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August 02, 2007

Commissioners discuss 'the heart' of the Places29 Master Plan

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On July 31, 2007, the Albemarle County Planning Commission held its third work session on the Places29 Master Plan, focusing this time on future land use in the corridor. That topic is what one commissioner called "the heart of the plan", and the Commission spent about four hours combing through at Chapter 5 of the Plan’s narrative.

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One of the main purposes of the Places29 Plan is to “achieve a livable and desirable community” in part by encouraging mixed-use development along the corridor. Chapter 5 (.PDF) is called “Future Land Use and Transportation Framework”  and details the kinds of land use types that would be allowed in the area. Places29 arranges the area into six “transect zones”  which each have different kinds of Places in them, as outlined in Chapter 4 of the plan. Examples of plans include “Neighborhood Service Center,” “Community Center” and “Destination Center.”  Chapter 5 determines what kinds of buildings can go where and what how land can be used in each one.

Land use categories range from "Single-family Residential" to "Neighborhood Retail", from "Office / Research & Development Flex" to "Open Space." The specific sizes of buildings and details of these are outlined in three tables, and much of the meeting was spent discussing whether these were appropriate.
Finally, the Transect Zones table details the densities and "Floor to Area" ratios that would be allowed in each of the six zones. The chapter also contains a few examples of how existing shopping centers could be redeveloped.

                               
20070731lu1 20070731lu2 20070731transectt1t2
Land Use 1 Land Use 2 Transect Zones

THE MEETING BEGINS

At the beginning of the meeting, Albemarle County's Director of Planning and Community Development, Wayne Cilimberg, urged the commissioners and the public to take a longer view with Places29.

"This is what you might see if you were to come back and visit in some later life," Cilimberg joked. "The reality is that it's going to take many years of some of what you'll see tonight to actually transpire. As we know, land uses cycle in and out. There's a life cycle to any development, and some of what you will see tonight may be in the second or third life cycle."

20070731joseph Planning Commission Chair Marcia Joseph

Looking at Chapter 5's definitions of the types of land uses, Commissioner Marcia Joseph (At-Large) wanted to know if a kind of use was not listed in that section, would that kind of use be considered? Albemarle County Chief Planner David Benish responded that the language used in a master plan is not binding as if it were an ordinance. Instead, it is meant to be a guide for the future Planning Commissioners and Supervisors.

THE SAGA OF THE JUGHANDLES

A board member of the Forest Lakes Neighborhood Association expressed concern about the entrance for one planned roadway shown on the Transportation Framework.  The plan shows a new grade-separated interchange that would connect Forest Lake South to US Route 29 through the northeast corner of 29 and Ashwood Boulevard, where a mobile home park currently stands.  The intersection would be configured as a “jughandle,” a type of interchange which would eliminates the need for a left-hand turn onto southbound US 29 from Forest Lakes South by redirecting all traffic through  a series of right-hand turns.

20070731elliff
Scott Elliff of the Forest Lakes Neighborhood Association

Scott Elliff told Commissioners that it was not appropriate for the road to have to travel through the mobile home park.  “Nobody wants to enter or exit multiple times a day through the trailer park,” he said.

He suggested that the County build a road through the southeast corner of 29 and Ashwood, through land that is already owned by the County.

“The obvious answer is to use the already County-owned property to the southeast," he said.

Commissioner Duane Zobrist (White Hall) asked Elliff if he would accept a road through the northeast corridor if it were nicely designed, and Elliff responded that he would not if the road still ran through the trailer park.

"The trailer park is not going to be there when this redevelops," said Commissioner Bill Edgerton (Jack Jouett). "The only time this document really is going to have any impact is in a rezoning or in a special use variance. This is not an ordinance. It's a plan for the community for a [transportation] system that will work.”

But, Elliff said that no developer would want to redevelop the trailer park if they were required to have a long "jughandle" going through the parcel.

"We have no objection to the jughandle, we think it's great that stoplights will ultimately be eliminated along 29,” Elliff said. “We recognize the need for all of that. It's simply do you put it in a place that has an unsightly entry and exit that's inappropriate for our community, or do you put it in a parcel that the county already owns?"

No conclusion was reached on this topic, in part because staff members who work on transportation were no longer in the auditorium. But, David Benish said there was flexibility depending on when the redevelopment would occur at that location.

"If we find that the grade separation is needed sooner, and there's no plan to redevelop the trailer park, we might find that it is a more suitable option to go and do the jughandle to the south." But, he added that the consultants placed it in on the north side as a way to provide an incentive for redevelopment on that side.

Elliff said he was not comfortable leaving it flexible, and wanted an answer on the spot regarding the use of the southeast parcel. "You always ask for public input, you have a viable alternative solution. Don't leave it as flexible and tell the entire community that they need to weigh in on this for years and years. Establish the best plan you can based on viable solutions that incorporate public input." Commissioner Joseph urged Elliff to come back when the Commission discusses transportation. 

ABSORPTION OF RETAIL DEVELOPMENT

One thread that ran through the meeting was how much retail development the area can support. In the public comment period, Morgan Butler of the Southern Environmental Law Center said his organization supports transportation improvements on US 29 that take land use into consideration, most notably in limiting the footprint of retail developments.

"This will not only enhance the urban character along the corridor, but will also make it clear to large retailers that if they want to locate in this community, we expect them to create buildings that respect this community," he said.

Table51
The SELC has requested a projection of commercial capacity in the Places29 area to be added to this table in Chapter 5

But, Butler also suggested that one table in Chapter 5 should be amended to add a projection of how many square feet of retail will be expected in 2015. The table currently shows a projection of how many residential units and jobs will be possible if the Places29 Master Plan is adopted and begins to guide future redevelopment.   

"We think it's essential to have an estimate of how much new retail space the proposed framework map allows to be built, both in the year 2025, as well as full build-out,” said Butler.

20070731williamson
Neil Williamson of the Free Enterprise Forum

Neil Williamson of the Free Enterprise Forum said in the public comment period that there is no market in this area for multiple-floor retail buildings, as called for in the plan. "Often times we hear of Chicago or other places having two-story Sears; they have greater density then we do. I believe retailers that serve the public would look to other localities rather than Albemarle, and a leakage of sales tax dollars will follow." 

Developer Wendell Wood told commissioners that they should pay attention to potential tenants who are willing to invest money into projects. "These are large national tenants, they do pretty thorough research of the demographics of an area, and I think there should be some weight applied to that. I'm not sure that morally we want to start dictating who can come to our community."

LIMITS ON GROCERY STORES?

Another thread in the discussion was the appropriate size of grocery stores in Neighborhood Service Centers. Page 5-12 deals with "Retail Commercial Size and Specific Use Requirements", and indicates they can be built in these areas with conditional use in buildings up to 15,000 square feet.
The chapter reads:  "This requirement was determined by the desire to encourage grocery stores to locate in Community or Destination Centers as they typically draw from a larger market area than a single or a small group of neighborhoods."

This prompted some confusion, as many Commissioners and members of the public thought this meant that no new grocery store over 15,000 square feet could be built anywhere along the Places29 corridor.

"Your average large Food Lion or Kroger these days is somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 to 60 thousand square feet," said Wiegand, adding that a lot of that space is taken up by storage. The smaller grocery stores envisioned for the Neighborhood Centers would have fewer items, but would still offer more choice than a mini-mart at a gas station. When Commissioner Eric Strucko (Samuel Miller) asked if they would be economically viable, Wiegand responded that she did not know, but that they are in communities that are high-density.

When Commissioner Zobrist asked for a local example, David Benish suggested independent grocery stores such as Reid's and the IGA on Cherry Avenue, and also said that market conditions may not necessarily exist for these stores to be built in the Neighborhood Centers. Strucko then asked if the Master Plan should contain specific caps if future market conditions could not be predicted. Wiegand reminded the Commissioners that the caps would only trigger the need for a developer to apply for a conditional use permit if they wanted to build something larger, and Commissioners could approve. Traditional sized stores would be encouraged to develop in areas designated as Community Centers.

A VERTICAL FUTURE FOR BIG BOX RETAIL?

If the Places29 Master Plan were to be adopted as is, single-use, single-floor structures would be discouraged.

20070731wiegand
Senior Planner Judy Wiegand

"We give the maximum sizes for those individual uses, and it's done to encourage larger uses to develop as more than one story," explained Judy Wiegand, Albemarle County Senior Planner.  "The reason for going up instead of going out is to promote more uses in a smaller area especially in Centers, and this would result in a more pedestrian friendly environment because people could reach more services within a smaller area. We are not advocating any more areas that are just single-use commercial."   

Commissioner Bill Edgerton said he supports making this distinction. "Next time around, when the property does redevelop, I'd like to see a greater effort to go for mixed use and with more pedestrian scaled structures."

Commissioner Duane Zobrist was more skeptical, especially considering that the Planning Commission recently voted 4-3 to approve a "big box shopping center that was specifically done through a Comprehensive Plan change by the Board of Supervisors." 

Zobrist said he would like to have a better sense of what the Board wants before spending too much time discussing land use definitions he thought might be too restrictive.

"There ought to be a place for a Sam's Club. I don't see Sam's as any kind of impediment to our community," he said."I'm always hesitant to just preclude something. I'm 100% in favor of making our community beautiful, I'm 100% in favor of pedestrian friendly and transit systems, but I still think there has to be a place for the Targets."

Commissioner Edgerton acknowledged the role those kinds of stores can play in the community, but said building vertically is a matter of design. "You can provide the same amount of retail space going vertically, breaking up the mass. When we talk about environmental impacts, just to reduce the footprint of the building by half would make a tremendous different in storm water runoff. We don't want what we have already been getting," he said.

SUB AREA PLANS

Subareaexample
The area within the dotted white line is an example of one of the proposed smaller area plans to be developed after adoption of the Places29 plan

The draft Places29 Master Plan also contains provisions for four smaller areas, which will offer more guidance for redevelopment of those areas, as well as to help plan for traffic.

"We're looking at a way with the Rio Road one of coordinating the way the proposed grade separation and the ring road will be handled in regards to the individual businesses in the area," Wiegand says. That plan will be developed when VDOT is ready to begin planning for that intersection.

Commissioner Joseph said she was concerned a small area plan for the Uptown/Airport area would be premature if it were included now, because people might think that would mean development was imminent. Wiegand said staff shared her worries, but wanted a small area plan to guide growth over the next few decades.

"What we'd like to do is coordinate the initial development and how the street network goes so that eventually the network of streets would support an Uptown," she said. But Commissioner Zobrist said that between Hollymead, North Pointe, and other developments being planned by Wendell Wood, Uptown was well on its way to becoming an area. 

WENDELL WOOD SEEKS CHANGE

During this work session, the Commissioners heard from developer Wendell Wood , who sought changes to the Framework plan for part of land he owns south of Hollymead Town Center. The land is currently listed under Places29 as a mixture of Neighborhood Service Center surrounded by Urban Density. Wood wants the Commission to consider changing it to a Destination Center, which would allow for a large footprint retail store. To sweeten the deal, Wood is offering to pay for construction of a good deal of the extension of Berkmar Drive through the area, as well as partial funding of a bridge over the South Fork of the Rivanna River.

Staff is recommending that the Commission decline the change, and Judy Wiegand read from the staff report.

Wwluchanges
A map provided by Wendell Wood outlining his requested land use changes for land south of the Hollymead Town Center

"The retail market analysis conducted by ZHA as part of the Places29 project does not indicate a need for additional commercial property beyond what is currently shown on the framework map. Providing too much area for retail activity could discourage future new retail activity in the areas where it is most desired. From a land use perspective, consultants and staffs are directing commercial retail and office growth into the area from Hollymead Town Center North. Attendees at Places29 public workshops and other events have indicated they want the current rural appearance of US 29 south of Hollymead Town Center to be preserved, and so changing this to a large footprint retail store would be inconsistent because that kind of major commercial retail expects visibility from US 29.”

Additionally, Wiegand said changing the land use for that area would disrupt the traffic models that have been done so far. In response to the proffer to build Berkmar, Wiegand said someone else would still have to pick up the rest of the tab for the rest of Berkmar, and it's hard to weigh the offer to pay for a bridge when there is not yet an estimate.

However, Wiegand did say there were some advantages to the idea, mostly related to the proffer for Berkmar.

Acknowledging that he was speaking during a master planning process, Wood urged the Commission to consider reality.

"How many applications has the county had come before it in the last 20 years for a 15,000 square foot grocery store?" he asked, before giving the answer. "None. The reality is, that's not what the public wants. These neighborhood centers on 29 North cannot survive." Wood went on to explain that most people want to shop at places like Wal-Mart or Target rather than boutiques, because of the cost-savings.

He continued by acknowledging that the extension of Berkmar Drive is a key component of the Places29 process. "We at Hollymead as part of that plan built the section starting at Airport Road and have built it down to Hollymead." Wood continued that there is no state, federal or local money available to build the rest of it to where it currently terminates at Sam's Club.  "Here you have private enterprise offering to build the majority of this road."

Much of the land is currently set to be designated as Neighborhood Service Center, which would restrict by-right development of retail space to footprints of 15,000 square feet. Wood says no tenants would be interested in such a building. Instead, he wants it to be set as Destination. He pointed out that another Destination center is located a thousand feet away.

He also shared his view that Wal-Mart stores often have several boutiques within them which serve the public.

Wood questioned the retail market study conducted by ZHA. "If they're doing a study, you've got people who are willing to put the money in place, and to build it who have done their study." He called the study an opinion, and added that "the best opinion I know is someone who's willing to put their own private money on the line. I think that should carry more weight."

But, Commissioner Joseph reminded Wood that he was not speaking at a meeting where site plans are discussed, but thanked him for his comments.

Wood said the property under consideration consists of nine parcels of land, and that if the developer wanted to today, he could develop all nine by-right. "It cannot be denied to them. This development would eliminate in this process six entrances onto 29." Wood said he would pay for however many extra lanes on Berkmar Drive. He added that the design of this building "would look like 15 small stores" rather than a big-box.

After Wood sat down, the Commission discussed his proposal. Commissioner Joseph "This isn't anything I can support because it reminds me of Madison Heights," referring to a long stretch of US 29 north of Lynchburg consisting of a series of retail developments. "One of the concepts that came from the community is that they want to see green space here. They don't want to see strip development all the way up 29."

Commissioner Strucko said he would like to see more information about the proffers, prompting both Commissioner Joseph and Lee Catlin to say that proffers cannot be discussed during a discussion of a comprehensive plan.

Commissioner Edgerton said he was not comfortable making a decision taking Wood's word for it. "When he tells us we're wrong about the retail analysis, we're wrong about the retail activity, and the traffic analysis. We can't just take those allegations and act." 

Commissioner Zobrist said he thought Wood was just asking to not have the possibility precluded by the comprehensive plan. "I think that we'd be irresponsible if we don't give him an opportunity to somewhere along the line come to us without having to jump the hurdle of a comprehensive plan amendment. Now is the time to say, is this something we might entertain in the future, and I say, we might."

At this point, Wayne Cilimberg stepped in to remind the Commission that comprehensive plans are about determining the right kind of land use. "Mr. Wood has given you some clear reasons why he feels this is the right land use. We've given you what we feel is the appropriate land use based on an overview of the entire area, not jsut this one location. Bottom line is, we have enough destination centers according to the market analysis." He suggested that if the Commission felt Wood was correct, they could switch the area to destination center.

Zobrist seemed to suggest he was in favor of granting Wood's request, in part because of the offer to help pay for Berkmar. "Berkmar Drive and it's extension is a key to unlocking 29, and if we ignore this and don't consider it fully, what is the prospect that Berkmar will ever get built?"

Edgerton said there were lots of potential funding opportunities, especially with the Board of Supervisors set to vote on a proffer policy to help pay for transportation.  In the meantime, the Commission agreed to put the request aside until a later date in the work session process.

OTHER ACTIONS

Commissioners also considered four requests to expand the growth area or change land use designations in the Places29 area.

Hollymeadproposedgrowth
The dotted red lines indicate the proposed growth area boundary expansion that the Commission declined to approve

The first would have moved the corridor for the proposed Berkmar Drive extension into the growth area, just north of the South Fork of the Rivanna River and to the south of Hollymead Town Center.  Staff recommended including this in the growth area, in the words of Judy Wiegand, “to provide a funding mechanism for Berkmar Drive Extended.”

Commissioner Eric Strucko asked for a clarification of how that funding mechanism would work.
“If this area remained rural there would be very little development expected to happen, and the kind of development that would happen would not be likely to support funding of private contributions towards the road,” said Weigand. 

Strucko called that reasoning “weak.”

“Since 1997, I have personally been working on a variety of committees to utilize the designated growth area as currently defined to its fullest capacity to preserve every inch of the rural area, “ he  said. “I don't see a strong justification for expanding the growth area boundary here."

Pineygrowthareaexpansion
The dotted red lines indicate the 30 acres of land that staff had suggested be added to the growth area

Commissioners agreed to not make the change, and then moved on to consider the expansion of the growth area of about 30 acres south of the National Ground Intelligence Center.  This parcel was proposed by Wood as part of the “NGIC land deal” in May 2006.  Staff recommended the expansion, but did not provide any analysis to the Commission.

“Staff didn’t really analyze this in the same ways they did the other one because staff understood we were supposed to  expand it and the only real question was what we would put on here,” said Wiegand.  When asked by Commissioner Joseph about the lack of analysis, David Benish responded that staff wanted to evaluate the logical land uses of the area, given its proximity to NGIC.

“Piney Mountain is pretty much a self-contained  component of this development area,” he said. “There’s not a lot of significant analysis that is site-specific for this area other than looking at the merits of this particular area for this type of use and the need for that type of use.”  The land use for the suggested expansion is a mixture of residential and office/research and development.

But Commissioner Joseph said there was nothing to show that those types of use were necessary in that location.  “We’ve gotten some analysis on everything else,” she said. “We’re supposed to be planning based on some sort of sound reasoning for us to make some of these decisions, and I don’t have any information from you guys to make that decision.”

Commissioner Jon Cannon (Rio) said he would like to see more information from the Board of Supervisors on why they asked for this land to be switched to the growth of area.  Benish said he would get their resolution of intent to the Commission.

Two other expansions in the Piney Mountain area were not recommended by staff.

“We were encouraged to consider the idea of adding some of this area,” Wiegand said, referring to land surrounding NGIC to the North near Watts Passage Road.  “No specific parcels were given but we were encouraged to consider the possibility  that with the expansion of NGIC and the fact that GE Fanuc is right here it might be appropriate to add some of this for residential development.” She added that the consultants could not identify a need for additional housing in that area over the next twenty years.
Commissioners agreed with the recommendation, and then adjourned.

NEXT STEPS

Commissioners will continue discussion of Chapter 5 at an extra work session scheduled for August 28 at 4:00 in Lane Auditorium.  Items to be discussed include the Green Infrastructure Map as well as the future transportation network.

Work sessions on the remaining chapters that cover design guidelines and implementation will be held in September.

TIMELINE OF SELECTED HIGHLIGHTS:

  • 1:00 - Introduction by Commissioner Marcia Joseph with guidance from Wayne Cilimberg
  • 4:30 - Overview of Chapter 5 by Senior Planner Judy Wiegand
  • 7:45 - Scott Elliff of the Forest Lakes Neighborhood Association (public hearing comment)
  • 11:00 - County resident Lance Fsjerth (public hearing comment)
  • 13:10 - Morgan Butler of the Southern Environmental Law Center (public hearing comment)
  • 16:18 - Jeff Werner of the Piedmont Environmental Council (public hearing comment)
  • 19:07 - Neil Williamson of the Free Enterprise Forum (public hearing comment)
  • 23:48 - Developer Wendell Wood (public hearing comment)
  • 25:07 - Discussion on land use definitions
  • 28:12 - Discussion of what to do with existing single-use, single-floor buildings
  • 41:26 - Discussion of potential size restrictions for grocery stores in Neighborhood Centers
  • 55:35 - Discussion of the need for small area plans
  • 59:20 - Discussion on the location of the "jughandle" intersection planned for US29 and Ashwood Boulevard
  • 1:15:11 - Wendell Wood requests land use change for property south of Hollymead Town Center
  • 1:56:20 - Discussion of possibility of expanding the boundaries of the growth areas in four locations

Sean Tubbs

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