Retreat from The Retreat
The Blacksburg Town Council should retreat from The Retreat and vote to deny the changes to the town of Blacksburg Comprehensive Plan and the rezoning to permit construction of this high-density student housing project on a portion of the Obenshain property on Prices Fork Road.
I am not against development in Blacksburg and will not be devastated if some of the Obenshain property sees some more-appropriate development. But at the planning commission meeting on Sept. 3, one of the staff reports included the statement that “Student housing stock is part of a university town when well sited and managed appropriately.” The Retreat may be a wonderful project, well-managed, and quite popular – but in its present location, it is not “well sited.”
The recommendation that came out of the planning commission was disappointing and was not the appropriate decision for a number of reasons. First, none of the reasons to change the recently adopted Comprehensive Plan were met by the applicant. It was not adequately demonstrated that “The amendment will effectively aid in the implementation of goals, objectives and policies of the Comprehensive Plan.” In fact, The Retreat plan does not meet any of the goals of the plan, since it is high-density student housing, which is not mentioned anywhere in the plan.
What the plan does call for in the Jobs & Housing (J&H.51) section is action to promote varying types of housing types needed, including:
- Rental or starter homes for purchase by graduate students and young families.
- Young professional housing and services in the downtown area.
- Workforce Housing for those making 80% to 120% of the area median income.
- Affordable workforce housing options for LMI families making less than 80 percent of the area median income.
- Housing with universal design features to allow for aging in place. The Retreat is none of these. In fact, “The undergraduate student market has driven much of the housing market in Blacksburg, often to the exclusion of other market segments.” The planning commission determined that the applicant met the additional criteria for change:
- The request must be a creative idea or concept that will benefit the community and that was unforeseen during the planning process for the Comprehensive Plan.
- Conditions have changed substantially since the last Comprehensive Plan update, necessitating a change.
The plan for The Retreat isn’t anything new, it is student housing packaged in a different manner, the “single-family structure” look. This isn’t really anything that will benefit the community as much as it will benefit the out-of-town owners. The only conditions that have changed are for the Obenshains, who found a buyer for their property; there is no unknown or unmet need for additional student housing.
This area is specifically mentioned in the Land Use chapter of the Comprehensive Plan, in the “Multi-Unit Residential Neighborhood Issues for the Future” section:
- There is an opportunity to encourage planned residential development, with limited neighborhood commercial areas, on the properties to the north and south of the existing Hethwood neighborhood, with accommodations for appropriate collector/access roads and alternative transportation routes.
- New multi-family developments in these areas should de-emphasize parking areas, maximize the use of alternate transportation options, be walkable, connect to other developments, have a street presence, and use other principles as detailed in the Residential Infill Guidelines.
While there are internal roads in The Retreat, they all feed to one exit, the proposed connection to Prices Fork Road across from Huntington Lane. Although it is proposed to include a right-turn only exit, the majority of traffic will be headed east on Prices Fork Road toward the Virginia Tech campus. Prices Fork Road has enough traffic issues as it is and is not really an “appropriate collector/access road.” There are also no “alternative transportation routes” other than existing external bike/pedestrian paths.
The Retreat as proposed has all the parking in front of the buildings, along the internal streets – not a de-emphasis of parking. At the neighborhood meeting in August, the developer claimed it was too expensive to move the parking to areas behind the buildings. The “alternative transportation routes” involve an attempt to work with Blacksburg Transit to provide bus service (although the developers balked at the price quoted by the BT) or setting up its own shuttle service. The Retreat proposes to be a self-contained development with no planned connections to other developments in the area. Its street presence as presented will be structures along Prices Fork Road facing into the project and lots of obstructive landscaping along the street.
The plans as presented do not mesh well with the Comprehensive Plan.
It is also disconcerting that there was no discussion by the Planning Commission about the change in zoning to allow up to five unrelated persons to occupy a dwelling. This is a dangerous precedent to establish, to allow the growth in this restriction.
There has been much discussion about the traffic situation on Prices Fork Road. Since traffic lights in town are not synchronized, but are set up to respond to demand from side streets, it is almost impossible to get from Heather Drive to University City Boulevard without a red light at Plantation Road. This disruption to the smooth flow of traffic will only be exacerbated by the addition of a traffic light at Huntington Lane.
This does not fit with one of the goals in the Land Use chapter of the Comprehensive Plan. It is appropriate that this request gets a fair hearing, but in the end it should be rejected for not meeting the rules and standards established by the town council and the plans and goals as established by the citizens in the Comprehensive Plan and its recent update.
- Submission by Bruce Harper, He is a homeowner in Hethwood and works at Virginia Tech.