Tag Archives: Charlottesville

Parking Is Driving Charlottesville’s Future

By. Neil Williamson, President

See the source image

Georgia Tech Hotel & Conference Center

Prediction: In 2056, Charlottesville’s Market Street Garage and City Hall Complex will be razed to make way for a new Hotel and Conference Center.

There are two distinctly different paths to this prediction, economic dislocation/collapse [think Detroit 2013] or a capstone of a visionary community investment program – interestingly, parking will be a leading indicator on the City’s direction.

Please let me explain.

The City’s recent decision to abandon their parking meter “pilot program” makes good sense in the short term but the long term issues surrounding parking are significantly larger than a few on street meters.  Currently, the existing garages are effectively full, with greater than 350 potential parkers on waiting lists for the opportunity to buy a monthly parking pass.

Commercial development activity continues in downtown with four prominent parking demanding projects currently in the pipeline. Conservative estimates place the new parking deficit [parking demand less parking provided] created by these developments to be 844 spaces [(386) Charlottesville Technology Center, (213) West 2nd Street, (160) Dewberry Hotel, (85) Vault Virginia].

If there is a future parking deficit exceeding 800 spaces based on projected demand, what would be the cost of building a parking deck to meet that need? It is widely accepted that structured parking costs roughly $25,000 a space to build (absent land costs). Thus, just the construction cost for an 850-space garage would be $21.25 million (absent land costs).

Last week, I had an over simplistic epiphany regarding the future of transportation. With the advent of self-driving cars (which will be a reality sooner than we realize), “park and ride” parking lots will be replaced by more efficient and less land demanding “ride and park” lots surrounding more walkable business and commercial districts. The car will drop you at your destinatSee the source imageion and drive to a nearby, but not too close, parking area.

This no longer science fiction and will completely rework the highest and best use of the land within the business district and increase the value of parcels currently too distant to serve as parking alternatives.

The average life of a parking deck is 50 years; with this pending innovation of self driving cars, the need for close in parking is reduced so how should Charlottesville deal with the next 33 years of market parking demand exceeding supply. The easy answer is build more parking but make the building flexible for reuse.

Progressive parking experts are now contemplating designing parking buildings with the clear vision of conversion to mixed use buildings later in their useful lifetime. By designing parking decks with higher ceilings, roughed in plumbing mains and central elevators (rather than on the corners). The infrastructure investment is higher than building a standard deck but it serves as insurance that the investment is not lost as demand shifts from parking storage to office/residential space.

If we accept that there is a parking deficit (for the next 30 years), what should be the role of the City in remedying this situation?

Option 1 – Charlottesville City Council could choose to do nothing.  Parking availability could go from bad to worse as downtown employees and customers are forced into mass transit (if available) or parking further from employment centers.

Option 2 – The City could build a lot on the recently acquired Guadalajara/Lucky 7 lot.  Based on the current political reality, I fail to see Charlottesville City Council showing the leadership vision necessary to spend $21+ million to address this clear and present danger to downtown economic vitality.

Option 3 – Charlottesville could enter into a Public Private Partnership (3P or PPP) on the Guadalajara/Lucky 7 lot.  The PPP Knowledge Lab defines Public Private Partnerships as:

a long-term contract between a private party and a government entity, for providing a public asset or service, in which the private party bears significant risk and management responsibility, and remuneration is linked to performance. PPPs typically do not include service contracts or turnkey construction contracts, which are categorized as public procurement projects, or the privatization of utilities where there is a limited ongoing role for the public sector.

The PPP option would require a challenging, lengthy process (likely 3+ years) to seek and identify appropriate partners, develop mutually beneficial agreements including financing options all prior to construction.

Back to our prediction:

If the Charlottesville selects the ostrich method of Option 1, the downward economic spiral that was exacerbated by the events of August 12th will continue.  Enterprises see the City failing to address the paring infrastructure issue and flee the City to locations in Albemarle County (Shops at Stonefield, Fifth Street Station, Reimagined Albemarle Square, Peter Jefferson Place, etc.) or elsewhere with ample free parking. This exodus would significantly reduce Charlottesville’s vitality, as well as its real estate and sales tax revenue.

The loss of revenue creates a reduction in City provided services; resulting in a citizen revolt and resignation of City staff and City Council.  After a special election, a new City Manager is hired and recommends (and council agrees) to sell off the City’s real estate assets (City Hall and Market Street Parking Garage) to raise much needed revenue.  The buyer gets the property for a song, demolishes the existing structures and builds a 15 story hotel and conference center (with parking deck).

or, in an alternative reality

https://i0.wp.com/www.savannah.com/wp-content/uploads/Aloft-Savannah-Hotel-Rendering.jpg

Savannah Aloft Hotel

Charlottesville chooses either Option 2 or Option 3, as well as other investments in the community. Enterprises and neighborhoods thrive, tax revenue continues to climb as the City’s business and residential density increases; autonomous cars and an enhanced transit service reduce the need for structured parking downtown.  As an economic development catalyst, Charlottesville chooses to move City Hall to the Strategic Investment Area (SIA).

The City enters into a Public Private Partnership with a developer to raze the Market Street Garage and City Hall and construct a seven story conference center hotel.  The four star hotel fronts on the Downtown Mall and the newly branded “Uber” Pavilion.

Both paths of these paths seem to end in the same place but the courage of City Council making long term infrastructure decisions drives the successful community while a lack of such vision creates economic uncertainty and possible municipal failure.

Charlottesville future will be decided by those in power at present.  Parking, and other municipal decisions, will determine which path the city travels.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson, President

Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and  Nelson County.

Photo Credits: Savannah.com, Tripadvisor.com

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Free Enterprise Forum 2017 Top 10

By. Neil Williamson

top ten listWell, 2017 is the year many in Central Virginia would like to forget.  Beyond the far reaching ramifications of the year when Charlottesville became a verb on the national stage, The Free Enterprise Forum remained focused on monitoring local government, reducing regulatory burdens, promoting market based solutions, protecting property rights, and encouraging economic vitality.

None of this could be accomplished without the generous support of our donors and our regular readers. Thank you.  As we embark on our fifteenth year of operation,we remain vigilant, and “pleasantly” persistent.

Each year, we select the top ten blog posts for our year in review.  There were many other blog posts that reached honorable mention status.  I would be remiss if I did not thank our Field Officers Brent Wilson (Greene County) and Bryan Rothamel (Fluvanna County) for their significant reportage in 2017.

With apologies to the now retired David Letterman, here are our Top 10 posts for 2017:

#10 Albemarle’s $52 Million Rain Tax Department December 4, 2017

rain gifFarmers count on rain to feed their crops; Albemarle County is counting on the Rain Tax (AKA Storm water “fee”) to grow government with a 10 year budget that exceeds $52 million.

 

#9 Charlottesville’s Paid Parking ‘Canary in the Coal Mine’ ? March 14, 2017

canary in coal mine photo credit share.america.govWhile it is heartening to see Charlottesville position parking meters as a “pilot” and only a part of the parking solutions considered.. . Available parking is the life’s blood of most small businesses.

… The Free Enterprise Forum hopes the City Council will pay attention when the canary stops singing – local businesses (as well as the jobs and taxes they generate) will be at risk.

#8 The Wizard of Oz and the Rio/29 Small Area Plan March 1, 2017

Scarecrow, tin man, lionOver the years, some have considered the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Woodsman and the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz to be less than perfect heroes – I beg to differ I find them to be the best kind of heroes – those that must work together to achieve a goal.

Today, (3/1) as the Board of Supervisors considers the innovative Form Based Code land use planning for Rio/29 small area plan I believe this unlikely trio could provide important guidance

#7 Frederick Fleet and Charlottesville’s Form Based Code Charrette Sept. 7, 2017

Frederick Fleet photo credit 123people….Considering the current [Charlottesville] climate, I am reminded of Titanic crewman (and survivor) Frederick Fleet who was on duty when he saw a black mass ahead of the ship. He struck three bells and telephoned the bridge. Though the ship swung out of the way, he watched as an iceberg scraped the starboard side.

The Free Enterprise Forum is ringing the bell.

We fear this ill timed, but worthy, Form Based Charrette exercise will be met with a similar fate.

It is a shame.

#6 Fixing Charlottesville NDS Engine Light February 16, 2017

car-check-engine-lightIf you have ever driven with a “Check Engine” light illuminated, you have an idea of where Charlottesville’s Neighborhood Development Services (NDS) Department has been for some time.

Everyone (land owners, neighborhood associations, developers, etc.) agrees that something is seriously wrong but no one knows specifically what it is or, perhaps more importantly, how to fix it – until now.

#5 Albemarle Economic Development X Files March 29, 2017

i want to believeAlbemarle County says that it is in favor of economic development.  The former County Executive Tom Foley went so far as to say it is a “new day in Albemarle” regarding being open for business.  A couple of supervisors have even gone on the road attempting to drum up public support for economic vitality.

I find myself thinking of the 1990’s science fiction series the X-files where two FBI agents, Fox Mulder the believer and Dana Scully the skeptic, investigate the strange and unexplained, while hidden forces work to impede their efforts.

Just as Fox Mulder in the X-Files, I want to believe Albemarle, but the facts keep getting in the way.

#4 Changing Charlottesville Philosophy to YIMBY July 25, 2017Image result for yimby

…This is not a development problem, it is a political problem, and it exists nationwide.

I recently reviewed the YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) San Francisco platform and I believe there are many parallels to Charlottesville….

We believe that San Francisco has always been, and should continue to be, an innovative and forward-looking city of immigrants from around the U.S. and the world. San Francisco is not full, and the Bay Area is definitely not full. Ours is an inclusive vision of welcoming all new and potential residents. Anyone who wants to should be able to afford housing in the Bay Area.

#3 Hindsight Report Asks ‘What If?’ August 1, 2017

…The Hindsight Report indicates that over the study period (2001-2016), Albemarle County received, from the study area, over $277 million in local tax revenue compared with the $212.9 million revenue sharing payments made to the City of Charlottesville (+$64.1 million).

….Had Charlottesville been successful in the annexation and the revenue sharing agreement not been in place, the City would have received $304.7 million in tax revenue from the study area during the study period compared with $212.9 million in revenue sharing payments from Albemarle County (-$91.8 million).

 

#2 A Tradition Like No Other–Albemarle Again Seeks to Ban Golf  April 5, 2017 and

Sunny Day? Albemarle Prohibits Greens, Endorses ‘Green’ April 24, 2017

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….By our back of the envelope calculations, rural recreation is an economic driver in the community representing nearly 2,000 jobs and an annual payroll of $40 million dollars.  In addition, rural recreation is a part of the fabric of Albemarle County.  The Free Enterprise Forum asks you to abandon this folly and utilize your limited staff resources to meet real needs of the community.

#1 Sayonara Shucet March 31, 2017

Shucet - Photo Credit CvillepediaLate yesterday afternoon (3/30), the embattled Elizabeth River Crossings (ERC) named former Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) Commissioner Philip Shucet as their new Chief Executive Officer.

In our three years of observation, we have grown to appreciate the charming manner in which Shucet manages (some might say manipulates) meetings and their outcomes…. As a facilitator extraordinaire, he has stayed true to the “Shucet Six” we first identified in 2014…. for now we say Sayonara Shucet, we wish you fair winds and following seas.

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But most of all THANK YOU, the readers and supporters of this blog and our work in Central Virginia.  Without your generous support, we would not exist, thank you!

BRING ON 2018!

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson, President

Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and  Nelson County.

Greene Supervisors Hears Five Year Regional Hazard Mitigation Plan

By. Brent Wilson, Field Officer

It makes good common sense to hope for the best but plan for the worst.  For Virginia localities it is more than common sense, it is mandated by state law.clip_image002

In response to this requirement, Billie Campbell, Senior Program Manager, and Wood Hudson, Planning Manager, of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission  addressed the Greene County Board of Supervisors at their first meeting of October (10/10). They presented a draft of the 2017 Update of the Regional Hazard Mitigation Plan . The Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000 set out requirements for State and local governments to update their plans every five (5) years.

clip_image005The purpose of plan is prepare for natural disasters before they occur and it covers all jurisdictions in the Thomas Jefferson Planning District – Albemarle County,  the City of Charlottesville, Greene County, Louisa CountyFluvanna County, Nelson County, and the towns of Scottsville, Stanardsville, Louisa and Mineral. The first plan was approved in 2006, then in 2012 and it is now due to be updated by December 17, 2017.

In August a draft of Regional HMP was submitted to the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM) who will then forward it to FEMA for their review and comments and once they have approved it, each jurisdiction must adopt the plan.

According to the draft plan:

Natural hazards tend to be low-probability, high-impact events. One year could be mild with natural
events scarcely interrupting communities, while the next could be literally disastrous. The purpose of hazard mitigation is to make an effort to minimize the damage and loss of life caused by disasters when they do occur. Hazard mitigation is one component, along with emergency response and post-disaster recovery, to the larger strategy of dealing with the human impacts of natural hazard

With more people living in areas susceptible to natural hazards, the costs associated with such hazards have been steadily increasing over time. The localities of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District (the Counties of Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa, and Nelson, the City of Charlottesville, and the Towns of Scottsville, Columbia, Stanardsville, Louisa, and Mineral) are impacted by variety of different hazards. In order to lessen the growing cost of disaster recovery on the localities and minimize the disruption of business during a disaster, there is a growing need to mitigate the impact of known hazards. Through proper planning and the implementation of policies and projects identified in this Hazard Mitigation Plan, the region and the localities can reduce the likelihood that these events will result in costly disasters.

The Hazard Identification and Analysis section of the plan describes natural hazards which pose the greatest threat to the Thomas Jefferson Planning District. Hazards are profiled in terms of prevalence, intensity, and geographical scope. The section includes a description of the hazard as well as analysis based upon historical and scientific data.

The specific areas of the plan are:

        1. flooding and dam failure
        2. winter weather
        3. wildfire
        4. temperature extremes, drought and landslides, and
        5. tornado and earthquakes.

The plan calculates a risk factor for each event within the TJPDC study area.

Hazard-Mitigation_full_doc

Within each category are specific actions recommended to be taken that include describing the hazard, potential mitigation, lead responsible entity, estimated cost, funding method and the time period of the issue.

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Campbell asked that the Board consider making the resolution supporting the plan. All of the supervisors supported the plan but wanted to wait until the second board meeting of the month to allow time for them to review the proposal. The request was deferred until the October 24, 2017 meeting and it is hoped that the Supervisors will approve the resolution at that time.

Brent Wilson is the Greene County Field Officer for the Free Enterprise Forum a privately funded public policy organization.  The Free Enterprise Forum Field Officer program is funded by a generous grant from the Charlottesville Area Association of REALTORS® (CAAR) and by readers like you.  To support this important work please donate online at www.freeenterpriseforum.org

Local Government Spending Index Released

Study Finds Disparity in Local Government Spending

Charlottesville, VA – As political candidates are vying for election and local governments are starting their FY2019 budget process, a new study shows that the rate of increases in local government spending vary dramatically. The “Choices and Decisions” report, conducted by the Free Enterprise Forum, is based on an independent locality-specific local government spending index (LGSI). The report, which studied fiscal years 1990-2016, identified Nelson County as the locality with the greatest increase in LGSI with Albemarle County a close second.

Free Enterprise Forum President Neil Williamson said, “The goal of the LGSI is to inform and promote dialog. The comparison of local spending trends, combined with population data provides citizens an objective tool to evaluate spending decisions. Equipped with this data, citizens can ask better questions of elected officials during the elections and budget season”.

The LGSI is based on self-reported data required to be provided to the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Auditor of Public Accounts. The numbers focus exclusively on the operating budget of each municipality. This number will not include capital expenditures thus avoiding having single-year spikes in capital spending skew the results or interpretation of the data.

It has been theorized that inflation adjusted spending would largely track changes in population and school enrollment. While a correlation was found in some localities studied, this trend was not universal:

Albemarle County – adjusted for inflation, Albemarle County’s total spending increased by over 152% during the study period while population and school enrollment increased by 55% and 36% respectively.

clip_image004City of Charlottesville – During the study period (1990-2016), Charlottesville experienced a population increase of almost 23%, the second smallest of the municipalities being studied. In addition, Charlottesville experienced a cumulative growth in school enrollment of just over 1%. In contrast, inflation-adjusted operating expenditures increased over 80% during the study period.

It was also theorized that growth in inflation-adjusted per capita spending among the localities would be similar because of the high percentage of programs mandated by the state and operated by the localities.

In contrast, the analysis clearly indicates wide variation in per-capita spending decisions made by the localities. During the study period, four localities had roughly 50% increase in per capita spending, while two, Albemarle and Nelson, increased per capita spending by over 60%.

The Free Enterprise Forum is a privately funded public policy organization dedicated to individual economic freedom. The entire report, and supporting documentation, can be accessed under Reports Tab at www.freeenterpriseforum.org

Frederick Fleet and Charlottesville’s Form Based Code Charrette

FORUM WATCH EDITORIAL

By. Neil Williamson, President

Frederick Fleet photo credit 123peopleI fear we may be at a Frederick Fleet moment with next week’s impending Charlottesville’s Form Based Code Charrette.

Please let me explain.

The technological marvel super ship the Titanic had its maiden voyage delayed by several months due to shipyard repairs to her sister ship.  The voyage was postponed until April 1912.  Four days into the journey, lookout Frederick Fleet spotted an iceberg immediately ahead of Titanic and alerted the bridge.  The First Officer ordered the ship to be steered around the obstacle and the engines to be stopped, but it was too late.

It has been suggested if the Titanic sailed on its original schedule, it never would have encountered the iceberg.

Next week, Charlottesville (and their consultant team) are embarking on a design charrette process that, may have a similar timing issue and may be destined for a Titanic style conclusion.

The Charrette process is an intense design exercise; the word is derived from the French word for “little cart” and refers to the intense work of architects before a deadline.

Charlottesville’s consultant firm DPZ website explains the charrette process:

In a one- to two-week work session, the charrette assembles key decision-makers to collaborate with the DPZ team in information sharing, iterative design proposals, feedback and revisions, organizing a complex project quickly. Professionals and stakeholders identify options that are rapidly prototyped and judged, enabling informed decisions and saving months of sequential coordination.

For projects requiring public participation, the charrette is effective in managing a large audience, encouraging input and producing valuable political and market feedback. The dynamic and inclusive process, with frequent presentations, is a fast method of identifying and overcoming obstacles. The shared experience helps vest interest in the design and build support for the vision. A number of DPZ charrettes have concluded with a final presentation during a city council voting to approve the plan!

In my limited experience, charrettes are fast paced, deadline driven and can feel a touch rushed even with the buy in from all stakeholders.  That hardly describes the current Charlottesville environment.

In recent months, even prior to the August 12th events, Charlottesville’s efforts to create a Form Based Code for the Strategic Investment Area (SIA) has been met with significant community concerns regarding gentrification and affordable housing.  In a meeting last week, one resident said,

You can’t ask a room full of white people to make zoning changes in low income neighborhoods

In an April affordable housing community meeting at Mt. Zion First African American Baptist Church, an attendee raised concerns about the SIA plan and the plan’s lack of commitment to the existing community.  One resident stated,

The City Council has knives in all the Charlottesville citizens back.

In last week’s meeting, a leader in the affordable housing community questioned whether the SIA plan was a valid starting point and questioned the City position that it was developed with significant community input.  He also questioned the “power structure” within the charrette process as well as the ability of residents to attend meetings held during the day.

Into this tense environment, a team of Form Based Code experts and consultants are arriving in town on Monday.  Tasked with producing a community supported set of Form Based Code concepts in a week’s time, the consultant Form Based Code Institute will be operating in an “open door” studio in the IX Art Park Event Space (522 2nd St SE).

Specific meetings are scheduled throughout the week

Specific Focus Groups:

Zoning—Mon. September 11 4:00 pm

Housing—Tues. September 12 10:00 am

Property Owners—Tues. September 12, 1:30 pm

Public Works—Wed. September 13, 11:30 am

Planning Commission—Wed. September 13,  4:00 pm

Presentations:

Opening Presentation—Tues, September 12 6:00 pm

Final Presentation—Thurs. September 14 @ 6:00 pm

Beyond definitions of Form Based Codes, two affordable housing concepts were discussed at last week’s meeting: additional height in exchange for affordable housing units or expedited development proposal review for reaching a certain percentage of affordable housing.  One resident suggested that form based code’s goal is to make review process easier.  The consultant replied, we would never make the approval process so easy that it could not be expedited.

Another idea to reduce the cost of building in the SIA was to reduce parking requirements by providing city owned structured parking in support of residential uses.  Considering structured parking is mandated in the SIA, this might be a concept that could save upwards of $20,000 a unit.

The reality is Charlottesville needs more housing, across all price points. We continue to believe one of the key hurdles to creating more housing (affordable and otherwise) is the oppressive regulatory environment; we believe a well crafted Form Based Code coupled with public investment and financial incentives could jump start development in the SIA.

While the Free Enterprise Forum believes that Form Based Code has great potential to provide predictability of outcomes and allow some use flexibility, we are very concerned that the years of work that has brought the project this far may be thwarted due to the current political environment.

To that end I am reminded of a comment from another resident in the April Mt. Zion meeting,

You’re going to come here from somewhere else, and tell us what to do

Anything that comes out of the charrette process will still need to go through the Planning Commission and City Council approval process.

Considering the current climate, I am reminded of Titanic crewman (and survivor) Frederick Fleet who was on duty when he saw a black mass ahead of the ship. He struck three bells and telephoned the bridge. Though the ship swung out of the way, he watched as an iceberg scraped the starboard side.

The Free Enterprise Forum is ringing the bell.

We fear this ill timed, but worthy, Form Based Charrette exercise will be met with a similar fate.

It is a shame.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson, President

Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and  Nelson County.

The Hindsight Report Asks ‘What If?’

By. Neil Williamson, President

Often the most enlightening questions start with, “What if?”

Working with co-author Derek Bedarf, we looked at developing empirical data to answer the question, “What if Charlottesville’s annexation was successful compared with the results of the negotiated Revenue Sharing Agreement?”

After significant research and deliberation, it was determined that this information was available but not assembled in a manner that made such calculations easy. Utilizing Geographic Information System (GIS) technology for the real estate assessment data and 15 years of Albemarle County budget documents for the other taxes (sales taxes, consumer utility taxes, business taxes, motor vehicle licenses  and prepared food and beverage taxes.  Other taxes excluded from this study, for a variety of reasons, include utility consumption tax, short term rental tax, clerk fees, transient occupancy tax, penalties  interest, and audit revenues), The Free Enterprise Forum calculated the tax revenue generating power of the study area.

The resulting “Hindsight Report” examines the tax generating power of the proposed annexation area as it compares with the revenue sharing payments.

  •  The Hindsight Report indicates that over the study period (2001-2016), Albemarle County received, from the study area, over $277 million in local tax revenue compared with the $212.9 million revenue sharing payments made to the City of Charlottesville (+$64.1 million).

  • Had Charlottesville been successful in the annexation and the revenue sharing agreement not been in place, the City would have received $304.7 million in tax revenue from the study area during the study period compared with $212.9 million in revenue sharing payments from Albemarle County (-$91.8 million).

 

  • During the study period, study area property owners paid $72 million less in real estate taxes by being in Albemarle instead of the City of Charlottesville. This “Non-Annexation” Dividend averaged saved (Albemarle) property owners between $3 million and $4 million annually topping out at $6 million in 2007.

The question the data does not answer is whether the Revenue Sharing Agreement was a good deal for all involved.  This is a subjective question that can only be answered in context.

At the time, the historical record suggests annexation was a very real threat and revenue sharing negotiations were heated.

The historical public record also shows many citizens at the public hearing raising some of the same questions regarding equity and fairness that remain part of the discussion today.

Was it a good deal?

Hopefully this data will help you decide.

The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to discuss the Revenue Sharing agreement during their second August meeting on Wednesday August 9th.

Founded in 2003, The Free Enterprise Forum is a privately funded, public policy organization focused on Central Virginia’s local governments.

The entire Hindsight Report can be accessed at www.freeenterprisefoum.org under the reports tab.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson, President

Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and  Nelson County.

Changing Charlottesville Philosophy to YIMBY

Adapted from testimony to The City of Charlottesville Planning Commission, July 25, 2017

By. Neil Williamson, President

As you conduct the “legal” review of Charlottesville’s Zoning Ordinance, the Free Enterprise Forum is concerned that you may be actually, perhaps unintentionally, working against some of the comprehensive plan goals.  Decreasing heights, densities and intensity of development may seem to be reflecting the opinions of some vocal opponents to economic expansion but how does it impact the City’s goals for a vibrant community with affordable housing and economic opportunities for all.

This is not a development problem, it is a political problem, and it exists nationwide.

Image result for yimby I recently reviewed the YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) San Francisco platform and I believe there are many parallels to Charlottesville.  If you insert Charlottesville instead of San Francisco to their preamble, I believe it could be endorsed across the political spectrum:

We believe that San Francisco has always been, and should continue to be, an innovative and forward-looking city of immigrants from around the U.S. and the world. San Francisco is not full, and the Bay Area is definitely not full. Ours is an inclusive vision of welcoming all new and potential residents. Anyone who wants to should be able to afford housing in the Bay Area.

Quartz Media’s Dan Kopf recently wrote an article about the YIMBY movement:

[Sonja] Trauss and fellow San Francisco YIMBY Party members, a group that now includes more than 500 people, believe that the only way to solve San Francisco’s housing problem is by building a hell of a lot more houses. To advocate for this, YIMBYs, many of whom are millennials tired of skyrocketing rents, have aligned themselves with private developers and against long-settled locals who see new housing as an intrusion on their lifestyle and, more importantly, a threat to the value of their homes. YIMBY groups have also emerged in New York, Seattle, and Boston, among other places, challenging the much more prevalent NIMBYs (“not in my back yarders”) who favor keeping things as they are.

The YIMBY solution is different than many others advocating for affordable housing.  Rather than seeking government mandates for subsidized housing or funds to be placed into a “housing affordability trust fund”, YIMBY platform seeks to impact the supply/demand curve by increasing the supply:

We strongly support building new housing. We have a severe housing shortage. Increasing supply will lower prices for all and expand the number of people who can live in the Bay Area.

We should build more housing in every neighborhood — especially high-income neighborhoods.

High density housing goes with high-quality public transit and walkability. However, housing can be built before or in anticipation of the construction of future transit improvements.

The people most hurt by a housing shortage are those with the least means.

So many of the conversations at the Planning Commission and City Council are focused on the topic of density.  In 1982, when Charlottesville and Albemarle reached their revenue sharing agreement, the City’s borders were set, no growth via annexation.  Somewhere in the late 1990s and early 2000s, population densification become a negative rallying cry of those opposed to increased development of the city.  Perhaps as a tip of the hat to these concerns, the SF-YIMBY platform boldly declares “Density is good”:

We are unapologetic urbanists who believe in the virtues of cities. More people living in close proximity to each other can improve their lives and the lives of those far beyond city limits.

  1. Density is sustainability: it reduces urban sprawl, reduces water usage, uses energy more efficiently, and creates a smaller carbon footprint.
  2. Density is accessibility: it encourages walking and biking, makes transit more efficient, reduces social isolation, and increases residents’ access to diverse cultural products and to each other.
  3. Density is opportunity: it increases access to jobs, supports diverse businesses, promotes innovation, and enables people to be more productive.
  4. The Bay Area is a particularly efficient place to build housing because of its moderate climate.
  5. People should be free to choose to live in places that are urban, compact and walkable, low-density and car-centric, or rural. Not everyone wants to live in a dense city. However, current policies restrict the supply of urban housing, leaving suburban life as the only affordable option for many.

Kopf’s article included an interview with Sonja Trauss regarding her definition of a YIMBY:

What exactly does it mean to be a YIMBY?

It means you are an advocate for housing. It means you believe that not having enough housing to accommodate newcomers is terrible public policy that leads to displacement.

YIMBYs want there to be neighborhoods of all varying levels of affordability close to job centers, so people can participate in the city’s economy. What ever your your situation is, we think you should be able to live in the city center if you want to.

The thing about housing is that, in many places, decisions about it are made in a distributed way. In California, no city can just decide to build 10,000 houses, though sometimes mayors will say that. The reality is that the decision is made almost building by building.

If you are in a growing metro area, like San Francisco, there will be times when housing development is proposed in your neighborhood. Being a YIMBY means piping up and supporting that development at neighborhood meetings, or by emails to the government.

No platform is complete without policy recommendations and while we in Virginia can not speak to the need for California Environmental Quality Act reform ,we can endorse the majority of the SF-YIMBY policy prescriptions.  It is interesting how many of these topics have been raised in Charlottesville over the last few years.

We believe in long-term planning. Once a citywide or neighborhood plan is made, the process for building should be streamlined, well-defined and predictable. It should not impose significant delays on or add significant costs to a project, nor should individual property owners or neighborhood associations have the power to hijack it.

  1. As-of-Right building: development plans approved at the departmental level if the project is within existing zoning.
  2. Mandate or incentivize cities to follow regional master plans and statewide housing policies or mandates.
  3. California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) reform.
  4. Raise height limits.
  5. Form-based zoning.
  6. Mixed-use zoning.
  7. Complete streets.

The Free Enterprise Forum strongly requests that you look at all the consequences (perhaps unintended) in your so called legal review.  Consider how these changes balance against the YIMBY platform.  We believe the impacts of many of the changes currently proposed are far beyond a simple legal review, and worse, are counter to the community goals for housing supply, economic vitality, and quality of life.

Respectfully Submitted,

 

Neil Williamson, President

Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and  Nelson County.

Photo Credit: Yimby Toronto

Charlottesville’s Engagement Problem

FORUM WATCH EDITORIAL

By. Neil Williamson, President

Man-proposing-ring-woman-e1434128981263One person can’t get engaged – it takes two.

Engagement, like all communication, requires all parties to fully participate; listening and responding.  This was not the case in last night’s (6/27) Charlottesville planning commission meeting – where the banner of public engagement is waved proudly; but despite the efforts of two special interest groups, their zoning code concerns were not addressed in the discussion.

Please let me explain.

In last night’s Planning Commission code audit work session, Deputy City Attorney Lisa Robertson related to the Commission that she had several conversations with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and received a copy of the letter written by the Charlottesville Area Development Roundtable (CADRe).

Rather than taking the bull by the horns and including these organizations’ concerns in the presentation, Robertson said that CADRe’s letter was written to the Planning Commission and City Council and was not staff’s position to reply.  Robertson said she thought the comments of both groups might inform discussion of the panel but not once in the two hour work session did she raise a specific concern from either of the organizations.  Considering the level of technical detail in the CADRe letter, one would have anticipated planning staff providing some context to the legal discussion – there was none.

The Free Enterprise Forum has reviewed CADRe’s 16 page letter, sent to the Planning Commission in advance of their first work session (5/29).  The respectful tone and constructive criticism was well drafted and encouraged public discussion of the various points.  Those questions went unanswered.

In his reporting for Charlottesville Tomorrow, Sean Tubbs included the CADRe concerns as a part of his coverage of the meeting in this morning’s Daily Progress. If it was important enough to be in the article, shouldn’t it be part of the Planning Commission discussion?

The goal of the Planning Commission work sessions was to vet the proposed zoning changes and the impacts they might have on property owners.  CADRe which works with several prominent property owners raised many significant concerns regarding building heights.  Staff failed to mention (let alone address) these concerns in their presentation; therefore the discussion was significantly less robust than it could have been.

Late in the meeting Planning Commission Chair Kurt Keeseker suggested the commission should be made aware understand the types of comments that are coming in and the citizens should receive a response.  He related the manner in which the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is answering inquiries and the reporting back to the Hydraulic Advisory Panel.  This less than perfect engagement concept was brought forward in good faith, but it was dismissed.

This process is being done under the auspices of a ‘legal review’ and thus the Deputy City Attorney is the lead staff.  As mentioned above, one would anticipate that the planning staff who work with the zoning code day in and day out would have a great deal to offer regarding the code revisions.  Silently sitting a row behind the Deputy City Attorney, Alex Ikefuna Charlottesville’s Director of Planning spoke not one word during the 2 hour+ meeting.  His silence spoke volumes.

When the four Planning Commissioners present pushed back on staff asking for more engagement with  SELC,  CADRe, and other interested citizens, staff indicated that could not be accomplished under the stated work plan that City Council adopted.

In summary, at least two special interest groups provided substantial information to the staff and staff choose not to include the concerns in the presentation because the letter was addressed to the Planning Commission and the City Council. When the Commission pushed for more community engagement, they folded under staff’s threat of jeopardizing City Council’s calendar.

The Free Enterprise Forum believes the zoning code rewrite process is being railroaded.

We believe in true engagement.  Failing to directly address the concerns of the SELC and CADRe at the Planning Commission work session level will lead to increase delay in zoning code implementation and a lack of respect for the entire “engagement” process.  These issues will not “go away” they will return at the public hearings.

Simply putting documents on a website “for all to see” is not engagement – engagement is involved, engagement can be messy, engagement requires significant work and engagement takes time.  It seems the City is placing their calendar over their citizens.

Charlottesville deserves better.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson, President

Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and  Nelson County.

Photo Credit: Hiphealthy.com

Bad ‘Housekeeping’

By. Neil Williamson, President

Image result for alice brady bunchGrowing up in the 1970s, the only ‘housekeeper’ I knew was Alice from the Brady Bunch.  She was an important part of the family who helped out getting everything accomplished for a busy family with six children.  She was well respected by the children, the community and her employers.

Now, in separate, equally disturbing, actions both Albemarle County and Charlottesville are giving Alice a bad name.

Please let me explain.

Under the auspices of literally “Housekeeping” AlbemarlePC Legal notice plans, by my count, nearly 30 code revisions.  The legal ad for the June 20th Planning Commission Public Hearing (right) was dense, even by Albemarle standards.

While the Free Enterprise Forum applauds some of the changes proposed, we remain concerned that other items are clearly being pushed through for political expediency and are being “hidden in plain sight”.

Yesterday, I literally took out my magnifying glass to read the small print.  Policy wonks may read the legal ads this closely but by putting thirty largely unrelated code revisions into Zoning Text Amendment, the opportunity for obfuscation is great.

In a municipal game of “Where’s Waldo” see if you can find the second amend statement in the ad above.  If you were able to find it, you would find this innocuous legalese:

Amend Section 18-32.6 to clarify that specifications for recreational facilities comply with Sections 18-4.16-4.16.3;

Reading the text above, Alice (and pretty much everyone else) might think this is just “cleaning up” some legal stuff to make it comply with some other legal stuff.  But in reality, these twelve words eliminate special use permits for golf and swim clubs in the rural areas, effectively banning new golf courses in Albemarle County.  [correction June 13 10:46 am  this language is to clean up the ordinance, a separate SUP (and public engagement plan) will be submitted to eliminate golf courses in the rural area – per e-mail from Albemarle’s Bill Fritz- the Free Enterprise Forum regrets this error – nw] This is just one of the “housekeeping” items buried in the proposed Zoning Text Amendment

Albemarle is not alone in burying changes in “housekeeping” activities.  Charlottesville Deputy City Attorney Lisa Robertson took City Council’s charge of a “Legal Review” to mean anything her office wanted to change should be a part of the review.

Luckily, the Charlottesville Area Development Roundtable (CADRe) took a long look at the “Legal Review”. As CADRe stated in their May 23rd letter to the Planning Commission:

In the case where a revision represents a substantive change that we feel is inappropriate for the Legal Review and better served by potential Amendments following the update to the Comprehensive Plan, we have noted as Substantive Change. [emphasis added-nw]

Much more than just “Housekeeping” CADRe’s letter outlined 16 pages of Substantive Changes; including the elimination of non residential uses in residential districts:

Also, what about all the other non-residential uses that are currently permitted in residential districts per the residential matrix? Is there a proposed replacement matrix that maintains these uses?

Examples: Houses of worship, temporary outdoor churches, cemetery, Health clinic, private clubs, wireless facilities (antennas, attached facilities, etc.), day care facility, schools (elementary, high school, college) funeral home, library, municipal govt. offices, property management, parking garage/lot, indoor health/sports clubs, parks, utility facilities, utility lines, consumer service business.
If these uses are eliminated from the residential districts this too is a SIGNIFICANT SUBSTANTIVE CHANGE

Regardless of your position on the issues buried in these Zoning Text Amendments, it is difficult for us to understand how one would find these changes as “Housekeeping”.  Instead, we see it as an attempt, albeit a legal attempt, to circumvent the normal process and implement significant changes without proper public engagement.

Alice would indeed be disappointed in this shaming of the word “Housekeeping”.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson, President

Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and  Nelson County.

Photo Credit: WJBQ.com

Sprawl Wars–One Rouge

By. Neil Williamson, President

Reminding me of the old Don Imus bit “Which Doesn’t Belong and Why”, this Thursday evening I will be joining Charlottesville City Councilor Kathy Galvin and Piedmont Environmental Council’s Charlottesville-Albemarle Land Use Officer Jeff Werner on a panel discussing “How Zoning and Land Use Shape The World Around Us”.  This FREE event is a non-partisan project of The Democratic Road Forward PAC.

At the outset, I must complement the other panelists both of whom are well respected in their professional and political fields.  I have known Werner and Galvin for many years; we disagree strongly about some things, but we have always had interesting, positive conversations/debates.  I anticipate Thursday will be equally interesting.

While the Free Enterprise Form is pleased to be invited to the panel, some of the promotion for the event already has me scratching my head. Rather than focusing on the more cerebral zoning and land use, the organizers are touting “URBAN SPRAWL” Here is the blurb from the website:

2017UGsession6_4

“Decades of unplanned and carelessly applied zoning gave rise to urban sprawl”, I have to disagree.

Sure the zoning regulations and their enforcement had an impact on neighborhood expansion, but market demand, improved mobility, automobile affordability, as well as the advancement of women in the workplace were significant contributors to sprawling neighborhoods.

Blaming the previous planning is evidence of the arrogant planner’s paradox — if only the community planned better we would be a better community – planning is good but product must have a market or it does not get built.  The Free Enterprise Forum does not believe most planners have a wide enough world view when it comes to planning alternatives.

In his paper, Urban Sprawl, Smart Growth, and Deliberative Democracy, David B. Resnik, JD, PhD wrote:

Urban sprawl in the United States has its origins in the flight to the suburbs that began in the 1950s. People wanted to live outside of city centers to avoid traffic, noise, crime, and other problems, and to have homes with more square footage and yard space. As suburban areas developed, cities expanded in geographic size faster than they grew in population. This trend has produced large metropolitan areas with low population densities, interconnected by roads. Residents of sprawling cities tend to live in single-family homes and commute to work, school, or other activities by automobile.

The concept of living in a suburban neighborhood has been a dream for many American families.  The advent of affordable automobiles and gasoline provided America the greatest independent mobility in the world.  People could choose to live out in the country and still make it into the urban areas to work.  Today, environmental groups and academics have successfully attached a negative connotation to the “American Dream” of owning a house with a yard by using the term ‘sprawl’.

“Sprawl features rapid geographic expansion of metropolitan areas in a “leapfrog,” low density pattern, segregation of distinct land uses, heavy dependence on automobile travel with extensive road construction, architectural and social homogeneity, shift of capital investment and economic opportunity from the city center the the periphery, and relatively weak regional planning.”
Rollins School of Public Heath, Emory University

“Sprawl is irresponsible, often poorly-planned development that destroys green space, increases traffic and air pollution, crowds schools, and drives up taxes.” –The Sierra Club

Local and State Governments have joined in the anti-sprawl movement mainly for economic reasons – it is significantly more efficient to deliver government services (Schools, Police, Fire, Etc.) to a densely populated area rather than geographically dispersed.

In a fascinating piece of creative lexicon, the term ‘Smart Growth’ worked its way into the planning sphere in the 1990s.  Like ‘Clean Water’ these positive terms, work subliminally to support their own cause i.e.: if you are opposed to ‘smart growth’ you must favor ‘dumb growth’.  Recently many of  ‘smart growth’ proponents have shifted lexicon to be supportive of “Form Based Zoning”, “Sustainable Cities” and of course Charlottesville’s  “Streets that Work”.

One of the premier new urbanist evangelists is Andrés Duany, whose firm DPZ was hired by Charlottesville last year to develop their Form Based Code.  Duany has co-authored five books: Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, The New Civic Art, “The Smart Growth Manual”, “Garden Cities” and “Landscape Urbanism and Its Discontents”.

The Free Enterprise Forum believes there is a market for Form Based Codes and New Urbanism; but there is also a market for old urbanism and suburbanism.  Just as we were supportive of Albemarle’s neighborhood model as ONE model not THE model, we believe zoning should not be crafted to prevent the last bad thing from happening again it should be built to allow the next great place to be built.  Neither sprawl or the automobile should be seen as planners’ enemy.

In his seminal book The Vanishing Automobile and Other Myths, Randal O’Toole wrote:

Sprawl is one of those invented problems. Low-density suburbanization–which is what people usually mean when they say “sprawl”–not only is not responsible for most of the problems that its critics charge, it is the solution to many of the problems that sprawl opponents claim they want to solve.

The war on sprawl is really a war on American lifestyles. It combines a war on the suburbs that house half of all Americans with a war on the automobiles that carry Americans four out of every five miles they travel. Yet the suburbs provide an ideal medium between rural open spaces and crowded cities while occupying just 2 percent of the nation’s land. Meanwhile, for most urban-length trips, the automobile is the fastest, most convenient, and most economical form of personal transportation ever devised.

Americans live in a wide range of possible lifestyles. A fourth of all U.S. residents live in rural areas away from any cities or towns. Another 10 percent live in small towns that are far from major urban areas. While 65 percent of Americans live in urbanized areas of 50,000 people or more, just a third of those live in the central cities such as New York, Seattle, or Dallas. Urbanized lifestyles range from low-density suburbs through medium-density edge cities to high-density city centers. All of these are valid lifestyle choices and they work for the people who live there.

To be clear, any land use regulation worth of the name is a restriction of property rights.  Interestingly, those same regulations provide a level of protection for the property rights (and property values) of others.  The question is how intensely you regulate.

  • Should local government determine where you should put your dumpster?
  • Should local government determine what color red should be in the Red Lobster sign?
  • Should local government mandate expansive sidewalks, bike lanes and street trees?
  • Should local government encourage economic development by reducing regulation?
  • How much power should neighbors have directing development nearby?
  • How does zoning impact neighborhood ethnic and income diversity?  Should it?

These are the type of questions I hope we get to discuss on Thursday night.  The answers will shape how our community chooses to prosper and grow, or not.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson

Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and  Nelson County.