By. Neil Williamson, President
On Wednesday (5/1) the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors have an $11.8 Million dollar consent agenda item regarding the relocation of Northside library from its current rental space in the Albemarle Square Shopping Center to a location just west of the intersection of Rio Road and US 29.
The Free Enterprise Forum is concerned a double standard may be in play as this is a “public” project as opposed to a private development. As private development interests are regularly told that the financial demands of regulatory approvals are not the concern of the County.
In the past, Albemarle has taken such opportunities to showcase how well their projects embrace the goals of the comprehensive plan and build to the highest criteria. In this case, we believe the county has identified a parcel and is trying to put a square peg in a round hole.
Would a private development get the same free pass?
Currently the Northside Library is in a retail center with significant parking as well as other community facilities within reasonable walking distances such as a bakery, a number of restaurants, a movie theater, a private health club, as well as a new grocery store.
It is important to the discussion that the County is in a lease agreement in this space and that agreement is up for renewal/renegotiation in 2014.
The new site is located on the south side of Rio Road West, just west of the intersection with US29. The staff proposal is to reuse the existing structure to house both the Northside Library (30,000 sq. ft.)as well as long term County warehouse and storage space (20,000+ sq. ft.).
The site is bounded by commercial land on all sides and is zoned for HC Highway commercial.
The headquarters for the Daily Progress is located immediately to west on Rio Road.
Interestingly, this same parcel (in combination with the adjacent parcel) was under consideration for a Homewood Suites hotel location in January of last year.
That project went to Albemarle’s Architectural Review Board (ARB) on January 4th. At some point after the ARB issued their initial 15 demands (including the need for 3D Modeling) for future submittals, the investors in the hotel project chose to move the project into the more business friendly City of Charlottesville (read the January 3, 2012 ARB minutes here).
While we are not suggesting the ARB review was the exclusive cause of the hotel project relocation, it certainly was one of the contributing factors. So now, as the private development (tax generating) option has been eliminated we are looking at a public use on the parcel.
Seeing this item on the Board of Supervisors consent agenda leads us to believe last Tuesday’s discussion at the Albemarle County Planning Commission may be the only public discussion regarding this project.
Staff met with the Board of Supervisors in closed session early this year to initiate this discussion and to place contractual “holds” on the land to allow for due diligence. Staff has projected the upfit of the property to be in the $8 million dollar range (~$166 per sq. ft.) as compared with $250 a square foot for new construction.
The staff conveniently found the project to be generally consistent with the demands of the facilities and would be a positive redevelopment of this parcel. Unlike a private development, the focus of the Planning Commission discussion was not as directed “whether the general location, character and extent of the proposed facility are in substantial accord with the adopted Comprehensive Plan” but instead focused on the economics of this infrastructure addition.
The Neighborhood Model portion of the Comprehensive Plan places significant importance to interconnectivity of roadways, pedestrian orientation, relegated parking and multi model access.
Section 5.9.15 of the proposed Comprehensive Plan includes:
Strategy 2a: All government facilities in the Development Areas should conform to the principles of the Neighborhood Model.
The reality is the West Rio site is not well placed to become a neighborhood center, it is not located near significant residential activity and the existing bike lanes end at Berkmar. While the location is “not completely devoid of residences,” according to County staff the density of this residential is low, and access from those homes to the site is challenged.
Commissioner Tom Loach perhaps put it most succinctly when he said “Theoretically, this is not the Neighborhood Model”. But Loach also said, “ we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”.
Commissioner Rick Randolph voiced cost effectiveness concerns saying “Focusing on the ideal should not get in the way of this moving forward”. Commissioner Ed Smith echoed this sentiment stating “It’s not a campus atmosphere but it is the lesser of two evils”. Commissioner “Mac” Lafferty believes this is an opportunity that will not repeat itself.
As a part of the discussion, Commissioner Don Franco pushed County staff suggesting there might be ways to make the project more Neighborhood Model friendly and asked if the applicant (the County) was prepared to make commitments to mitigate the negative impacts of the redevelopment. He was concerned that by approving this use, the County might end up in a “firing range” situation where as a commission they have no choice but to approve the site plan regardless of the many concerns.
Commissioner Bruce Dotson enumerated a laundry list of things he would like to see in a library site: Activity center, pedestrian friendly, open space, green space were all important items he wanted to be in the Comprehensive Plan. How this project failed to measure up to those standards was relatively clear.
To address these concerns staff has suggested that future improvements to make the project more pedestrian and bicycle friendly could be reprogrammed from the proposed Berkmar Extension. The Free Enterprise Forum is very troubled by the suggestion of removing a transportation backbone to make a library fit on a less than ideal site.
Loach was OK with the idea that the applicant (the County) would do their best to address them. Would a private developer get this level of trust?
In the end the unanimous Planning Commission decision supported the library use with the condition that the applicant (the county) “come as close to the Neighborhood Model as possible” Perhaps this will be the language used in all future land use discussions – I have my doubts.
Neil Williamson is the President of the Free Enterprise Forum, a local government public policy organization located in Charlottesville. www.freeenterpriseforum.org
Photo Credits: Free Enterprise Forum
Map Credit: Bing.com