Created in 2001 to encourage high-density, mixed-use development, the “urban village” zoning designation is still experiencing growing pains. In 2006, City Council raised the maximum allowable height of buildings in such districts from 80 feet to 150 feet. The change came after Biltmore Farms pleaded its case for a 12-story hotel at its Biltmore Park development in south Asheville. At the time, Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford downplayed concerns about sparking a spate of 150-foot-tall buildings, pointing out that City Council considers urban-village proposals on a case-by-case basis.
“If Council feels the height is not appropriate [in a given instance], it can certainly vote against it,” Shuford said then.
“You could require it to be lower than that,” agreed City Attorney Bob Oast. “But you could not allow it to be higher.”
Reassured, City Council unanimously approved the change.
Less than two years later, however, city staff has reversed its position, recommending a return to the original 80-foot limit. The number of proposed urban villages is increasing, noted Urban Planner Alan Glines, and most of them seem to be making do with 80 feet or less. The cap is also consistent with the rules for most other zoning designations, he added.
But further tinkering with the zoning designation didn’t sit well with developer Chris Peterson. “To rescind it now, it’s almost like telling property owners that when you buy a piece of property, with this Council, you don’t know what you are going to get,” he said.
And while Glines emphasized that the tighter restriction still allows for the kind of higher-density development that was a major argument for increasing the height limit in 2006, there was some back and forth as Council revisited the issue.
Council member Brownie Newman said that tighter height restrictions could be attractive to people considering building, as they would be certain they wouldn’t have a 12-story structure going up next door. “I think if we have the 80-foot limit, it doesn’t preclude us in any way from approving taller buildings” on a case-by-case basis, he said. “This Council has recently approved the tallest building to be built in this city”—the 23-story Ellington high-rise, approved last October.
But Council member Bill Russell resisted the move, saying recent discussions have convinced him that city residents prefer height to sprawl.
“I’ve just heard so much in the last five months about growing up instead of out,” said Russell, adding that reducing the number of floors in a building would increase the cost per square foot of space.
Council member Robin Cape focused on the word “village,” which she said implies a lower skyline than “city.” Developers, she noted, are welcome to apply for an exception. “It should start with a lower height limit—and come to us if you want a taller building,” said Cape.
But Vice Mayor Jan Davis pointed out that urban villages tend to be located in what are already densely populated areas. “When you get closer into those corridors, the height speaks well,” he said.
Mayor Terry Bellamy, meanwhile, said that going back to 80 feet would obstruct efforts to revitalize areas like the River District, where density and affordable housing are priorities.
As a compromise, Cape suggested a 100-foot limit (an idea also mentioned by Davis), and it was approved on a 5-2 vote, with Russell and Council member Carl Mumpower opposed.
Life on the edge
The River District got a shot in the arm as City Council signed off on a number of measures affecting the area.
Council members took steps toward acquiring two pieces of riverfront property, both potential greenway links. One, a donation from Progress Energy, is adjacent to Jean Webb River Park. Wedged between Riverside Drive and the French Broad River, it runs underneath the West Asheville RiverLink Bridge. Explaining that the former Asheville Power & Light property is listed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as an inactive hazardous-waste site, City Attorney Bob Oast said Progress Energy has done enough remediation to clear it for nonresidential use. (The actual factory building isn’t part of the parcel being offered.)
The next step is a 90-day “due diligence” period in which the city will perform a title search and determine the property’s feasibility for use as a park, he said. Hiring an outside contractor will cost about $15,000.
Both the agreement with Progress Energy and the budget amendment to fund the contractor passed passed on 7-0 votes—the only unanimous decisions of the night.
A second potential acquisition won agreement to proceed to the next step despite some questions on Council. The 11.9-acre property along Hominy Creek only recently became available, and the owners are anxious to sell, reported Maggie Clancy with the Trust for Public Land. The acquisition might be eligible for a $153,170 grant from the state’s Clean Water Management Trust Fund if the city kicked in $126,720 worth of matching funds, she said.
Although the Council vote did not commit the funds, an official sign of interest in the parcel was sufficient to enable the grant application to proceed. It must be submitted by Feb. 1—the only grant cycle this year.
The property, noted Clancy, is on the list of parcels targeted for inclusion in the city’s greenway system. But several Council members, noting that other properties are higher priorities than this one, wondered why the rush.
“The urgency of the acquisition,” answered Clancy. “The family wants to sell the land.”
Davis sounded dubious, however, saying, “We are stepping over something good to make this happen. Is this the one, if we had limited dollars, we would want to buy?”
“We were hoping you would at least consider this as you come up with your funding priorities,” responded Linda Giltz from the Asheville Greenway Commission. “I appreciate your struggle here; I didn’t want to bring it to you at the last minute like this.”
Council voted 5-2 to at least consider allocating the money, with Mumpower and Davis opposed.
Also of note: Eight years after it was created, the West End/Clingman Avenue Neighborhood Citizens Master Plan was officially recognized on a 6-1 vote, with Mumpower voting “no.” Produced by residents with guidance from Mountain Housing Opportunities, the plan envisions affordable housing and infill development for the area. The recognition by Council means it will be taken into consideration along with other official planning documents.
Adjustments to the Unified Development Ordinance concerning land uses along the French Broad and Swannanoa rivers were approved on an identical vote. Bringing the UDO in line with state law, the new language prohibits chemical-storage, hazardous-waste and solid-waste facilities from flood-prone areas. The amendment also tightens controls on junkyards and recycling facilities in those areas.