If you live in the Charlottesville area, you’ve probably heard rumblings (or something louder) about the proposed zoning re-writes outlined in the city’s Comprehensive Plan that was adopted by City Council in 2021. Since then, it has been going through the Planning Commission and public hearings to smooth out the details based on the recommendations in the document.
To back up and give some context, The Comprehensive Plan is a citywide plan that guides residents and city leaders toward future improvements that help meet the needs of all of Charlottesville’s citizens. According to the document itself, “The Comprehensive Plan should coordinate public and private development with present and future policies that are reflected through zoning, capital improvement programs, code enforcement, and other means.” The plan takes years to put together and is the result of input from community members, businesses, local organizations, policy makers and leaders.
This year the task was a particularly steep undertaking, as the commission didn’t just update the zoning codes, but completely redesigned the way they’re presented to the public. In the updated documents, the code is significantly more legible with less legalese, more visuals and laymen explanations so the public can actually read and understand this document that belongs to them.
One of the major changes in the plan has to do with density and affordability of residential properties. The proposed zoning places former single-family districts into three distinct districts: R-A, R-B, and R-C, each with their own regulations regarding building mass, setbacks, etc. Under the recommended plan, properties located in the R-A district would be able to have up to three dwelling units provided the lot is vacant or the existing structure is removed. If there is an existing structure on the property that can be preserved and the new dwelling structures can abide by development requirements, then up to four units would be allowed.
Source: Cville Plans Together - Proposed zoning map
Regarding affordability, multi-family projects that include more than 10 units are required to designate 10% of the total number of units on-site as income controlled. In this case, income-controlled units should be priced so that the tenant is paying less than 30% of gross income (less utility allowances) for households earning 60% of the area median income.
These recommended updates to the current zoning regulations address concerns brought up in the studies conducted for The Comprehensive Plan, which showed there is a dire need for more affordable housing in the city for both owned and rented properties. Based on the projected population and employment growth in the city, the current constraints in the local housing supply will worsen home affordability, while also leading to more people commuting into the city from other areas of the county, which has a detrimental environmental impact.
The concerns with affordability and access can’t be addressed without also acknowledging the impact these issues have on the diversity and equity in our city. Above average housing costs paired with a steep supply and demand situation mean that often even the employees of the city’s biggest employers cannot afford or find access to housing in Charlottesville.
On the commercial side, limited density affects whether businesses can afford to operate within city limits, whether they have the space needed to support a workforce, whether they are able to develop facilities for their operations and whether potential employees can live close enough to be enticed to work there. And it goes without saying that local businesses support the local economy in myriad ways including state and local taxes, providing living wages to residents, and supporting other local businesses by drawing employees and customers into the city where additional dollars will be spent or invested.
Despite these likely outcomes, there are still those who oppose the rezoning recommendations. Concerns include whether the city infrastructure can bear the increase in population that comes with increased density, how it will affect property values and day to day concerns such as parking and traffic. These are legitimate concerns, but ones that can be worked out as increased density development gradually occurs. Some concerns, such as parking and traffic, should be addressed by additional city infrastructure such as public transportation - a solution that has great social and environmental impact.
There seems to be a fear that this increased density and growth will happen overnight once the zoning regulations are changed. That’s unlikely for many reasons, but historically we can also look to other cities who have adopted similar regulations and have seen modest or moderate growth over reasonable lengths of time alongside lower inflation rates for both rent and home prices.
Additionally, the rezoning regulations will take into account the aesthetic and functional requirements of new housing units that comply with the city’s overall approach to new development. All new housing units will also need to continue to comply with local building codes, eliminating the likelihood of ramshackled add-ons and cottages in peoples’ backyards.
We understand that change can be scary and difficult, especially in a city steeped in history and tradition. But The Comprehensive Plan illustrates that what residents of Charlottesville want is equity, diversity and sustainable growth. The only way to do that within our current city limits is to responsibly increase density to make it more accessible to the very people we need to be here to help make this community thrive.
Design Develop is uniquely poised to help the community, business partners and individuals work through what these new regulations will mean for their property. In fact, we are already working with several clients as they anticipate these imminent changes and are considering ways to improve their current property with the new allowances. As a Charlottesville-based architecture firm who works on a wide variety of commercial, institutional and residential projects, we know the city’s zoning regulations inside and out and have stayed very involved in the rezoning process. When the time comes that businesses and individuals are ready to increase the dwelling space or business space in their building, we will be here to help them determine the best way to do so while respecting building regulations, zoning codes, neighborhood aesthetics, community needs and good design.