This is the full text of a letter I wrote to the Charlottesville Planning Commission regarding a development at the corner of Monticello Road and Carlton Road. Their is a reaction to an earlier version of this development [here]. A post about a backyard safari on the the site is [here].
Dear Planning Commission:
I’m writing in reference to the development project at 0 Carlton Road, which will require a Special Use Permit (SUP) and likely a Critical Slope waiver.
I’ve spoken to the developer several times over the past eight months. They have done their homework and they are generally correct in asserting that their project furthers the City’s comprehensive planning goals. Furthermore, they have been proactive in reaching out to the community and, consequently, the neighborhood seems generally in favor of the project (as am I) with some tactical reservations that need to be addressed. Obviously, what follows are only my own thoughts but I doubt most of them will be out of line with other feedback you read/hear.
Mixing commercial and residential on the site is in line with the Comprehensive Plan, the corridor’s current land use and also its history. Consider, for example, the tradition of corner stores with residence upstairs all along Monticello Road. In principle, their request is appropriate.
The developer is planning a mix of apartments (penciled for mid-market) and town homes (penciled for ultra-high-market). We accept that the City needs more housing density, which is the only way to perpetuate affordability—but the mix matters and needs to be watched. If the balance shifts toward more or exclusively luxury housing, the project’s support is likely to evaporate. The corridor is interesting specifically because of its mix of resident income—and that balance needs to be preserved. So far they are on a good track but it needs to be monitored.
We don’t love the prospect of more destination-service industry on the corridor but we also must acknowledge that it is the area’s past, present and future. However the scale matters greatly. 3,700 square feet is over-scaled and far out of line with the rest of the corridor. One neighbor observed that most Olive Garden restaurants are smaller than that. The oversized establishments that do exist have caused tension.
A business of that size on this challenging site could not easily park its employees (much less its customers), nor easily receive deliveries. I am generally in favor of vastly diminishing parking requirements (and will differ somewhat from my neighbors on that score) but I think the spatial mismatch is a bit extreme and should be reduced. Perhaps swapping in another apartment or two is the answer.
The renderings I’ve seen, which are obviously not binding, are reasonable for the neighborhood as it moves forward. As a condition of the SUP, you should request a written agreement to respect a 35’ (or thereabouts) cap on front-elevation building height. This is in keeping with the surrounding R1/R3 areas and will allow the requested density without being wildly disproportional. Note that the downslope-adjacent houses happen to be very small (not the developer’s fault) and the site’s steep grade will approximately double the perceived height from the rear (not the neighbors’ fault). 35’ seems like a good compromise and much better than the M1’s by-right 85’ potential.
On this question, I must be more strident—a zero-foot setback will not be acceptable and should not be granted. They are correct that the 20’ by-right is also inappropriate. It would also increase other site challenges (an unspoken but understandable motivation that are again not the neighbors’ problem).
Monticello Road’s intimacy is both an asset and a challenge—and that tension is one element that makes it a great street, but zero setback is too extreme and should not be granted. When the developer speaks about the project, they talk about engaging the street and a more reasonable setback (maybe 8’ for example) can be part of that transition and would actually add value to the commercial uses they describe. The utility poles further complicate the space, but that is an issue for the landowner to work out with the utility—not pass on to pedestrians or the neighbors.
The developer verbally expressed to me that some de-facto setbacks are already planned for the Carlton Road frontage. That is very good but I would want to see it written.
The site is very steep and that is a primary reason why this seemingly prime location has not already been developed. When I asked about the issue in the public meeting, the project’s engineer waived it off stating that the City’s GIS map is out of date. You should not simply accept the developer’s word on this issue. As with setbacks, the City can seem at times too accommodating on this issue without negotiating solutions to all of the post-construction consequences. You need to make your own evaluation, then use what you learn to work with the developer to make a project that balances all of the site’s challenges and opportunities.
The project has tremendous merit and the developer is definitely working in the right spirit. Addressing these specific issues and others you will hear will help make the project a true asset and good response to an important and challenging site. If you have any questions or need further clarification, please don’t hesitate to contact me.