Reject the William Taylor Plaza rezoning
by Antoinette Roades

(Note: The first and last opportunity for public comment is Tuesday, February 8 at the City Council / Planning Commission Joint Public Hearing, 6:00 PM in the City Council Chambers.)

An open letter to the Charlottesville City Council and the Charlottesville Planning Commission

To: Members of City Council and Planning Commission
From: Antoinette W. Roades and R.E. Lee Scouten, 406 Oak Street
Date: 7 February 2011
Re: William Taylor Plaza Rezoning Petition to be heard 8 February

This matter should not be before you. Although it is described on your agenda as “a request to amend” a previously approved PUD — and although NDS staff persists in describing it as “changes to the PUD” — it is, in fact, an attempt to secure by extraordinary speed and stealth approval for an entirely different project. As such, it signals extraordinary contempt for both public process and the people who will be most affected if approval is granted.

AN ENTIRELY DIFFERENT PROJECT

When compared with the Southern Development William Taylor Plaza approved in 2009, the William Taylor Plaza sought by William Park (who in December styled himself “Contract Purchaser” of the WTP site, but now is styled SD’s partner and/or agent), is different in every important way. Among other things, it has a different (and greater) size and mass, a different (and more intrusive) footprint, a different (and lower) environmental standard, a different (and much broader) tree-removal standard, a different market, and a different builder. So it also poses a different set of challenges to the surrounding neighborhood.

Notably, William Park’s WTP would comprise 120,000 square feet rather than 80,000-100,000 — an increase of 20 to 50 percent. And its residential component would comprise 80 units rather than 50 — an increase of 60 percent. Most notable of all, however, is its different character. The 50 residential units of the approved WTP would be offered for sale. The 80 residential units of Park’s WTP would be for rent only. And to rent many of those units, tenants would have to prove an income below a defined level — the reason, of course, that the Park WTP would rely on Low-Income Tax Credits from the Virginia Housing Development Authority.

So William Park’s WTP is simply an in-town version of his and AHIP’s long controversial Treesdale Park (Affordable Multifamily Rental Community), for which ground has been broken (and all trees removed) barely inches from the City line in Albemarle County. The impact of imposing such a large rental complex on a fragile historic City neighborhood would be immense.

THE PEOPLE WHO WOULD BE MOST AFFECTED

The neighborhood immediately surrounding the WTP site — not the fictional Fifeville Neighborhood or the ripped-apart Ridge Street Neighborhood foisted by NDS, but the real neighborhood — has a 180-year history that has always included a diverse array of neighbors and a variety of housing types. Toward the end of the last century, both people and their places showed signs of serious wear. In the last decade, however, the neighborhood has achieved remarkable stability without losing any of the eclecticism that has always characterized it. Particularly heartening has been watching young people, and especially young families, invest their lives in this very old neighborhood. As their material situations have improved, those young people have improved their homes. As a result, turnover is now very low.

That remarkable stability remains precarious, however, and William Park’s WTP would shake it profoundly. Obviously, just to add 80 new households — in which tenants would have no option of investing as their neighbors do and from which tenants could be evicted if their material situations improved — to a block that now counts fewer than 50 households would have negative impact via increased traffic, noise, light pollution, ad inf. And that negative impact would fall heaviest on those with young families. Turnover would inevitably increase. New buyers would inevitably be deterred. (In fact, the approval of the previous WTP has already had a buyer-deterrent effect.)

THE PROPERTY THAT WOULD BE DESTROYED

The Ridge-Cherry property has never been the right site for a project of William Taylor Plaza proportions. It is a steep-sided wooded ravine bisected by a creek that was originally fed by a spring located near the intersection of Oak and 4th Streets. Many years ago, the City incorporated the creek into its storm water management system by installing large drains. The property now functions as a highly efficient rain garden that regularly turns thousands of gallons of polluted runoff into a clear trickle at the property’s southern end.

Further, the site has no standard street access. Its Ridge Street frontage is on a turn lane. Its Cherry Avenue frontage is actually on an access ramp that was engineered to fly over low ground and connect Cherry Avenue to Ridge Street when VDOT created a new intersection of Ridge Street, Cherry Avenue, 5th Street Extended, and Elliott Avenue in the 70s. That intersection already nears gridlock daily. Meadowcreek Parkway will worsen it further.

Then there is the matter of the family graveyard reserved in 1883 to the heirs of Allen W. Hawkins. All evidence — documentary, circumstantial, and eye witness — points to it lying on Parcel 157 of Tax Map 29. And no amount of tortured exposition of legal impotence — as was offered by a City attorney in 2009 — relieves anyone of any responsibility to see that buried remains are disturbed no further.

WILLIAM TAYLOR PLAZA’S TWISTED LOGIC

The only logic by which such a property could be made the site of such a project as WTP was the twisted logic of the decade-long artificial real estate boom that has since gone spectacularly bust. WTP was the epitome of the wretched excess that characterized that artificial boom. For the same reason that projects proposed all over town have since been substantially scaled back or canceled altogether, WTP should die a natural death. With its death would come opportunity for better, more appropriate proposals, ones that would align with City-established environmental priorities and preserve a unique natural asset.

“Fundamentally, the world has changed,” said architect/developer Bill Atwood when he radically downscaled his Waterhouse project. No version of WTP befits that changed world.

A CITY-SPONSORED SUBSTITUTION

In fact, Southern Development’s William Taylor Plaza has died a natural death. SD has no money to build it. No one else has any money to buy or lease its spaces. That’s why SD listed the entire project for sale (for $2.3 million) immediately after securing approval in 2009. But rather than acknowledging that and accepting the opportunity offered, SD’s very good friends at City Hall have chosen a different route.

In 2009, David Neuman noted that the WTP then before Planning Commission was essentially “City-sponsored.” William Park’s WTP appears to be no less than City-invented. At SD’s request, the 2008 sale contract that called for cash payment of $253,000 has been redrafted. The new contract will call for no cash payment, substituting an “affordable housing” proffer instead.

SD’s Charlie Armstrong defined proffers wonderfully well in a post on a General Assembly-watch blog. “The current proffer system is little more than legalized bribery,” he wrote. A bribe and a cash payment per a legal contract are not the same thing and certainly not of equal value. And the particular proffer here, one of “affordable” units, is of less value than most because the City is awash in truly affordable housing of all sorts. Indeed, as a Piedmont Housing Alliance representative told Council in January, affordable rentals abound. And anyone who watches that market knows that many perfectly good rental properties are going begging. So 80 new rental units would undercut City landlords’ search for tenants.

A PUBLIC SHUTOUT FOR A DEVELOPER BAILOUT

The two City-owned parcels on Ridge Street are not the exclusive property of City Council or anyone else at City Hall. They are the property of the people of Charlottesville. But none of those people — not even the neighbors who would be most affected by the new WTP — have been consulted in this matter. Between 2007, when the first WTP plans were introduced, and 2009, when the project was approved, both CC and PC made constant reference to the importance of involving “the neighborhood” in the process. Unfortunately, much of that referencing was pretence given that crucial decisions had clearly been made long before public hearings were scheduled. At least, however, those exercises allowed members of the public to be heard by other members of the public.

But in the current situation — that is, in the mad rush to bail out good friends at Southern Development — there has not been even a pretence of doing the right thing. No outreach of any kind has been made. The first inkling that something was afoot came via letters that arrived in mailboxes on Christmas Eve’s eve. Those letters, sent only to adjacent property owners and a few others who had requested inclusion on a mailing list, described what would be at issue in an 11 January Joint Public Hearing in terms so vague (and, as it happened, so misleading) that even deeply concerned recipients tossed them aside. And related advertisements placed in The Daily Progress bore the same misleading texts.

Persistent questioning of NDS staff produced only hints of what was really intended. And some of those hints subsequently proved unreliable because the involved parties — including the City — continued to reconfigure aspects of the request. It was not until last Wednesday that anyone or any document revealed the enormously important fact that William Park’s WTP was to be a giant, government-subsidized, low-income rental complex. And that document was an attachment to the item’s staff report — a report that made no mention whatsoever of the fact that Park’s WTP would be a giant, government-subsidized, low-income rental complex.

IN SUM

The matter before you is not what it is presented to be nor what has been advertised to the public to the most minimal degree allowed by law. It is the substitution of a completely new plan under the guise of amending an approved plan. That deception has been undertaken not to derive any benefit for the City as a whole or for any of its people. It has been undertaken to benefit two developers to the detriment of the City financially and environmentally and to the detriment of the project’s neighbors in every way possible.

Please reject this undertaking. Thank you.

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