– In an unprecedented move, Asheville City Council approved a conditional zoning for a project that it rejected at its February 22 meeting. As far back as anyone could remember, developers of rejected projects had to either wait a full year to return to council or “substantially” modify their plans for an earlier audience.
In question was the Avery, a 187-unit apartment complex with 204 off-street parking spaces planned for the corner of Hilliard and Clingman. To sweeten the deal, the developer offered to construct 10-foot-wide sidewalks, bury utility lines, create bike lanes and a left-turn lane, remediate a brownfield, and plant trees. To help the city with its affordable housing goals, the developers further committed to rent-controlling nine of the units as affordable to households earning no more than 80% of AMI, and accepting Housing Choice Vouchers for five of the nine. Importantly, the developers were not accepting any city subsidies for the project.
All on council unabashedly wear their hearts on their sleeves when it comes to supporting affordable housing; so much so, they’ve set aside millions in taxpayer dollars and taxpayer debt to crowd-out private-sector real estate development. This time, it appeared, they viewed it worthwhile to further drive the cost of housing up by sinking all this investor had spent on the design phase and sending a signal to other developers that Asheville is a capricious place to do business.
The changes to the original plan, which nobody was trying to pass off as substantial, were the developer’s decision to increase the number of rent-controlled units to 18, and the number of units accepting vouchers to nine. The developer further agreed, “that the project will comply with any additional traffic mitigation requirements mandated by the North Carolina Department of Transportation.”
City Attorney Brad Branham explained the developer had exercised another option, City Council Rules of Procedure Rule 19(i). That rule allows council to revote a decision either during the meeting when the original vote is taken or at its next formal meeting.
After council voted to reconsider the matter, Councilwoman Kim Roney asked if the developers could also add solar panels to the plans. There were a lot of government incentives for doing so, but, more importantly, Roney was concerned about giving the tenants options for future energy independence. Derek Allen, filling in for Wyatt Stevens in representing the developer, explained that would be cost-prohibitive because the design already called for putting a large amount of HVAC equipment on the roof.
Allen, in fact, couldn’t think of any multi-family structure in town with solar. So, Councilwoman Sage Turner suggested the city update its development guidelines to encourage developers to consider renewable energy fixtures earlier in the process. As consolation, Allen offered that the project would include at least four charging stations.
During public comment, Nina Tovish said the applicant, as well as future developers, should consider putting solar panels on any parking facilities or other open spaces that they construct. Her main purpose in speaking, however, was to cast aspersions that, although the city was following a stated rule, perhaps some funny business had gone down to bring the matter back to council. She wanted to see records of any pertinent meetings.
Mayor Esther Manheimer said Tovish’s concerns were fair, even though the city was following its rules and Robert’s Rules of Order, which requires a motion by one who had initially voted against a matter to open reconsideration. The applicant, she said, had appealed to the city attorney, who then had to figure out how to legally execute 19(i). If any member of council had any conversations with anybody on the matter, that would, by law, have to be made a matter of public record. Councilwoman Sage Turner added that she had spent a lot of time with a representative of the local daily, giving a “broader explanation,” which she would be happy to share with Tovish, but later.
The first time, the vote was 5-2, with Councilwomen Sandra Kilgore and Antanette Mosley in-favor of the project. This time, the vote was 6-1, with only Councilwoman Sheneika Smith opposed.
During general public comment, Doug Brown reviewed what had just happened. He said he was disappointed when council rejected the proposal, but encouraged by the reconsideration. The same night council rejected the Avery, they also denied entrepreneur Jordan Hrivnak a franchise to operate Blue Ridge Rickshaw, a cycle-drawn carriage taxi service. While council did not reconsider its vote against Hrivnak, Hrivnak, at least, decided to run the business without a franchise, and that delighted Brown, too. Brown said he didn’t know if council was pandering in an election year, or if a large number of Ashevillians had suddenly decided to become politically-engaged. Either way, he liked to see reason and common sense coming from the dais.
From this, Brown segued into complaints about plans to turn Merrimon Avenue into a three-lane road with bike lanes and better pedestrian accommodations. He told of going to a public input meeting and engaging with one of the presenters. He told her he never saw too many people walking, and as light as bicycle traffic is, most people are going to want to drive, if they can, in the dark, cold, and rain. When the lady told him to think of the bike lanes as a buffer for pedestrians, then, he wondered how many of the seven motor-vehicle fatalities on Merrimon Avenue in the last 10 years were caused by vehicles driving over the curb and onto the sidewalk. Brown closed, encouraging councilmembers to vote against the Merrimon Avenue plans so they wouldn’t have to come back in two weeks to reverse their decision.