After a discussion about conflicting city goals, the need for more density and the precedent for growth throughout Asheville, the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission narrowly approved a proposed 16-unit housing development on Chestnut Street at tonight’s meeting.
The proposed development has proven a controversial flashpoint in the larger debate about weighing the sometimes-competing goals of alleviating the city’s housing crunch and preserving neighborhood character. The move sends the project to Asheville City Council for final approval.
Approval came after lengthy public comment, most of it from neighbors who criticized the design and density as out of place for the historic Chestnut Hill neighborhood.
“I left the bedside of my mother who had heart surgery because I feel this is an extremely important issue,” Baird Street resident Janet Hart said. “There really isn’t any element in this design I see that reflects anything historic. We’re very genteel in nature, you just don’t see a big block of concrete like this.”
Others called it an “affront to the neighborhood,” or compared its design unfavorably to the nearby Princess Anne boutique hotel. Others took issue with parking being located on the bottom floor of the main building and said that its design wasn’t in keeping with the sort appealing to tourists.
The Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County, which has played a major role in marshaling resistance to the project, said that it favored “managed change” to “protect historic and traditional neighborhoods.”
“Neighborhoods thrive on the predictability of the surrounding environment,” Executive Director Jack Thomson told the board. “It’s very clear that a development on this site that followed the existing zoning classifications would still result in an increase of housing units.” If the board turned down the developer’s request, Thomson asserted, they would instead build something more in keeping with the existing neighborhood.
Technically, the developers were requesting exceptions to the city’s zoning rules necessary for the project to proceed, specifically to buffer zone rules. The proposal marks the first use of a density bonus rule that allows projects to exceed the normal number of units allowed if they’re bringing denser, affordable development to major corridors. In this case, four existing apartments on the site will become affordable housing once the larger project is completed.
According to architect Chad Roberson, the intricacies of the city’s development rules meant that the exceptions were necessary to build a project that was environmentally friendly, dense and had affordable housing.
“The development pattern for the neighborhood is high-density,” and the proposal is in keeping with that, he said. “Affordable units are very difficult to do with what’s allowed on the site.”
City staff, citing Council’s stated goals of denser development downtown, supported the project.
Both opponents and supporters on the commission asserted that the project could set a precedent.
Chair Jeremy Goldstein asserted that the debate illustrated “a conflict of goals.”
“On the one hand we’re charged with supporting the city’s goal of affordable housing and promoting in-fill development while supporting green building; I’m hearing that the city wants us to increase density, especially in this area,” he said. “Then I’m hearing a lot of comments [from the neighborhood residents] where they don’t want that type of density…that’s my conundrum here; we’re trying to adhere to two different things.”
However, board member Jane Mathews countered that the city’s plans place an equal importance on the preservation of neighborhood character. More urban-style development, she asserted, is better suited to downtown, rather than an “established neighborhood” like Chestnut Hill.
“That tempers the decision-making we do,” she said. “Development of these vacant lots has to offer opportunity without changing the character of the area; that’s where the problem lies.” She feared that approving this development will lead to a higher level of density in existing neighborhoods.
Mathews had the most issues with the project, but others had concerns as well. Board members Kristy Carter and Joe Minicozzi also had issues with design and the placement of parking. After the developer agreed to work with the owners of the adjoining Patton-Parker House to create a larger buffer zone between the project and the historic structure, the commission approved the project 4-3, with Mathews, Carter and Minicozzi dissenting.