Jeremy Goldstein, the chair of Asheville’s Planning and Zoning Commission, recently had the stones to say what no one else has publicly admitted: The NIMBY emperor is standing out in the backyard, nekkid.
Well actually, what he said was, “I'm hearing that the city wants us to increase density, especially in this area. Then I'm hearing a lot of comments [from 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.”
The same folks who push for affordable housing, greater density, infill, sidewalks, bike paths, parks, greenways and more city services will suddenly go to unreasonable lengths to discourage those kinds of development when it occurs in their backyard. They whine when taxes, rents and housing costs go up, but they don’t want any more development in their own neighborhood.
Meanwhile, Asheville is a city under economic siege, due to the actions of the state Legislature and the fact that most of the revenue to provide all those goodies must come from property taxes — and an expanded tax base.
A couple of years ago, I briefly served on the Mayor’s Affordable Housing Task Force. The woman who was then the head of the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods also served. Her opening remark was that she represented some 50 neighborhoods and, while they were for affordable housing, it would be built in those neighborhoods over their dead bodies. Since I didn’t want to be responsible for corpses strewn all over town, I resigned from the committee, because I could see it wasn’t going anywhere.
Newly re-elected City Council member Gordon Smith got it right when he said, at a recent candidate forum, “What we have to do is get the policy right to make the process predictable — and then stick to the policy.”
With our mountain terrain and our UDO regulations, the development process is very expensive here. But the subjectivity of both the neighborhoods and the regulatory boards further complicates matters. Propose a project and you’ll be told that it is out of proportion, the wrong color or not historical enough. Opponents will also trot out the mandatory “traffic congestion” and “decline in property values” arguments, treating the evil developer like a piñata.
Believe it or not, most developers are visionaries — creative risk takers who take great pride in their finished product. Yes, they make every effort to turn a profit, but don’t forget that the banks insist on a projected profit, or they won’t provide the financing.
By the way, nonprofits aren’t exempt from neighborhood excoriation either. Just look at what Mountain Housing Opportunities has run into.
One of the classic anti-development comments is “This project will hurt our tourism business.” When the hell did we put the tourists in charge of our city development?
We’ve had people go apoplectic over such developents as the Aloft Hotel, Staples, the Larchmont Apartments and Campus Crest student housing. Even architects with no connection to a particular project are often quick to tell the person designing it that their baby is ugly. Yet once it’s finished, there’s been no great gnashing of teeth or rending of garments over their actual impact, because the predicted doomsday simply didn’t happen.
The whole community seems to agree that we need more affordable and workforce housing. It can’t all be subsidized, and with high land costs exacerbated by the required land preparation, we have to substantially increase the density to make it work.
What is wrong with high-rise apartments? Rich people seem to fare very well in them; are they not good enough for everybody else?
We don’t get any help from Buncombe County either. Under its zoning ordinance, driven by a couple of county bureaucrats, residential density is ridiculously low. If you want housing to be affordable, however, you have to build more. It’s just common sense that the more you have, the more competitive the prices.
Let’s wake up. We are patting ourselves on the back about all the new jobs we’re bringing into the city and county, but we’re not providing reasonable-priced housing, so many of those workers end up living in other counties — and many of the economic benefits promised to Asheville and Buncombe County go with them.
Let’s take Gordon Smith’s advice: Make the process predictable. Make it possible for a developer who goes to considerable trouble and expense drawing up plans and meeting with city officials to hammer out compliance has a reasonable assurance that the project will eventually be approved — not denied because our boards are intimidated by the mob mentality that usually rises up in response to such efforts.
And to those who want to discourage future development in Asheville, I say be careful what you wish for. Because if we don’t continue to expand our tax base, we may price ourselves right out of the very city we all love so much.
— Local developer Jerry Sternberg, an Asheville native, can be reached at email@example.com.