Council approves major housing development, moves Haywood Road plans forward

After a back-and-forth on the usefulness of the city’s housing policies, Asheville City Council signed off on the 192-unit Avalon development tonight, though not without some dissenters.

The project originally came up at the new Council’s very first meeting last December. However, the site was zoned for industrial development, something Council is keen to attract, leaving them reluctant to turn it over to residential use. Due to that worry and concerns about the lack of affordable housing, the developer, Gastonia, S.C.-based Triangle Real Estate, agreed to delay the project until the issue was resolved.

In the meantime, staff assessed the site and found that it was unlikely to prove useful for industrial development anytime soon. Their report also noted that Council has rezoned industrial properties in the past to meet other needs, including alleviating the city’s housing crunch.

That left Council members more positively inclined than before. Or most of them, anyway. Council member Gordon Smith remained concerned about the lack of affordable units.

This led to an exchange between William Ratchford, Triangle’s vice president, and Council members. Ratchford asserted that his company has no plans to make any of the units affordable housing, but still said the project would help fill a niche in Asheville’s housing-starved market. Units at the South Asheville complex will be $800 a month for a one-bedroom, $1000 for a two-bedroom and $1250 for a three-bedroom.

“Our current price range is very close to the workforce housing range, compared to many of the projects you’ve approved, they’re considerably lower,” Ratchford said, adding that in other cities, he’d seen large influxes of market-rate housing have more of an effect on the price of housing than subsidized affordable housing.

“Part of what we do have to do is increase the housing stock across the city,” Smith said, adding that he wanted more affordable housing but “I do value the unit stock that you’re bringing.”

Council member Chris Pelly asked Ratchford what, as a developer, he thought local government’s role was to deal with a situation where over 40 percent of Asheville residents are paying a third or more of their income in housing expenses.

“There’s starting to be some skittishness about coming to Asheville, about getting through plans all the way,” Ratchford replied, but “your city staff is better than any of the others I’ve ever met.”

He added that “as long as people know what you expect from the very beginning, it’s great… Your standards are very specific and at least we know what you want.” But “there’s a severe need. If you start talking to your staff and see where they’re located, many of them can’t afford to live in Asheville.”

Vice Mayor Marc Hunt asserted the city’s current development rules don’t “do near enough to allow sites available for multi-family development” leaving developers to have to request rezonings if they wanted to build denser housing. He said an overhaul of the rules is necessary to make it “a level playing field.” Council and staff are currently looking at ways to change the rules to encourage more affordable housing.

Smith added that he believed the process should be more predictable, but there were multiple sides to “predictability.”

“For service workers in this community, it’s been predictable that they can’t easily locate affordable housing,” Going forward, he said developers should be clear that Council expects affordable housing and that he will vote accordingly. He also said that it’s reasonable for Council to ask for specific conditions when rezoning a property.

Despite the extensive Council discussion, no one spoke during the public hearing on the issue. Council approved the rezoning necessary for the Avalon to proceed 5-2, with Pelly and Smith dissenting.

Council was more unified in endorsing a wide-ranging plan to improve the Haywood Road corridor over the coming years. The result of a multi-year process between community members and city staff, the plan calls for better pedestrian infrastructure, more historic preservation and increased density, with the goal of making the area the model of a sustainable neighborhood.

“This is something we saw an amazing community response to,” the West Asheville Business Association’s Alice Oglesby told Council. “I’m really excited to see this come through, I think the community is really going to be behind it.”

Activist Steve Rasmussen, also one of the plan’s steering committee, emphasized that the plan “grew from a wide spectrum of the West Asheville community. This really was a cooperative process, and a very harmonious process. This is what we like and want to enhance about the Haywood Road corridor.”

Council member Jan Davis was similarly pleased. “I’m thrilled; this has been a long time getting here.” He and his colleagues accepted the plan unanimously.

The plan is tied with, and endorses, the use of form-based zoning. This type of zoning regulates development by scale and design rather than use, leaving it friendlier to mixed-use developments and, its proponents claim, making for a more predictable set of rules. Staff and community members are still crafting those specific changes. Like the plan’s other recommendations, staff will bring the rules changes forward at a later date for separate consideration by Council. If the new type of zoning proves successful, the city could seek to spread it to other neighborhoods as well.

However, in the open public comment portion of the meeting, Rasmussen warned that the state’s plans to widen Interstate 26 could wreak havoc with the city’s plans, and encouraged Council to oppose any such move, asserting West Ashevilleans are strongly against it.

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