Asheville – On March 8, Asheville City Council held a worksession on proposed changes to the city’s open-space requirements for private lots. Multifamily residential lots were the primary focus, but some amendments going a totally different direction were proposed for commercial properties.
Explaining why staff was interested in the changes, Planning Director Todd Okolichany tried to convey how, as a general rule, regulations, with costs of compliance, apply upward pressure to market prices. Okolichany cited the Bowen Report’s determination that the city has a shortage of affordable housing as well as every other kind of housing, and its recommendation that the city continually re-evaluate what he referred to as “zoning barriers to housing.”
Since leaders struggle with the concepts, the White House completed a housing study last year. If the three bullet points Okolichany pulled from the findings are any indication, the researchers found the law of supply and demand is still intact. Beyond that, the report concluded that if black families could access homeownership as easily as white families, their wealth would increase $32,000; Hispanics, $29,000. [NOTE: However these numbers were reached, just giving people houses, without providing equity in credit, family support, education, and employment, is not going to increase wealth like that.]
Then, Urban Planner Vaidila Satvika announced the plan for reducing open-space requirements. He recalled that when the matter first came to city council, about two years ago, council heard an earful from upset citizens. So, it was decided to form a task force comprised of representatives from eight city advisory boards, two of which ended up not supporting the amendments as presented.
Satkiva explained the city’s current open-space requirements are standing in the way of infill development. Along with compliance costs for codes for on-site parking, tree canopy preservation, and landscaping, open-space requirements are just one more potential dealbreaker for developers of small projects.
Satvika showed a bar graph for comparable cities to illustrate how outrageously Asheville was in a class of its own for open-space requirements. Councilwoman Sandra Kilgore asked if the extreme codes weren’t a response to the terrain, but Satvika said the functional response to difficult terrain would be to write ordinances with more flexibility.
He then plugged Daniel Parolek’s Missing Middle Housing as representative of a body of literature dismissing large open-space requirements as, “a remnant of a suburban type of development that is outdated and a hindrance to most cities’ goals.” To illustrate, he showed a plot for the apartment building on the triangular lot just west of Harris Teeter. Only a sliver off the backside would be allowed under the current codes.
Another plot he showed was for a proposed 22-unit apartment complex whose on-site parking was crowded out by the open-space requirements. After Mayor Esther Manheimer volunteered that failure to provide parking spaces would prevent the developer from getting financing; Satvika said, supposing the developer didn’t need financing, under the current ordinance, the open-space requirement could be reduced enough for him to provide adequate parking if he opted to build only eight, now necessarily expensive, housing units instead. The developer, Satvika shared, had moved on to other things.
Councilwoman Kim Roney questioned the staff’s timing. She said the two dissenting boards were the Urban Forestry Commission and the Neighborhood Advisory Committee. The latter was concerned about gentrification; especially, in historically black neighborhoods. Roney asked if it wouldn’t make more sense for council to first, during their upcoming retreat, draw up community benefits tables, like council has for hotels, but for all large developments. Satvika countered that, after undermining infill development for 20 years, he saw no point in prolonging the agony.
Roney was also concerned about the impact the amendments would have on urban renewal and redlined properties. Manheimer replied most of those lands were public, so they would not be affected, and Satvika corrected that two special parcels involved in an upcoming rezoning, although public, would likely be impacted.
Councilwoman Sage Turner said she supported the changes. However, she had fears about the city over-regulating. Furthermore, as quickly as zoning amendments are coming down the pike, she thought the city should consider getting an ombudsman. Staff members replied that the amendments were undoing over-regulation, and they were of the opinion that developers were good at keeping up-to-speed. City Manager Debra Campbell added the city already had an expedited design review process for affordable housing, which, in a way, was equivalent to having an ombudsman.
As for changes to open-space requirements for commercial properties, it appeared staff saw how well the city’s unreasonable open-space requirements were preventing infill development and asked what carrot they could bundle with such a mighty stick. And that carrot was stormwater mitigation.
The city developed stormwater standards a while ago, but they can’t force developers to adhere to them because they’re more stringent than North Carolina general statutes. So, to incentivize developers to “voluntarily” implement stormwater mitigation measures, staff recommended requiring development on lands one acre or larger to set aside at least 50% of their parcel for open space. (Subdivisions would still be required to provide only 15% open space, and leniency will be shown toward developers of affordable housing.)
Should a developer opt to build to the city’s stormwater standards, his open-space requirements would drop to what Satvika described as levels on a par with industry standards. Most comparable cities in North Carolina don’t even have open-space requirements for commercial properties.
To illustrate, Satvika showed a wide-angle photograph of the parking lot of the former Kmart on Patton Avenue. He said to be compliant with general statutes, a developer would only have to plant one tree in the lot. He explained, with all the nuisance flooding in the city, the proposed amendments would be good for the environment.