Monticello Road is a community arts project in Charlottesville, Virginia. Through photography and a series of public events and conversations, we explore how an art can be an essential, integral and everyday part of a healthy community.

About | Summary | Events | Media | Backers | Contact/Sign Up | Donate

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A Challenging Site with Potential

The site is at the SE corner of Monticello and Carlton Roads. (Charlottesville GIS)

The Belmont Carlton Neighborhood Association received a visit from Christopher Henry of Stony Point Design/Build. He was there to talk about an idea—still very much in the preliminary stage—of developing a small cluster of lots totaling about 2/3 acre at the corner of Carlton and Monticello Roads. This blog visited that site a few years ago on a backyard biophilia safari.

Before I go any further, I would like to praise Mr Henry for two things that, should it go forward, will make the project more likely to succeed with the Planning Commission as well as with its future neighbors.

First of all, he obviously read Charlottesville’s Comprehensive Plan and came up with a project that aligns with the City’s goals and values, particularly as respects diverse housing opportunities. Second, and most important, he’s talking early: meeting with planners and listening to the community BEFORE getting invested in a specific execution or set of plans.

I will not reproduce his graphics because they are preliminary, and although he may see them as just thinking with a pencil, images have an enduring quality that can focus people into a vision that is just one of infinite possibilities.

I did not have the impression that he’s locked in at all, which is good because there are some issues with his plan. But that’s ok—it’s early and we can all learn from one another. If more developers took the approach that he’s taking (doing his homework up front and listening throughout) we would have a better city.

The site is zoned Industrial, which allows many uses but not basic housing--but that can, and probably should, change.
(Charlottesville GIS)

Essentially, he wants to build a group of small houses on lots that are much smaller than the typical and would be correspondingly affordable. He has correctly identified a gap in the market: single-family homes for starter families—perhaps two bedrooms at 1000-1200 square feet. I should point out that when Belmont was built, that house size was the norm. He would pack about eight such lots into the site. That’s good density, though more than the nearby R1 but I should again point out that there are also R-3 town homes south of the site, which are even more densely packed.

The sale price would be in the $250K range, which would yield about $1500 for a monthly payment. Working backward, that's 30% of the income of a family making $60k/year, which is 77% AMI for a family of four, so it would definitely be considered workforce housing, which we desperately need.

This price point is crucial to the project’s appeal and will need to be watched: what looks good now may not be so when the model is further developed but so far, so good. It any rate, it's a refreshing response to the over-scaled Belmont Steps across the street.

This site has issues though.

That can be said about every piece of land, but this one is particularly challenging, which is probably why nothing has been built there yet. First of all, even a view from space reveals that it is zoned Industrial. A change to Residential use would require approval from the Planning Commission and the City Council, which is never a sure thing. The project will have a much better chance on that front if the proactive approach I outlined at the top continues. In fact, that rezone probably necessitated the attention to the Comp Plan and his outside-the-box market approach. That's how the system is supposed to work.

The pink areas are designated critical slop--almost the entire site. (Charlottesville GIS)

The real challenge comes from the site’s steep grade, dropping about forty feet front to back of a very small area. If it is even viable to build there at all, multiple permissions will be required. The developer and the City will need to look at the Critical Slope question very carefully.

The very best way to prevent erosion is to leave it as-is: in trees. If it must be developed, then the next best thing, rather than mitigating impacts (which should happen too) is to limit them. The plan he showed included parking in the rear, accessed from a steep common driveway, which would mean a lot of pavement and be a nasty flume when it rains.

I imagine there could be market reasons for having rear parking and the New Urbanist model favors that too but this site is unique. Moving the off-street parking to the front would be in keeping with the other houses on both Monticello and Carlton. Or perhaps it can be eliminated. Either approach would remove the impervious parking lot, the steep access road and permit the back yards to be densely planted and treed. In fact, with the invasives removed, it could be very densely planted, which is the best run-off and soil retention strategy yet devised. And it would be a very significant cost savings.

The site is not exactly old-growth forest at present but it is serving an important ecological function. I would recommend removing the invasives, increasing the trees and replacing them with long-living varieties that will hold the slope, capture run off and lock in carbon for a long time. 

I would personally love to live in a house whose rear windows look directly into the mid-tree canopy. That would be a highly appealing feature, especially given the homes’ near-downtown location.

The project was generally well received, which is no surprise. It is consistent with neighborhood values. Of course, that can change as the project develops, but what I’m seeing now has potential. I hope Mr Henry continues his proactive approach. I also hope that the City works closely with him to assure that good intentions translate into a positive result and that there be flexibility on issues like the location of parking. The affordability question will have to be a non-negotiable, though. The only reason to tolerate the environmental impact is to serve a broader smart-growth goal of affordable housing inside the urban core.

Great design happens in response to challenges and in the presence of constraints, not in the absence of them). The site possesses both in abundance but I’m glad he sees that as opportunity.It will be interesting to see the next iteration.

No comments: