Several Charlottesville City Council candidates say they want to improve relations between the city and the University of Virginia. But, UVa and its students create challenges for the city, they told students and other residents at a candidate forum Thursday.
“Too many in our community are cost-burdened … I think the university is contributing to part of that,” said Heather Hill, a Democratic candidate and president of the North Downtown Residents Association.
At various points throughout the forum, hosted by the Washington Literary Society and Debating Union at UVa, the six candidates who will appear on the ballot next month talked about housing and development within the context of city-university relations.
Voters will choose two candidates on Nov. 7. Councilor Kristin Szakos chose not to run for re-election, and Councilor Bob Fenwick lost to Hill and School Board member Amy Laufer in the June Democratic primary.
“We have a housing issue where there is student housing continually being built, and we have gentrification issues in the city,” said independent candidate Nikuyah Walker. “I think having some conversations about the disparities in housing and how UVa contributes to them is definitely a conversation we need to have.”
Walker also mentioned university employee wages, saying it’s an issue that students and community members still need to raise with university officials.
“I think one of the reasons we have such a severe housing crisis, particularly for working people on the lower end of the economic spectrum, is because of the amount of building that’s been going on to accommodate UVa students,” said Paul Long, another independent candidate.
Throughout the year, candidates have faced questions about the need for more housing in the community, particularly for extremely low-income and low- to middle-income residents.
Some candidates have suggested that Albemarle County needs to take on a bigger role in permitting development. Long said Thursday that he thinks future student-housing developments need to be placed in the county.
“If I’m elected, I’m going to vote against any proposal to build any further UVa housing in the city of Charlottesville,” Long said. “I think that space should be used on housing for residents of Charlottesville.”
Hill said she thinks the university and city’s interests are intertwined to some degree.
“We need to remove this bubble around the university,” she said. “I feel like, right now, it’s so enclosed and independent of our broader community — and frankly, out of touch with it.”
She added: “But we do share our community. It’s in the interest of the city that the university is successful,” and vice versa.
Hill noted that, because UVa President Teresa A. Sullivan is stepping down next year, she would prioritize developing a relationship with the incoming president, Jim Ryan, a dean at Harvard University.
“If I’m elected to council, one of the first things I’d like to do before he even begins is to initiate some conversations about how we can change the way we work together,” she said.
Kenny Jackson, an independent candidate, alleged that the public is left in the dark about what’s being built in the city around the university.
Jackson said he would like for city, county and university officials to hold public quarterly meetings to discuss area issues and review what’s being developed.
“A lot of our council members have decided they’d rather work with the big developers and the big money and throw it on UVa,” he said. “I would like all three entities to sit down in front of people and really discuss this.”
Laufer agreed that all three institutions need to work together. “We need a real vision-oriented approach with the county and UVa,” she said.
Near the beginning of the forum, Laufer said she supports the city’s ongoing multimillion-dollar initiative to upgrade and alter the West Main Street streetscape.
“They’ve put a lot of money into West Main Street,” she said. “Maybe that’s controversial, but what we’re trying to do is connect UVa to the Downtown Mall in a different way. And I think that’s something very exciting.”
Though much of the new development on West Main has been hotels and student-oriented apartments, Laufer said she would like for more affordable housing in the corridor that could accommodate university employees.
“If they were able to live in those buildings there, they could be walking [to work]. ... And our roads would have less congestion,” she said.
John Hall, an independent candidate, said he thinks holding events like Thursday’s debate help to improve relations between the residents of the collective community.
“This forum tonight represents a good relationship between the university community, Charlottesville and Albemarle County.”