The Crozet Community Advisory Committee was introduced to a block development plan for the former Barnes Lumber company property at its meeting August 19 and responded with a rare spontaneous round of applause as plan architect Warren Byrd ended his presentation.
White Hall residents Byrd and his wife Susan Nelson, also an architect, drafted the plan to demonstrate how the community’s goals, as defined in the Crozet Master Plan and the Downtown Crozet District, a special zoning area, can be realized in a design for the 20-acre lumberyard parcel. Now retired, they were both on the architecture faculty at the University of Virginia. They also ran a design firm in Charlottesville, then called Nelson Byrd Landscape Architects and now known as Nelson Byrd Woltz, for Thomas Woltz, who took over leadership of the practice. Their firm was selected by Albemarle County as the consultant for the development of the foundational Crozet Master Plan that was adopted in 2004. The firm developed an international reputation for sustainable design and among its numerous projects was the design of the 9/11 memorial park at Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Byrd received the American Society of Landscape Architecture’s Medal, its top honor, in 2013. Woltz, who was also involved in the creation of the Crozet Master Plan and is now working on the Hudson Yard project in Manhattan, among several others, was named Design Innovator of the Year by The Wall Street Journal in 2013.
Neither Byrd nor Nelson had attended the community meetings in May and June where the public laid out its goals for the parcel—an effective road system, a town plaza or park and the incorporation of as much green space as possible. But they read the Gazette’s coverage of those and studied the three draft plans the public had been shown to react to at the second meeting. Byrd said Nelson had promptly put tracing paper over one of them and began drawing. The plan shown to the CCAC had the public meetings’ Plan B, so-called ‘grid plan,’ still peeking out underneath. They had used it as baseline to ensure that they were consistent with the amount of building footprint assumed in the earlier plans.
“This plan that I worked on is just a contribution that we are making as caring citizens,” said Byrd as he began. “We think we can tweak some things and make this a better plan. Hopefully this is not stepping on anyone’s toes but contributing to the design project.
“We shifted things. Connectivity is primary. We looked at a system of blocks and street and open spaces. We looked at existing patterns. We repeat the existing block system. We run High Street through.”
The baseline dimensions for a block were taken from the existing block between Library Avenue and The Square and when this block is repeated, it conforms with the location of High Street. This is not likely to be a coincidence, but was forethought in how those streets were first laid out.
“I feel we’re paying homage to the existing Square,” said Byrd. “I think it supports or reinforces what’s there.” It adds to the commercial concentration on the west end of the parcel. Byrd said he imagined a “gradation” in the intensity of mixed use as the development moves east to reach the neighborhood of Parkside Village. Byrd said the plan assumes mixed-use development with buildings on the scale of what presently exists in downtown.
The plaza/park area shown in the other versions as near The Square, they brought east to line up with High Street and gave it a new appellation as a town square. The new square, about one acre, is the largest proposed in any plan so far. Byrd said it would be about three-quarters of the size of Lee Park in Charlottesville.
“The park would be used intermittently during the day and for special events would be used as a gathering space. It could be as simple or complicated as you want. We think it’s mostly trees and lawn. It doesn’t have to be expensive. It’s not a complicated proposal.”
The plan shows what Byrd described as three or four sites for prominent buildings that would look out on the new square.
“The blocks grow organically from the west and the east,” he said. “This framework, in our minds, makes the most sense. It’s pretty straightforward. What we’re trying to do is encourage people to walk.”
Earlier plans have imagined Library Avenue making a dogleg turn north to connect to a new street that would parallel the railroad tracks, but in the Nelson Byrd plan Library Avenue becomes one of two primary roads in downtown and runs straight to a direct connection with Hilltop Street. A second street is shown paralleling the railroad track, and aside from a jog designed to slow traffic near the new park, is essentially an extension of the street that connects The Square to Crozet Avenue. Byrd named it “center street” for the sake of the plan. These two primary east-west streets are connected by six new north-south streets. Center street includes a long green space that runs the length of the road and touches the new square/park at its west end. Byrd calls it “center street green.” It essentially creates a loop pedestrian route around the new blocks.
Conforming to the DCD zoning, Byrd’s plan shows relegated parking, meaning parking in lots behind the buildings that face the primary streets. These long east-west lots interconnect and increase opportunities for circulation. The lots are shown as landscaped with shady walkways to the primary streets. Byrd said the roads are shown as 36-feet wide, enough for parking on both sides, or on one side if bike lanes were added. He said the north-south streets are drawn to allow parallel parking on both sides.
Byrd’s plan shows the storm water basin in the property’s southeast corner developed into a landscaped series of small ponds with a pathway through it leading toward Claudius Crozet Park. “The storm water park is a huge opportunity to connect to [Crozet] park,’ he stressed. Part of that connection is property belonging to Parkside Village.
Byrd said his plan actually increases the amount of parking over what had been shown in previous plans.
Lumberyard developer Frank Stoner of Milestone Partners watched the presentation and asked Byrd about parking. “It’s a huge issue,” said Stoner. “The economics of Crozet do not support structured parking [a garage]. Our plan is under-parked by 300-400-500 spaces.”
“You are aiming at creating an intimate space and slowing things down,” answered Byrd. “We worked with what we saw in the plan. We have more in our plan but not 400 or 500 more spaces.” Byrd said that where it’s possible to put parking under a building it should be considered.
“Fight the system,” Byrd added. “There will be an inherent conflict between walkable spaces and areas focused on commercial development and parking. This plan is going to grow somewhat organically from west to east. I think you have to fight that normative suburban ratio of parking to commercial space in order for it to be a vibrant area.”
The DCD has a relatively light parking requirement of only one space per 1,000 square feet of commercial area, on the assumption that shoppers are walking and not moving their cars to reach different stores.
Stoner challenged Byrd’s connection of Library Avenue to Hilltop Street, saying he doubted the county would approve it because of the stream setback requirements.
“A master plan should be adaptable, and you can challenge it if it’s not working,” Byrd said. “Here I am challenging the very master plan we were involved in creating. I think as things change through time, the plan should be adapted.”
The stream setbacks, however, are not imposed by the master plan, but separate ordinances. Still, reductions in setbacks have been allowed where they can be justified.
The Crozet Master Plan tried to allow for flexibility and reviews are built in on a five-year schedule. The community’s months-long review of the plan in 2010 resulted in a greater homogenization of residential densities and a consolidation of commercial areas based on how the public saw the plan perform after it was put into action. The DCD also includes waiver procedures that are designed to apply common sense where exceptional circumstances occur.
Stoner told the CCAC that he has been working with the Virginia Department of Transportation—which looked at all three designs shown at the community meetings—as well as transportation and economic development consultants.
“A grid-like plan was not contemplated by the county or VDOT, but they are willing to consider it,” he said. He said VDOT is not willing to consider a new trestle under the railroad track now and has no money to study the idea. Stoner said he expects to present more detailed plans in September or October. His application for rezoning, which was due to expire in August, has been given a one-year extension by the county.
The CCAC also passed a resolution to be sent to the Board of Supervisors reminding them of its earlier resolution opposing commercial development at the Yancey Mills interchange of Interstate 64 and Rt. 250. The CCAC does not want the possibility that enlarging the Growth Area around the Rt. 29/I-64 interchange, milepost 118, in Charlottesville, where a brewery may be interested in locating, would be a precedent for reopening a settled land use question.
I hate to say it but this project is dragging on and on. It almost seems like the community is losing steam with this single project.