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City Council approves transfer of Brandon Avenue to U.Va.

The decision comes after debate over potentially requiring compensation from the University for the street

<p>Brandon Avenue is located off of Jefferson Park Avenue between the University’s South Lawn complex and the University Health System.</p>

Brandon Avenue is located off of Jefferson Park Avenue between the University’s South Lawn complex and the University Health System.

The Charlottesville City Council adopted an ordinance Monday night to transfer ownership of Brandon Avenue to the University —  without requiring any formal compensation — which will support U.Va.’s plans to redevelop the area with a “green street,” upperclassmen student housing and a remodeled student health center. The measure passed in a 4-1 vote with Mayor Nikuyah Walker casting a dissenting vote. 

The Council’s decision comes after significant debate — originally raised by Walker at a Council meeting in February — concerning whether the University should compensate the City of Charlottesville in some manner for the transfer of the street. 

Brandon Avenue is located off of Jefferson Park Avenue between the University’s South Lawn complex and the University Health System.

Under the adopted ordinance, the City will vacate all of its public interests in the Brandon Avenue area — as well as a portion of nearby Monroe Lane and 15th Street — to allow for site work to be completed in preparation for redevelopment. The title of the land, including the street itself and the adjacent sidewalks, will be transferred to the University for the construction of new buildings and other improvements to the area. 

Under the Brandon Avenue Master Plan, the University aims to redevelop several properties along the street — including the Elson Student Health Center and the Outpatient Surgery Center — to construct a “green” student community which would include academic spaces, student wellness facilities, new on-Grounds housing for over 300 students and a central “green street” to connect the South Lawn complex to the U.Va. Health System.

A “green street” is an environmentally friendly roadway which utilizes vegetation, soil and engineered systems to efficiently collect and cleanse rainwater at its source rather than being culled into drainage ways from impervious surfaces. 

The majority of the properties located along the street are already owned by the University or the UVA Foundation — a nonprofit corporation which manages properties and financial services on behalf of the University. 

During the February Council meeting, Walker requested that the City calculate the value of Brandon Avenue to inform the body’s discussion regarding how much the University might be asked contribute for the right of ownership to the street. The City Assessor’s office originally estimated the value of the street to be $2.75 million but reduced the amount to $539,000 as the proposed ordinance requires Brandon Avenue to remain a functional street rather than be developed into another form of property. 

In the event City Council had decided to vacate Brandon Avenue to the University conditional upon the payment of the $539,000 fee, University administration had already agreed to pay the amount in full, according to Interim City Attorney Lisa Robertson.

However, Robertson said, the funds would have been deducted from $5 million the University has already allocated — but not formally granted to the city — towards the City’s ongoing redevelopment of West Main Street and other projects based on U.Va’s current budget. 

The City is currently in the midst of a $31 million project to redevelop West Main Street to include wider sidewalks, safer bike lanes and streetside vegetation. 

Although University Deputy Spokesperson Wes Hester confirmed in an email to The Cavalier Daily that “the University has committed $5 million to the City in support of its projects in areas adjacent to the University Grounds,” it is unclear how or when these funds will be allocated to the City or how much will be directly utilized for the development of West Main Street. 

At Monday’s meeting, Walker said the two projects should be considered independently of each other, while other councilors argued that the University's planned contribution to the development of West Main Street should be considered with regards to Brandon Avenue.  

“U.Va. is still controlling the discussion here,” Walker said. “If you’re attempting to set a new direction, then those should be two separate conversations.” 

Robertson also said the University could not have anticipated the Council’s consideration of imposing a fee for the transfer of Brandon Avenue as there was no precedent for such an arrangement. 

“Another way to look at things is that during the negotiations in which the $5 million figure was arrived at, the prospect of paying half a million dollars for this [Brandon Avenue] really didn't occur to anyone participating in those negotiations because for the prior 15 years of property transfers, no one had ever asked for compensation to be made,” Robertson said. 

Walker defended the notion of requiring the University to compensate the city for Brandon Avenue, saying the University's plan to maintain the street was irrelevant to the conversation. Based on current estimates, the city will save $7,500 per year on maintenance costs for the street. 

Councilor Mike Signer said the University’s financial commitment to West Main Street should be considered in the context of transferring ownership of Brandon Avenue to U.Va. 

“Getting them to capitulate and concede and come in with a serious amount of money … was complicated,” Signer said. “[It] required a ton of work, and I would love for there to be some recognition of the hard work and negotiation that went into this in the past.” 

However, Walker said she would have considered asking questions of the University regarding property transfer and compensation during the original negotiations of the West Main Street development project. 

“If I were in the room, I would have steered that conversation towards, ‘What have those property transfers looked like over the past 15 years and the benefit that they [the University] received already from them and not having people ask those questions of the value and having to pay for it,” Walker said. 

Councilor Kathy Galvin argued that it was essential for the University to contribute the full amount of the $5 million for the West Main Street development to allow for the city and the University to jointly submit a Smart Scale application to the Virginia Department of Transportation, allowing for greater state funding. 

Smart Scale is a scoring system utilized by VDOT to rank the validity of project funding requests by localities in Virginia based on how they would address congestion issues, increase accessibility to jobs, promote safety among other benefits. The City has already submitted one such request to VDOT in 2017, although it was not approved. 

Walker said if the Council were to reject or postpone a vote on Brandon Avenue, it would halt the University's progress on the development and allow for continued negotiations. 

“If Council decided not to vote tonight and went back to U.Va. and said … ‘Hey, this is what Council decided, that these [projects] are separate, and we would like for you to look at them as separate’ — then we haven't made a decision on Brandon Avenue yet, and so they can't move forward, and we’re back at the table,” Walker said. 

In response, Signer said such an action would provoke unnecessary hostilities between the City and the University, potentially resulting in a loss of funding for the redevelopment of West Main Street. 

Vice Mayor Heather Hill worried that requiring the University to compensate the city for Brandon Avenue could negatively influence future negotiations. 

“I’m worried about the effect this would have every other time we go the table with them,” Hill said. “I am optimistic there's going to be a shift in their thinking and responsibilities to the community, I’m just not sure this is the fish I want to fry.” 

Galvin added that the health of the relationship between the city and the University outweighed any limited benefits the city could glean from demanding payment for the Brandon Avenue property. 

“I just feel like there’s so much that’s valuable about building a working relationship with the institution,” Galvin said. “This is a lot to jeopardize for something that has no value to us and in fact costs us money to maintain.” 

Walker disagreed, noting she does believe the property has value.

“If it were that insignificant, we would not be having this discussion the way we’re having it,” Walker said. 


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