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February 25, 2009

Panelists discuss sustainable development and site selection

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The James River Green Building Council hosted a panel discussion on February 9, 2009 entitled Site Selection and Sustainable Development. The meeting, which took place at the Charlottesville Community Design Center, brought together planners, developers, public officials, and activists to share ideas about sustainable building practices and the social and cultural issues underlying the way communities develop land.

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Planner Lyle Solla-Yates served as moderator and explained some of the benefits of urban infill over development of rural areas on the fringe of cities. New construction that reuses building stock and urban public infrastructure is more sustainable than construction that requires new infrastructure and more environmentally intensive transportation use. However, urban redevelopment is currently not the norm, even for LEED certified buildings, because of the added expenses and barriers involved in infill projects.

Developer Richard Price of the Folsom Group sees a “reshaping of the American Dream” as the underlying necessity for sustainable site selection. A low-density lifestyle has become embedded in our culture.  Price said sprawling development is already here, and the challenge will be in finding a way to redevelop suburban housing stock that he considers likely to become future slums. Price’s research is in how to integrate a highly connective natural ecology with a built environment that is currently very fragmented. This involves finding links in order to make people-centered and ecological connections between existing suburban developments.

Another panelist, Albemarle County planner Elaine Echols, explained the principles of the County’s Neighborhood Model and how it relates to LEED-ND. This involves pedestrian-orientation, mixed-use centers, options for alternative transportation, buildings of human-scale, parks and open space, and clear boundaries with rural areas. The goal is to “create livable, vibrant places for residents and the preservation of rural areas.”

Julia Monteith, Senior Land Use Planner in the University of Virginia’s Office of the Architect, spoke about the new University land use plan. The Office of the Architect is working on connecting the various parts of campus and keeping all new development on grounds. Academic/Mixed-use and Housing/Mixed-use are the two zones in which infill development will be accommodated. She sees physical connectivity on campus as a way to encourage mental connectivity of academic disciplines.

Left to right: Stratton Salidas, Richard Price, Julia Monteith, Dan Rosensweig, Karen Waters, Sean Dougherty, Elaine Echols

City Planning Commissioner Dan Rosensweig acknowledged the tragic ecological consequences of the suburban development practices over the last several decades. Rosensweig said Charlottesville is at an “interesting existential impasse” because it needs to decide whether to stay as a “big town” or become “small city.” Rosensweig is personally pushing for more density, mixes of uses, and regional cooperation. There has been some success to this end in recent years, particularly with a new zoning ordinance to allow higher density around the University. Rosensweig believes that a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) system could be a helpful tool toward achieving this goal, and the city could benefit from being more involved in this discussion with Albemarle County.

Planner Sean Dougherty of Octagon Partners sees Urban Growth Boundaries as an effect tool in ensuring pockets of growth. He said that while Albemarle County has a boundary, there is a problem when development can leap-frog into other jurisdictions such as Greene County that do not have the same regulations in place. There needs to be regional or state-wide cooperation.

Karen Waters, director of the Quality Community Council, brought up the dilemma of gentrification. She said infill development may be  green, but there must be a way to avoid displacing current residents with new growth. People often fight new urban redevelopments because “the people who come in may not be the people who were there before.” She asked the question of how social sustainability can be included with environmental sustainability.

Local activist Stratton Salidas said he thinks the most important factor in sustainable development is the difference between building for pedestrians versus automobiles. Sustainable land use policies are important, but they will never be successful without pedestrian-oriented transportation infrastructure. Zoning should be loosened up, he said, to encourage “micro-infill” rather than large subdivisions on the outskirts of the urban area.

Daniel Nairn


  • 00:55 – Introductory remarks, James River Green Building Council
  • 02:25 – Panelists are introduced
  • 05.35 -  Lyle Solla-Yates frames questions on site selection
  • 09:20 – Richard Price on connecting the existing suburban landscape
  • 15:45 – Elaine Nichols outlines Albemarle County’s Neighborhood Model
  • 18:05 – Julia Monteith tells about University of Virginia planning initiatives
  • 25:35 – Dan Rosensweig offers his vision for the City of Charlottesville
  • 33:05 - Sean Dougherty explains the tool of Urban Growth Boundaries
  • 38:05 – Karen Waters brings up the dilemma of gentrification
  • 42:20 – Stratton Salidas combines ecological health and social justice
  • 51:40 – Question and Answer: How does LEED-ND factor in site location?
  • 53:00 – Is it easy for developers to redevelop on sustainable sites?
  • 1:03:15 – What is more responsible, the demand or the supply?
  • 1:11:55 - How much flexibility does planning commission have in allowing new development practices?
  • 1:15:45 – How can a denser lifestyle be sold to the homeowners, neighbors, and developers?


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