Charlottesville Fights Back Against Its Racist Zoning Demons

A patron enters a coffee shop with a sign saying “100% Hate Free We Are Charlottesville” in the downtown mall area of Charlottesville, Virginia, Aug. 14, 2017. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Charlottesville spent 2018 trying to understand, and move past, the violent white supremacist rally that took place in August of 2017. “Will 2019 be the year of change in Charlottesville?” asked the Daily Progress, the local paper, in late December.

The event still weighs heavily across the city, including in the offices of city planning. “Frankly, the Aug. 12th, 2017 incidents pretty much drive and influence a lot of policy decisions in the city right now,” says Alexander Ikefuna, director of the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development Services.

The rally has undoubtedly left its mark on one of Charlottesville’s toughest assignments for the new year: updating its comprehensive plan. The new plan has been in the works for over two years.

“We were halfway through this thing when August [2017] hit us,” says Planning Commissioner Lyle Solla-Yates. “We were a different community on the other side.”

Solla-Yates says the urge deepened to address the city’s segregated past and present. Planners decided to tackle a tool that has enforced segregation in many U.S. cities, including Charlottesville: zoning.

The last time Charlottesville addressed zoning on such a wide scale, according to Solla-Yates, was 1929. For the city’s first zoning code, black shading and white cross-hatches marked African American residential neighborhoods as the only areas where commercial and industrial development was allowed. Open land was left untouched.

In both 1964 and 1991, the city down-zoned to further restrict development. Today 55 percent of city land is zoned for single-family homes.

In updating the land use chapter of the comprehensive plan, the city is proposing a gradual transition between low-rise neighborhoods and denser urban hubs. Single family, multiplex, townhomes and other smaller scale residential structures would be encouraged within residential neighborhoods. Ikefuna calls it a series of “wholesale changes to the zoning ordinance.”

Public outreach around the comprehensive plan was extended three times to gain input from a broad swath of residents. Engagement will continue as the city tackles zoning. “We’re going to have to do a whole second community engagement to get into the particulars,” Solla-Yates says.

The process won’t be easy. On Saturday, Jan. 5, in a tense, five-hour work session, there was a vote to return to a less ambitious map drafted in March of 2018, which will further push the process behind. A month prior, city council members expressed concern that the latest zoning map proposed too much density and population growth. At another long meeting this week, land use remained a sticking point, with Interim City Manager Mike Murphy suggesting to bring experts into the process.

There was one success from the Saturday meeting, says Solla-Yates. In the new land use chapter, the city will not include restrictions on dwelling units per acre.

According to Charlottesville Tomorrow, “The city routinely uses dwelling units per acre as a metric for whether a development meets city zoning ordinances or the vision outlined in the Comprehensive Plan. However, many argue that the focus on the number of units discourages developers from building smaller units that can be more affordable.”

In the public realm, zoning elicits a range of reactions across cities, and Charlottesville is no different. On one hand, existing zoning restrictions have made the city’s tight housing market even tighter. Still, there’s fear within lower income communities that denser zoning will greatly increase gentrification and displacement.

“Charlottesville’s increasing gentrification has already displaced an alarming number of people and some of our neighborhoods have changed significantly,” reads a 2016 statement from the Charlottesville Public Housing Association of Residents. The statement urged the city to maximize community involvement, especially with low-wealth residents and people of color, as well as respond to the concerns of those communities in zoning modifications.

In its outreach and engagement for a comprehensive plan that tackles inequity, the city is making strides that it hasn’t attempted before, Solla-Yates says.

In the first round of public meetings for the comprehensive plan, attendees were generally older, white, and higher-income homeowners — and, notably, transportation and childcare weren’t provided. So the city reached to more diverse groups, including subsidized housing, minority and LGBTQ communities. A group of community leaders, traditionally underrepresented in the city planning process, were also assembled for a meeting.

In-person outreach also extended to homeless residents of the city. Addressing homelessness in the comprehensive plan, Solla-Yates says, is “revolutionary” for Charlottesville. “We’re just thinking about whole sectors of the city we’ve never considered before.”

The work that remains for the city, beyond finalizing the land use chapter, includes writing a community engagement chapter and incorporating city council feedback in the completed six chapters.

“We’re still doing really important and transformative work,” Solla-Yates says, “But it’s hard and it’s taking time.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was updated/corrected to reflect that the City Council expressed concern about the zoning prior to the Jan. 5 work session.

Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, New York-based reporter who writes about real estate, architecture, urbanism and design. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, Curbed and other publications.

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