In the future, Asheville’s downtown might be managed by a powerful independent board, with different types of development for each neighborhood “core,” better support for the arts, more green building, a shuttle system and police cameras on street corners. Those are some of the many initiatives presented in the draft of the long-awaited Downtown Master Plan. The city will hold a Jan. 15 forum on the plan.
On Monday, the City of Asheville announced that it will hold a Jan. 15 public forum at 7 p.m. in the Asheville Civic Center Banquet Hall. The team from Goody Clancy, the Massachusetts-based consulting firm that drew up the plan for $170,000, will present it before taking questions and comments. The forum will begin a three week comment period before the consultants ready the final plan, which Asheville City Council will take up in March.
This draft will also be publicly discussed at a Jan. 12 meeting of the Downtown Master Plan Advisory Committee.
The process of developing it have at times been controversial. The roll-out date for the final plan was pushed back four months in September, and rifts in the advisory committee compelled the city to bring in a mediator. In late July, a series of public meetings held by Goody Clancy revealed many divisions within the community about the plan.
The draft of the plan is an 88-page document covering many different areas. One of the major changes is that the plan recommends setting up an independent board, a “downtown management entity,” to run the “day to day operations” of downtown. While it would start as the Asheville Design District — “a function of the City of Asheville [that will] initially provide a modest set of services” — it would evolve into a “locally funded, independent entity that draws increasing leadership from, and provides greater benefits to, downtown merchants.”
The management entity would be made up of, to begin with, an ad hoc group including representatives from groups like the Downtown Commission, the Preservation Society, city staff, the Tourism and Development Authority and the Council of Independent Business Owners. It would be funded by annual fees on all downtown properties, a percentage fee on large projects as well as other sources like half the money from sales of city-owned parcels downtown and matching funds. The entity could then use that cash to fund affordable housing, business promotion, development incentives and downtown-workforce training.
In the long run, the plan says, the ADD would be completely independent and would have powers rivaling City Council: It would have its own redevelopment authority and it could broker deals, manage downtown construction, buy and sell real estate on the city’s behalf, license downtown events and performers and oversee “all things ‘clean and safe’ in the public realm,” including “coordinating security patrols” and “install[ing] pole cameras for the APD.”
How its leadership would be chosen, and by whom, is not discussed in the draft plan.
The ADD taking over the day-to-day operations of downtown is one of the seven “strategies” under the plan. The others are as follows:
• “Cultivate essential cultural and historical resources”: The plans aims to coordinate artists better by allying local artist’s organizations and providing a resource center. It also advocates supporting the construction of a performing-arts center, updating downtown’s historic district and diversifying the Historic Resources Commission.
• “Expand convenient choices for access and mobility”: Central to this is studying — and forming, if feasible — a downtown shuttle service to “address both parking and mobility” by linking employees and visitors with parking.
The plan also advocates adopting Asheville’s 2008 Comprehensive Bike Plan, including bike lanes on some downtown streets such as Asheland and Coxe and installing bike racks throughout downtown. Other steps include better coordinating parking services offered by the city, county and private companies and making downtown more walkable.
• “Inaugurate an urban design framework to extend downtown’s sense of place and community”: The plan advocates promoting more urban design in areas surrounding downtown such as along Broadway, in the Stevens-Lee neighborhood and in the River Arts District.
The plan identifies a type of desired development for each of the five designated areas of downtown, such as “sensitive infill/refill” for the traditional core, “making South Charlotte a neighborhood street” in the Eagle/Market area and “new jobs and housing” in the Patton/River Gateway neighborhood.
For example, under the plan’s goals, “Coxe should become the heart of a new residential neighborhood with a comfortable walking scale, direct links to downtown, new housing and neighborhood retail — the model of 15-minute neighborhood.”
• “Shape building form to promote quality of place”: According to the master plan, this would involve revising the city’s design guidelines by establishing “maximum height zones throughout downtown,” as well as stepping upper floors back from the street and ensuring that the shadows of buildings don’t heavily impact public parks. It notes that taller buildings would be ideally sited in the “gateway” areas on the borders of downtown.
• “Update design guidelines to be current and clear to promote sustainable development”: The city should consolidate its Unified Development Ordinance, downtown design guidelines and new criteria into a “concise official checklist” to speed the development process.
This strategy advocates substantial incentives for green building including tax incentives, a reduction in water fees and a faster permit process. It also recommends the city adopt design guidelines to make residential units in downtown more private and accessible.
• “Make project review transparent, predictable and inclusive of community input”: This strategy suggests revising the Downtown Commission’s membership and giving it more power in the development process. It would issue formal written findings stating how a project meets the development guidelines and its approval would be required on projects larger than 50,000 square feet. Projects must be reviewed at each step of the process in 90 days, the plan says, or the project is considered automatically approved.
Increased public comment earlier in the development process is needed, according to the plan, which recommends “developer-sponsored public meetings early in the review of large proposals” as well as increased public comment at the Downtown Commission, Planning and Zoning Commission and Technical Review Committee.
Under the plan, City Council would still have final say on the largest projects, known as “Level III.” If the developer does not meet approval through the normal process, they may appeal the decision directly to Council.
— David Forbes, staff writer