Amid housing crunch, council approves request for major apartment complex along Port Republic Rd. corridor

By Randi B. Hagi, senior contributor

A six-story apartment building cleared a key hurdle and could soon spring up on Peach Grove Avenue near the intersection with Port Republic Road.

Amid conversations about how to increase the availability of housing in Harrisonburg, the city council voted unanimously Tuesday evening to approve a rezoning request and three special use permits from developer Skylar & Talli, LLC.

Skylar & Talli’s five-and-a-half-acre property sits at 1051 Peach Grove Avenue, adjacent to the McDonald’s and the shopping center that includes Food Lion and Vito’s.

City staff recommended the council deny the project, and planning commission had voted four to three against rezoning the area to high density residential for the project.

Adam Fletcher, director of planning and community development, said staff preferred projects “where people will be incentivized to walk,” rather than “continuing to develop in a car-centric fashion.”

While the developer worked to move the proposed apartment complex closer to the road than originally planned, the staff wanted to see the complex with multiple buildings bordering the road to encourage foot traffic to the commercial spaces on the first floor of each building, Fletcher said.

The developer also proposed:

  • The first floor of each building will include non-residential space, including a total of at least 15,000 square feet of commercial space on the site.
  • The complex would hold no more than 400 bedrooms.
  • There would be no more than two rows of parking spaces separating the building from either Peach Grove Avenue or the access road behind McDonald’s.
  • There will be a sidewalk bordering the access road.
  • There will be a 125-foot long, tapered right-turn lane off of Peach Grove Avenue into the property.

Vice-mayor Sal Romero voted against the requests in planning commission — ”the main reason being the walkability,” he said.  

He had asked that the developers — which had representatives attending Tuesday’s council meeting —  consider reserving units for those who might be struggling to find housing. It’s a concept called inclusionary housing, which Mayor Deanna Reed has previously discussed implementing.

But Councilman Chris Jones said even though he wants to encourage development, the city isn’t to the point of being able to implement inclusionary housing policies.

“We’re not prepared for that … We have not created an incentive to do that,” he said.

Council member George Hirschmann said he found it “difficult envisioning people walking” to those shopping areas.

Council member Richard Baugh said that this project could free up neighborhood housing currently occupied by students.

Reed said that, if this apartment complex appeals to college students, “that will pull them out of the houses in neighborhoods that need those houses for families.”

Romero said he agreed with that, but said he “would like for people to have choices,” and not just force low-income families into the housing that students don’t want.

“I agree … but I also think it comes in stages,” Reed said.

Port Republic Road traffic study

Tom Hartman, director of public works, presented the finished Port Republic Road Safety and Operations Study, which looked at traffic patterns, accidents and congestion at each intersection along Port Republic from South Main to Devon Lane.

The study recommended a variety of changes over the next few years to improve safety and travel times along the corridor, including:

  • Adding and expanding turn lanes,
  • Restricting left turns during peak travel times at the Hillcrest, Crawford and Hunters Road intersections,
  • Relocating the Interstate 81 northbound off-ramp to align with Forest Hill Road,
  • Considering building a pedestrian overpass to cross Port Republic at the Bluestone Drive intersection, which is an entrance to JMU’s campus.

Also at Tuesday’s meeting:

  • The council voted unanimously to convey 12,375 square feet of land from the Lucy Simms Continuing Education Center property to the Harrisonburg Rockingham Community Services Board for their expansion of the McNulty Center.
  • Ellen Harrison, executive director of the Community Services Board, provided an update on the board’s upcoming expansion, which will primarily take place at its Main Street location and double its capacity. The agency provides mental health and substance abuse services. From fiscal year 2011 to 2018, Harrison said the number of clients grew by 81 percent, from 2,741 to 4,950 — a third of whom were children. They expect to serve 6,700 clients by 2024.
  • Six groups of high school seniors presented their final projects from the 2019 Service Learning Program, which allows students to work alongside city staff and learn how city departments function. Projects included building a new obstacle for the police K9 unit training course and getting water bottle filling stations slated to be installed at the high school to reduce plastic bottle use.
  • The council voted unanimously to give city workers a previously unscheduled holiday for Friday, July 5, following Gov. Ralph Northam’s decision to do that for Virginia state workers.

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