The first phase of the redevelopment of the former Barnes Lumber site in Crozet took another step forward Tuesday.
The Albemarle County Planning Commission voted 6-0 to recommend approval of a rezoning of about 6.24 acres of the site from heavy industry and commercial to Downtown Crozet District to allow for mixed use development.
Despite full support of the commissioners present Tuesday night (Commissioner Karen Firehock was absent), many of them expressed mild hesitations.
Commissioner Daphne Spain said this project had some of the same issues as the redevelopment of Southwood Mobile Home Park.
“We seem to be supporting this project with very little challenge in a way we did not ultimately support the Southwood development,” she said.
At a meeting last week, commissioners approved two resolutions about ongoing concerns with the Southwood proposal. Commissioners Bruce Dotson and Jennie More were not present at that meeting.
The county and the developer of Barnes Lumber in June signed a performance agreement, where the county, through the Economic Development Authority, will provide $1.6 million in cash for construction of the plaza and approximately $1.6 million in tax rebates through synthetic tax increment financing.
An agreement for $3.2 million also was signed with Southwood on the same night.
The redevelopment of the Barnes Lumber site has been included in the Crozet Master Plan. A proposal was submitted in 2010 but did not move forward. Crozet New Town Associates purchased the property from the bank and reactivated the rezoning application in 2014 for the whole property.
In 2017, the rezoning request was modified to focus on the first phase of the site — the 6.24-acre portion — including a proposed civic plaza.
There have been more than 50 meetings with the community over the years regarding the redevelopment.
“Suffice it to say, they have had a high level of interaction with the community in various forms,” said David Benish, the county’s interim director of planning. “That has included updates with the CCAC, the Crozet Community Advisory Committee, and ongoing work with the Downton Crozet Initiative group.”
The current proposed project would include commercial and retail space, a hotel and approximately 52 residential units in its first phase.
The Downtown Crozet District is a type of form-based code applied to the Crozet downtown and establishes development requirements that created a more urban, “downtown” form of development, according to the staff report.
Possible issues staff cited were increased traffic and increased demand for parking. A potential impact on schools, particularly Crozet Elementary, also was a concern, but that was not as high of a concern yet, as only about six elementary school students are anticipated to live in the residential part of the project.
Through the performance agreement, the applicant will fund a $2 million local match for a Virginia Department of Transportation Revenue Sharing Program project to extend the road from Crozet Square to Hilltop Street and extend High Street and Library Avenue.
In a proffer, the developer has stated they will undertake or fund up to $48,000 for a traffic study, which county staff members believe will be an “invaluable benefit to transportation planning in the Crozet area and will inform transportation improvement decisions in the future,” according to the staff report.
Commissioner Tim Keller noted the lack of community members in the audience and the fact that no one spoke during public comment, and he asked the developer how they managed to reduce concerns around traffic.
“I think one of the things that perhaps is relieving some of the pressure on us is that this connector road will actually facilitate a lot of traffic from the eastern neighborhoods ... they can now come directly downtown,” said developer Frank Stoner, with Milestone Partners.
Benish said the traffic evaluation for the project was completed in 2016 and did not assume that the connection between Crozet Avenue and Hilltop Street to the east would be built.
The proposal did not include any affordable housing.
Stoner said the demand is high for commercial space downtown, and they are only planning between 30-50 residential units in the first phase.
“The logistics of creating affordable housing, for example, in that environment, are very, very challenging,” he said. “That’s why I think our primary focus on residential will be in phase two, where we have a lot more space to work with.”
Spain said the juxtaposition with this project, the Southwood redevelopment and proposed projects on Rio Road in terms of traffic impacts and “who benefits and who loses” was causing her difficulties.
“I have no problem with his project at all ... but it’s really difficult for me to reconcile the ideas,” she said.
Commissioner Julian Bivins said the Barnes Lumber area always seemed like “a place wanting to happen” and that he was “thrilled.” But with this and other development in the area, there is a sense of displacement happening for some Crozet residents, he said.
“As in with the Southwood project, when new development comes into a place that is an icon across many generations ... that hopefully the application will be sensitive to the fact of how do we invite the Crozatians in who have been here for many generations and that they don’t feel like they’re being yet again displaced from a location that they have a deep connection to,” he said.
More, who represents the White Hall district where Crozet is located, said the community is looking for a comprehensive look at the traffic issues and larger solutions. She said traffic is only going to get worse, even without this proposal, with nearby projects such as the opening of The Vue, an 126-unit apartment complex, and ongoing work on Pleasant Green, which will likely have about 50 single-family attached units in its first phase.
“I want to acknowledge it, but I also want to respect that I think the applicant is taking on a lot of initiative to come up with solutions and recognizing the issue,” she said.
She said that, in terms of parking, discussions around transit are ongoing, but she pointed to the autonomous shuttle serving the area and said there will need to be ongoing discussions. She said she was happy with the ongoing community engagement.
Dotson said he had hoped members of the public would be at the meeting to help him understand the project from the point of view of residents.
“That gives a lot of credibility to a proposal when the public sticks with it, so I’m in some ways disappointed in that,” he said.
He said he was surprised that there hasn’t been concerns expressed about unknowns with this project and that there are a number of loose ends, such as the traffic study, parking study, market study, architectural guidelines and the design of the plaza.
“The county is sort of turning a corner in that more development is going to have participation agreements involved, and that’s not something we’re used to thinking about and sequencing at a detailed level,” he said. “Maybe it’s not our business to be deep into those kinds of concerns, but at the same time it’s always a package.”
Later during another discussion, More said she was happy that community members involved with the proposal were not present because she thought commissioners gave “less than enthusiastic support” and that the project was “received with an element of coldness that I don’t think community members would have appreciated.”