“At some point, you have to have faith,” declared Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick during City Council’s March 23 formal session.
Council members were on the brink of rezoning a tract along South French Broad Avenue, Choctaw Street and Livingston Street from a low-density Office to a higher-density Office II classification. They were caught between concerned neighborhood residents — who feared the 16,000-square-foot offices the rezoning might bring — and the pressing needs of the Opportunity Corporation of Madison-Buncombe Counties.
Just last year, City Council had agreed to lease the Reid Annex to the corporation, which proposed renovating it for use as a daycare center that would serve up to 100 children. The city had also sold an adjacent lot to the nonprofit organization, for development as an office. And Opportunity Corporation had agreed to assist in the city’s development of a park on an adjacent, vacant lot.
Office zoning limits daycare facilities to 50 children, and buildings to 8,000 square feet. But the corporation received a grant to provide daycare for 90 children, and it needs a 9,000-square-foot office building in order to accomodate a grant-funded community-resource room, Director Vicki Heidinger reported.
The situation put Council members in a tight spot: Generally supportive of protecting neighborhoods from commercial development, they also felt bound to honor their deal with Opportunity. In addition, several buildings in the area proposed for rezoning are already put to nonconforming uses: Council member O.T. Tomes‘ church on Herman Street, a medical office, the Reid Community Center and a credit union on French Broad all exceed the current 8,000-square-foot limit, noted City Planner Gerald Green (Tomes was excused from voting on or discussing the issue).
Vice Mayor Ed Hay — who, along with the rest of Council, had approved the deal with Opportunity Corporation — remarked, “The irony is not lost on me.”
Ora Street resident Mel Thomason pointed out that most homes in the neighborhood are about 1,000 square feet. Rezoning the area to Office II would allow future buildings up to 16 times that size — completely out of scale with the community’s present character. “That’s an intrusion,” he said, maintaining that such development would hurt the moderate-income neighborhood. “We cannot take all the affordable housing [in this area] and make it unattractive,” Thomason commented.
He also charged that rezoning the 11-acre tract is just a cover for rezoning the Reid Annex and the adjacent vacant lot for the Opportunity Corporation (which might constitute illegal spot-zoning). What’s more, noted Thomason, the Reid Annex is still city-owned — which, he noted, poses a probable conflict of interest on Council members’ part. Thomason added that Council has recently honored the requests of other neighborhoods fighting commercial intrusion, notably White Pine and Kenilworth. “Our plea is for equal justice,” he concluded.
After Thomason had finished, several Gaston Street residents pointed out that the proposed entrance to Opportunity Corporation’s office would bring more traffic to their street, making it more dangerous for children in the neighborhood and, possibly, reducing property values. They suggested that the city and the corporation search for another location.
Other neighborhood residents emphasized that they don’t object to Opportunity Corporation, or its mission of assisting low- and moderate-income residents. “This is not opposition to Opportunity Corporation, nor is it against children,” said Sandra Davis, who has five children. “What we’re asking is, we need to put a cap on the building [size],” she pleaded.
“We have an interesting problem here,” Council member Barbara Field observed, as Council members wrestled with the dilemma.
Green commented that, from a technical standpoint, Livingston, Choctaw and South French Broad could handle the added traffic brought by an office and a daycare center. And he noted that taking Opportunity’s case to the Board of Adjustment (which can grant some zoning exceptions) might not resolve the problem, either, because the board probably lacks the authority to permit 100 kids (which would amount to changing the UDO). In addition, he continued, it might prove difficult for Opportunity to get a variance to allow the larger office building, because the agency would have to show hardship.
“We don’t want to send [the board] our problems and let them fix it,” Hay remarked.
Thomason interjected, “The issue is the rezoning of an entire area. But the discussion seems to center on the Opportunity Corporation. That’s a distortion of what the real issue is.” He urged Council to consider all the potential permitted uses for the tract, if it were rezoned Office II.
Council members responded that the area is already built out, making future development of larger structures unlikely. Terming it a very difficult call, several members voiced their support for the rezoning request. “The good that Opportunity Corporation can do outweighs the [negatives],” asserted Earl Cobb.
Tommy Sellers, seconded by Chuck Cloninger, made a motion to adopt the Office II rezoning.
At that point, City Attorney Bob Oast cautioned, “Before anyone votes: No matter what the Opportunity Corporation says it will do [now], they can build a 16,000-square-foot building [if you vote to rezone].”
That’s when Sitnick took a deep breath and called for a little faith — and Council members voted 6-0 to rezone the tract Office II (Tomes abstained from voting, having been excused from the hearing because he pastors a church in the area in question).
Another sidewalk to nowhere?
Someday, there will be a continuous sidewalk down Sweeten Creek. For now, however, the developer of a ministorage facility and residents of an adjacent neighborhood aren’t sure that a 430-foot strip of sidewalk going nowhere justifies the $3,000 cost.
“It’s not fair,” declared Mike Robinson, president of M.W.I.,which is building the storage facility on Sweeten Creek Road. Speaking to City Council members on March 23, he asked them to waive the Unified Development Ordinance requirement that developers pay for and build sidewalks in connection with any new construction. Robinson questioned whether the city is actually planning to make the sidewalk link with anything, given a much-publicized shortfall in sidewalk funding.
City Engineer Cathy Ball said that staff objects to waiving the requirement: The North Carolina Department of Transporation plans to widen Sweeten Creek Road by 2008; if a sidewalk is built now but later ripped up by the project, the DOT — not the city — would have to pay to replace it.
But Ballantree residents would rather have a landscape buffer for nine years than a sidewalk to nowhere, said neighborhood representative Dennis Weaver. “We want the trees and shrubs,” he argued, pointing out that M.W.I. has cooperated with residents’ requests for less-obtrusive signage and lighting at the facility.
Council member Barbara Field observed, “Ultimately, we’re going to have a [Sweeten Creek] sidewalk that will be complete.” The proposed Pedestrian Thoroughfare Plan would allow developers to pay a fee that would help fund more-pressing sidewalk needs, in cases when meeting the UDO requirement is impractical, or when a street grade is too steep for a sidewalk, Field mentioned. She asked what Council’s options were in M.W.I.’s case.
The plan probably won’t be adopted for at least several months, City Manager Jim Westbrook replied.
But staff could allow construction of the storage facility to continue, temporarily waiving the requirement until the plan is adopted — or a better option is, suggested Ball.
Robinson said he was willing to wait: A sidewalk would be one of the last parts of the project to be completed, anyway. He added that Ballantree residents might change their mind about the sidewalk, once they know that it would eventually be part of a continuous Sweeten Creek walkway. “We’re willing to work with the community,” he promised.
Council members consented to Ball’s suggestion, directing staff to investigate possible options. Council’s first work session on the Pedestrian Plan is scheduled for mid-May, with a public hearing later that month or in early June.