Late last month, Asheville City Council passed the Haywood Road Vision Plan, a years-long effort by community members and city staff to outline the future of the corridor. Locals started meeting in the early 2000s for this process, and the idea dated as far back as the late ‘90s.
What does the plan call for? More density, better pedestrian infrastructure, increased preservation efforts for West Asheville’s unique history, and a new type of zoning.
At the Feb. 25 Council meeting, praise for the results from both sides of the dais was effusive, with Council member Jan Davis proclaiming he was “thrilled” about the plan. Activist and West Asheville resident Steve Rasmussen called it the result of “a cooperative process, and a very harmonious process” truly representing the community’s desires.
This sort of plan isn’t a one-off event, either: It’s happened before and it will happen again. Usually, community leaders or organizations will start talking about the kind of area they want to see, the kind of institutions or programs they’d like to build and what they’d like to avoid. Then, city staff get involved. Sometimes, they hire a consulting firm to further help with the process.
It’s important to note, as the people involved in them repeatedly emphasize, that these plans don’t compel any major changes when Council gives them the thumbs-up: They’re guidelines and goals. As such, they can be pretty general. But if Council passes a plan, that gives the green light for staff to craft more nuts-and-bolts ordinance changes and introduce those for separate votes. Whether those goals become a reality depends on revenue, political fortunes, public support (or criticism) and relations with other governments and entities.
In 2009, for example, Council accepted the Downtown Master Plan, the product of a similar process. Attempts in the late 2000s to get a similar effort going for Merrimon Avenue floundered, but in the wake of controversies over recent development in that corridor, there’s been some talk of reviving the effort to get a plan through.
Such plans are a main way city leaders hope to shape the Asheville of tomorrow, and one they hope to extend to more neighborhoods. Neighborhood leaders have also expressed that they see the plans as a way to start addressing multi-faceted issues facing their areas. In December, for example, Kim Martin-Engle of the EAST Community group criticized city staff for not participating more closely with community groups in crafting a plan to improve infrastructure and development guidelines in the East Asheville and Tunnel Road areas.
Sometimes, these plans can also prove controversial, especially as different constituencies often have divergent ideas of where an area should go. There was plenty of criticism of the zoning changes that emerged from the Downtown Master plan — a restructuring that gave more power to the Planning and Zoning Commission to sign off on most development downtown without a Council hearing.
Rasmussen was actually one of those critics (he wrote a 2009 report publicly blasting a number of the plan’s suggestions), but this time he tells Xpress that the different groups in West Asheville were able to reach broad agreement on what the plan should include, and he believes the process has been more open to community input than its downtown forebear. Still, he worries that state plans to expand Interstate 26 could wreck attempts to better knit together the neighborhoods surrounding Haywood Road.
Indeed, in some cases the suggested changes coming out of these plans don’t happen at all, whether it’s due to controversy, an inability to reach agreement with other governments or a myriad of other roadblocks. The downtown plan called for a Business Improvement District, an independent nonprofit funded by a special tax on downtown property. But when city staff brought the measure forward in 2012, the higher taxes and the unelected nature of the board that would control that revenue prompted a major backlash. While many on Council had touted their commitment to the master plan, in attacking the BID critics asserted that the process of writing it had in fact left out many parts of the community.
While Council did eventually approve the creation of the BID, it balked at the tax increase necessary to fund it. Relations between the BID board and city government grew increasingly tense and eventually the whole project went dormant.
The example of the BID shows another important thing about these plans: They set long-term priorities. It’s not uncommon for some of the ideas contained in them to come back to Council years later.
Five years after Council accepted the master plan, some other proposals from it still remain undone, mostly due to funding. Downtown doesn’t (yet) have a shuttle service, a car-free zone or a major artists’ resource center, just to name a few examples.
It’s nothing new, in any city, when policy dreams encounter obstacles, but it remains worthwhile to pay attention to these plans. They show the blueprints local government works on and will increasingly affect life for tens of thousands of people across Asheville.