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March 14, 2008

Commission wants “holistic approach” to new Whole Foods store

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20080311gathering
Jim Tolbert (standing) briefs Commission and City staff on Hillsdale Road Extended project

A project to build a new Whole Foods grocery store in the City of Charlottesville is causing some Charlottesville Planning Commissioners to raise concerns about the way it is moving through the development process.  The complications occur because the developer is also designing and constructing the southern terminus of Hillsdale Drive Extended.

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The developer, Meadowbrook Creek LLC, has broken the Whole Foods project into three phases. Phase I of construction has involved the demolition of the former Terrace Theater and the car wash.  According to City Attorney Craig Brown, the Commission did not have to approve that action. In January, the Commission approved a steep slopes waiver, though Commissioner Cheri Lewis remarked that she could not remember a time when such a waiver had been granted without a site plan.

Phase II involves construction of the portion of Hillsdale Drive Extended on the Whole Foods property, as well as improvements to the existing parking lot currently used by K-Mart. In February, the applicant requested a deferral of consideration of a preliminary site plan for the section of road as well as a ruling on how the road would meet entrance corridor guidelines.  Phase III will involve construction of the Whole Foods itself, and the applicant has not yet submitted a site plan.

The land is designated in the City’s comprehensive plan as commercial, and is zoned as Highway Corridor with Entrance Corridor Overlay. The Planning Commission must sign off on any site plan in a location designated as Entrance Corridor, a land use specification which allows the City to exercise additional design scrutiny. The City Code which enables the review specifies the following guidelines for Hydraulic Road:

“There is potential for redevelopment of the older sites along the corridor…. Large new buildings should be designed to reduce mass.…Opportunities include: building closer to Hydraulic Road, adding landscaping along the streets and in parking lots, and creating pedestrian and auto connectivity within and between developments….West of Rt. 29 pedestrian connections would be important if older commercial and residential properties along Hydraulic Road are redeveloped.”

Phase II was again deferred by the Planning Commission at their regular meeting in March.  The decision to ask the applicant to defer came during the Commission’s informal “gathering” that takes place in a Neighborhood Development conference room. Despite its location, the meeting is public and significant business matters are regularly discussed.

However, a potential right of way issue may slow the project down. Commissioner Mike Farruggio asked about a letter received from a representative of Kroger regarding the design of the interchange with Hydraulic Road and Hillsdale Drive. That prompted Neighborhood Services Director Jim Tolbert to address the Commission.

Tolbert acknowledged that a potential right-of-way negotiation could be holding up the process. He said the City has been designing the new roadway for two years and has established an alignment. Tolbert said the developer, Meadowbrook Creek, has agreed to a City request to build Hillsdale as part of its project, and the developer has hired an engineering firm to design its section of the new road.

“Some of that design goes across [Hydraulic] Road,” Tolbert said. “We knew going in with Hillsdale that to do it appropriately is going to need Kroger to give up the light that’s at [their entrance across from K-Mart] and eventually [move it] down where Hillsdale comes out.”

The City will still pay for a portion of the road on the developer’s property, according to Tolbert, but added it would not do so until it had acquired right-of-way. He suggested that some property might need to be condemned if permission is not given by landowners, but that negotiations are on-going.

The letter from Kroger representative Fenton Childers raises the company’s concern that delivery trucks would not be able to use the new signalized entrance. Childers wrote that Kroger does not object to the application, which would create a new grocery store across the street.

Commissioner Cheri Lewis asked why there was a rush to consider the issue, given that negotiations are on-going, and that the rest of the site plan (Phase III) has not yet been submitted.  Commissioner Hosea Mitchell said he wasn’t sure what he was being asked to approve.

“There are a lot of things that give me heartburn, and I’d like to look at a more total package,” he said.“There are traffic issues. There are infrastructure issues,”  Mitchell said.

Tolbert recommended the Commission deny the application if it felt it were incomplete. He said one reason the site plan is not complete is because the developer has hired two engineering firms; one to design the roadway, and one to design the building. So far, the building design is not complete.

“The intent all along for everybody was there was going to be right-of-way there,” Tolbert said, but added that hadn’t happened yet. He said the site plan for Whole Foods isn’t “anywhere near ready.”

Farruggio asked if the item could be deferred. Tolbert got on the phone to contact the developer to let him know the position of the Commission, and the Commissioner adjourned from the “gathering” to reconvene ten minutes later in City Council Chambers.

But, the item never came up during the regular meeting. Chairman Bill Lucy was about to adjourn the meeting, when Mitchell suggested taking a “holistic approach” to the project, and raised concern that the City’s transportation and sewer infrastructure would not be enough to support the project.

Missy Creasy said she agreed, and that City staff would be speaking with the applicant to work through the details of the site plan. Mitchell asked if the applicants could meet with the Commission, and Creasy said staff had been given that option. Lucy suggested placing the item on the agenda for the March 25 work session.

Creasy said the site plan is not close to being ready for the Whole Foods building. Lewis suggested that the applicant might also consider making a preliminary appearance at the Commission’s next regular meeting on April 8.

Farruggio expressed concern that Hydraulic Road in between the 250 bypass and Route 29 could present access management problems.  “It’s a half-mile stretch of road and there are six intersections,” Farruggio said. Creasy said the city’s traffic engineer, Jeannie Alexander, is working on a solution to reduce the number of intersections.

Sean Tubbs

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