage of the units constructed in the additional height.
For example, a developer could propose a four-story building that would get two additional stories under the new code.
The first four stories could contain as many luxury apartment complexes as the developer can fit. They could then put a smaller number of units in the top of the building to cut down on the required number of affordable units.
“That means the developer could build one large penthouse unit in exchange for one affordable unit in the entire building,” said Travis Pietila of the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Maynard Sipe, a city land-use attorney, said he represents Monticello Associates, which owns Ix Art Park. He told the commission that the proposal won’t help affordable housing needs.
“Reducing density means you’re reducing the opportunity for housing,” he said. “Additional building height is being allowed if you build a certain number of affordable units. It would be more economical to just not build the additional height.”
Pietila said the city’s zoning ordinance needs to be updated, but officials need to ensure it’s done right.
“We understand the motivation to get better zoning in place as soon as possible,” he said. “But it’s also important to get the key points nailed down before this comes to a vote.”
Councilor-elect Michael Payne spoke at the hearing to address the “elephant in the room” of the proposal’s timeline.
For the proposal to come before the City Council ahead of the final meeting for Galvin and Councilors Wes Bellamy and Mike Signer, it required a Planning Commission recommendation at Tuesday’s meeting. Signer and Bellamy were absent on Tuesday.
Payne said the incoming council wants to work with the consultant and commission to hammer out an appropriate plan.
Galvin said she pushed to bring the proposal forward so it doesn’t fall to the wayside.
“Yeah I did push to get this going because it needed to see the light of day,” she said. “It wasn’t going to see a public hearing unless someone pushed for it.”
Joy Johnson, chair of the Public Housing Association of Residents, said that the proposal shouldn’t be considered until the comprehensive plan is updated.
“I’m saying delay,” Johnson said and turned toward councilors. “Kathy, I’m sorry that you’re leaving in December, but this plan can wait. It’s your baby, but it can wait.”
The city’s Comprehensive Plan, which is a guide for local land-use decisions, was last updated in 2013, and the zoning code hasn’t been substantially revised since 2003.
The plan update started in 2017, but likely won’t finish until 2021. The city awarded a $926,000 contract to Rhodeside and Harwell Inc. this month to finish the update, which the consultant expects to need 25 months to do.
Johnson was concerned about the impact on low-income residents.
“What impact will [form-based code] be on poor folks? Because when I look at what is being designed, all I see is height … but you only have minimum affordable housing,” she said.
Don Gathers also urged the commission to take its time with the proposal because it doesn’t properly improve affordable housing availability.
“I don’t think that we should rush through a process haphazardly with so many questions unanswered,” he said. “This doesn’t do anything to even approach our affordable housing needs.”