At their two-hour Sept. 18 meeting, Asheville City Council members once again held off on rezoning portions of Merrimon Avenue and approving new rules governing development there after business and property owners reiterated concerns that the proposed changes were too stringent and would cause severe financial hardship.
At the suggestion of city staff, Council voted 7-0 to take up the issue again at a Jan. 15 public hearing, allowing more time for planning staff to find middle ground with those concerned residents.
“It’s our feeling we have more work to do,” said City Manager Gary Jackson.
The city hopes to increase the density along the commercial corridor with pedestrian-friendly, mixed-used development. The aim is to enhance Merrimon’s commercial viability without creating traffic or parking problems. The upcoming City Council elections may also affect any eventual decision.
This was the second time in as many months that Council has postponed a decision on rezoning a thoroughfare that is both a major commercial corridor and a gateway to north Asheville neighborhoods. The prospect of dropping a new zoning designation on a few large Merrimon Avenue properties against their owners’ wishes first prompted Council to delay action on the matter at its Aug. 14 meeting.
The proposed designation, which would govern new construction and major renovations, has generally found favor among Council members as well as with the Merrimon Corridor Study Group, which has been working with city staff for nearly two years to develop the rules. Among other requirements, the proposed Mixed-Use District zoning (which would supplant various other commercial zoning designations along the roadway) would require buildings to be at least two stories and to be sited close to the road, with parking in the rear.
According to interim Planning and Development Director Shannon Tuch, the plan was substantially shaped by the preferences expressed by property owners in a survey conducted last year (see chart). Some have questioned this assertion, however, noting that the Atlanta Bread Company (one of the buildings that drew the most praise from survey respondents) has some parking in the front, whereas the Staples building (the least-popular among respondents) has all its parking in the rear. But in any case, the proposed designation does meet the city’s smart-growth policy goals, Tuch maintains.
“Mixed-use districts have long been identified as a means to a smart-growth development pattern that provides opportunity for a higher mix of uses and a higher economic return,” she wrote in a memo to Council. “One of the primary benefits to this pattern of development is the ability to absorb a higher intensity of uses without an increase in automobile traffic; this is a fundamental principle of smart growth and is particularly appropriate for Merrimon Avenue, given the site context.”
Although the study group asked the city to adopt the new zoning designation without exemptions, Tuch has recommended excluding several Merrimon properties from the requirements, including the Ingles, Walgreens/Blockbuster, Stein Mart and Fresh Market sites. The owners of those properties have said that under the new designation, any major renovation would trigger compliance requirements and costs that would be nearly impossible for them to meet.
The city has also recommended that the sites be exempted because they would be prime candidates for possible redevelopment as so-called “urban villages,” which feature a mix of high-density and pedestrian-friendly residential and commercial uses. One developer has already submitted an urban-village plan for the former Deal Buick site, which neighbors have criticized for including 13-story condo towers (see “Deal Buick Property Plans Reviewed, Debated,” July 15 Xpress).
Before the vote to once again postpone a decision on the zoning rules, Mayor Terry Bellamy allowed property and business owners to weigh in. For the most part, they restated concerns voiced at the Aug. 14 meeting, adding that the city had done a poor job notifying property owners of the proposed changes. That prompted Bellamy to ask the city manager to look into ways to improve such communication, which is now accomplished via notification letters and rezoning signs placed in the affected areas. Some owners who rent out their properties complained that the notices were sent to the property address instead of to their homes or business offices, so that they never received them or got them too late to respond adequately.
One property owner said she’d received the survey mailed last year but not the more recent notice of proposed changes. She added that the changes, if adopted, would “probably put a lot of people out of business.”
Of the dozen or so members of the public who spoke, nearly all agreed that new requirements—especially those regarding setbacks and building height—needed more discussion and input from those affected.
“This zoning does not need to be applied at this time,” said another property owner, who argued that the city should “let people use their property to its highest and best use.”
Many owners seemed to fear the prospect of having to move their buildings. In fact, they would have to comply with the new site requirements only if the cost of a renovation exceeded 50 percent of the structure’s appraised value or if an expansion involved adding more than 50 percent of the existing gross square footage.
In other business
At the behest of Parks & Recreation Director Roderick Simmons and city Chief Financial Officer Ben Durant, Council unanimously agreed to hire a business manager for the Parks & Recreation Department to oversee capital projects. The new position will cost the city an estimated $66,000 in annual salary and benefits.
Having the new staffer will ensure better overall financial management of millions of dollars that have been allocated for improvements and additions to the city’s parks system, Simmons and Durant told Council. The manager will help prevent snafus such as the shortfall created when the owner of the now-defunct Asheville Splash semi-pro women’s soccer team apparently “reneged on his pledge” to spend $300,000 on artificial turf for Memorial Stadium, according to the staff report.
Parks & Rec’s capital projects are now managed piecemeal, and Simmons said a business manager would bring cohesion by working directly with the Finance Department to ensure that projects stay on track and on budget. Eight city parks have ongoing or planned capital projects totaling $10.1 million.