Chris Fuller has been trying for years to get someone to build his ideal place to live. As an architectural engineer at Staengl Engineering, a firm that specializes in sustainable, energy-efficient structures, Fuller would like to find an affordable, low-impact home to support a green lifestyle for him and his family. “My office is right downtown [in the Crozet Library building], and I’d love to live nearby and walk to work,” he said. So, building on many years of experience designing Charlottesville’s EcoVillage project, he began to sketch out small new neighborhoods in Crozet that would fit the bill.
“I drew up a plan for a pocket neighborhood on a [seven-acre] parcel across from Crozet Park, called the Park Road Cottages,” said Fuller. The plan featured 25 houses on smaller lots that clustered around green common areas and community gardens, with centralized parking to allow residents to interact with neighbors as they traversed the open spaces. The “pocket” concept aims to nestle increased residential density into an area in a way that’s consistent with surrounding neighborhoods.
“It was the first time I had actually tried to made a project happen rather than just design it,” said Fuller, but local builders had other ideas. “I asked a few developers to look at it, and one of them just went ahead and bought the land and is putting up half-million-dollar houses instead.” A similar process unfolded with his St. George Cottages design, which envisioned 15 single-family dwellings on a long, narrow 5.5-acre parcel on St. George Avenue, within easy walking distance of schools, shopping, and downtown.
“I went to a Planning Commission work session to talk about the barriers involved in building something like this [on St. George],” said Fuller, “and about how neighborhoods used to be and why it’s so hard to replicate that now. I got a call right after the meeting that the property had just sold, and again there will be only conventional houses there.” St. George Properties, LLC, bought the land and is constructing seven houses on half-acre or larger lots.
Not one to be dissuaded, Fuller’s newest pocket design is for a property that he already owns, thus avoiding a developer end run this time. Bamboo Grove is a 1.25-acre parcel on Orchard Drive, just a short distance from Jarmans Gap, but only .65 of an acre is available for building as the property is bounded on the north side by a stream and, of course, a grove of bamboo. While current zoning regulations would allow four dwelling units on the property, Fuller must request a zoning change to build six units in a cluster layout to make the project financially viable.
“I’m a serial optimist, but I live in a pragmatic world,” he said. “Engineering is very pragmatic, but I try to push the limits everywhere I can.” Bamboo Grove would feature three larger and three smaller single-family houses, each between 900 and 2000 square feet, plus a common area with a patio and a grassy open space for residents. Two of the smaller cottages would be attached, and all three smaller units would be designated as affordable housing. Two parking spaces per dwelling would be provided in a common parking area.
Despite his optimism, Fuller was on the verge of giving up on his cluster idea last summer due to the thorny regulatory obstacles in his path, but two of his associates encouraged him to keep pushing. “Nicole Scro [a builder] and Justin Shimp [an engineer], both partners in Gallifrey [a local land use development and design firm] gave me the nudge I needed,” he said, “so I put in the rezoning package at the end of last year and it’s currently being considered by the Planning Commission.”
Fuller believes that Bamboo Grove is exactly the sort of project that comports with the values embedded in Crozet’s current Master Plan and its coming update. “The form is the most important part,” he said. “These are still single-family houses, they’re just a little smaller and on smaller lots. It’s not a fundamental change to what’s there already, it’s just the next thing. The idea is to strengthen what is already here by thickening it up, not by coming in with a bulldozer and scraping it off to build mega projects like The Vue.”
Inflexible and sometimes conflicting zoning rules are at the heart of the problem, said Fuller. “The problem with zoning is its hubris,” he said. “The county is assuming that R2 [two dwellings per acre in residential areas] is the only right way and will be that way forever, so developers have to build two lots per acre to be economically viable. That doesn’t make sense on Orchard Drive and St. George Avenue if we want a walkable downtown. There have to be enough people who can actually walk to it because if not, then people will have to drive to it and our traffic problems will get worse.”
Fuller pointed to towns like Ithaca, New York, as a model for more flexible zoning that allows incremental change. “Ithaca allowed smaller lot sizes and the use of accessory structures as dwelling units, which helps to preserve a neighborhood as it is because property values don’t eclipse structure values,” he said. “I don’t want gentrification and displacement to happen in neighborhoods like those between the park and downtown. Let’s help the people who are already here stay here, and manage our growth gently.”
Bamboo Grove’s innovative design, paired with Fuller’s upbeat presentation style, won praise from attendees at the February 12 Crozet Community Advisory Committee meeting. He explained that the tightly built, “net zero” buildings are set optimally to shape the outdoor spaces and encourage community interaction, and highlighted his plans to install rain water gardens along the stream and to preserve Crozet trail spaces. Fuller also emphasized that keeping most of the dwellings as single-family units was intended to respect the scale of the surrounding neighborhood.
The prospective building site’s two closest neighbors attended the meeting to express their support for the plan. “I think it’s karma, really,” said the homeowner who lives at the corner of Orchard Drive and Jarmans Gap. “I was state director of Habitat for Humanity for 20 years, and this fits beautifully into my concept of the neighborhood.” The homeowner’s own house was built as a sustainable, green structure, and she welcomes more of the same. “Won’t you be my neighbor, Chris?” she said, the crowd chuckling at the Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood reference.
“We talk a lot about affordable housing,” said CCAC member Brian Day, “and this implements it without subsidies. I think we need to find some clever new ordinances that allow this kind of development to take place so we can try it and see. [In this case] we’ve got supportive neighbors, and somebody who’s willing to go through five hundred hurdles to make it happen. Let’s just try it!”
“[Chris and I] have both have given the county model ordinances they could use to support this kind of project,” said Scro, who attended the meeting to support Fuller and Bamboo Grove. “That’s kind of an exciting part—this project is so small that we hope it can be used as a model.” County planner Andrew Knuppel agreed that this type of neighborhood fits the requests by many residents during the Master Plan update process for more cluster cottage and bungalow court types of housing in Crozet.
Fuller’s next steps will be to receive comments from Planning Commission staff on his proposal before making formal presentations both there and, if the plan is favorably received, to the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors. To view Fuller’s designs and the slides from his CCAC presentation, visit thehousinglab.org online, where you can also contact him with any questions or comments.