Asheville – A press release from the City of Asheville’s Communication Specialist Polly McDaniel extolled the glories of the Urban Place Form Code District city council adopted. It told how the district advanced directives of various plans adopted in former years. More particularly, it told how the district would support transit and other non-automobile forms of getting around the city.
City Planner Vaidila Satvika explained the time had come for developers to build in ways that better served the city’s master plans and ambitious investment in transit. The city had to act to create more housing within walking distance of jobs and services, more tree canopy, and more urban open spaces. He showed a schematic of a big-box retail store with a huge parking lot in front and explained the city was moving away from the auto-centric paradigm, with all its carbon emissions. He then produced, without getting into methods, the results from a survey that corroborated what the planners had envisioned for the city.
The city already has the River Arts District and Haywood Road as pilot projects for the concept leaders who want to apply to all major corridors. They incorporate higher-density, mixed-use, human-scale, live-work city blocks with storefronts “to the curb;” that is, with the building abutting the sidewalk and parking in back or at a remote location. The pragmatism behind moving structures to the curb was well illustrated decades ago when the owners of the property occupied by Walgreen’s and other tenants on Merrimon Avenue wished to invest in substantive modernization.
To comply with ordinances, the owner would have had to move the Walgreen’s “to the curb,” but the grading, utilities, foundations, etc., had been set up for the stores to be in the back of the lot. So, to save money, the developers built what became known as the Temple to the Goddess of Urban Planning, a brick building about the size of a single-wide mobile home, which sat vacant against the sidewalk for 10 years or so. It provided that coveted pedestrian engagement, as passersby peered through the blinds for any indication that the building had not been a total waste. The new ordinance, at least, conceeded to allow pedestrian-oriented open space, like parks and plazas, at the curb.
Building height will be restricted to four stories unless developers want to provide affordable housing. The extra height, assuming developers will be constructing housing, would be awarded for providing 20 percent of units affordable to persons earning no more than 80 percent of AMI (Area Median Income) or 80 percent of units affordable to persons earning no more than 100% of AMI – and accepting rental assistance like vouchers for at least 25 percent of the units. City council and staff are, incidentally, interested in raising the threshold to 50 percent.
Satvika then said the ordinance would affect “certain parcels” that were larger than 5 acres, as their structures would be limited to 20,000 square feet. Should they wish to perform substantial renovations, the cap would apply unless they wish to build housing. For every unit of market-rate housing they produce, the city would grant them the privilege of adding 1,000 square feet to their structure; and for every unit of housing affordable to persons earning no more than 80 percent of AMI, they would be privileged to add 2,000 square feet.
Councilwoman Sandra Kilgore and Councilwoman Antanette Mosley were outnumbered in voting against the measures, Mosley only expressing concern about disadvantaged community members who may be displaced as surrounding residential development raises property values. Mayor Esther Manheimer was recused from voting.
Kilgore asked what the impacted property owners had to say about the changes, and Satvika replied a lot of them still want to do things the old way, so there may be growing pains. When Kilgore asked how much affordable housing he expected the ordinance to create, he said there were too many variables to tell.
Kilgore said council ought to step back and consider what they were about to approve. By design, the rezoning wouldn’t produce much affordable housing. For one thing, all the legal challenges were going to tie the ordinance up in the courts for maybe half a dozen years. In other words, high dollars that could go toward building housing would be spent on litigation. The city, she said, needed affordable housing now, so council would do well to work out compromises with private investors.
Councilwoman Sage Turner was supportive of the ordinance, saying the city had to take charge lest another developer tries to construct a housing project like the Bluffs or Crossroads, which engendered immense outcry from neighbors. She said the targeted big-box stores could always request conditional zoning if they didn’t want to build housing, as if that could win the approval of the same group that approved the ordinance at hand.
Turner said she knew from her work on the Affordable Housing Advisory Committee that the question of whether the private sector or government should be responsible for building housing was treated like an eternal question, whereas she considered it a false dichotomy because everybody is responsible. Turner said, “If a large entity in the community has a problem building housing on their site, we have a larger problem because that means the community does not understand the dire need for housing in this community.”
A group of developers viewed things otherwise. Their comments made before city council may be found elsewhere
in this issue.