P&Z approves Larchmont project

The Larchmont project, a 60-unit affordable housing complex off Merrimon Avenue, cleared another hurdle on March 4, as Asheville's Planning and Zoning Commission approved the requested rezoning on a 5-1 vote.

The march of Larchmont: Wyatt Stevens, attorney for Mountain Housing Opportunities' Larchmont project, makes his pitch to the city's Planning and Zoning Commission. Photo by Jonathan Welch

More than 50 people packed the chamber to weigh in on the proposed project.
Piloted by Mountain Housing Opportunities, an Asheville nonprofit, Larchmont would be built on the former Navy Reserve site, which MHO is buying from Buncombe County. Opponents maintain that the controversial project is too dense and would create traffic snafus; supporters hail it as an example of sustainable development.

The property's former institutional zoning would have allowed up to 32 residential units. But city staff had endorsed rezoning the parcel urban residential, which would enable the project to proceed.

"This is totally consistent with the city's plans for the area," asserted Wyatt Stevens, MHO's attorney. "We commissioned a study that found there's a need for 744 affordable units in north Asheville. This would, if approved, address just 8.6 percent of that need."

"Keep in mind how [the site] is currently designated," he added. "To give you some idea of what could go there that wouldn't go to Planning and Zoning, there could be a nursing home; an office complex. There would be no height restrictions."
The increased density, said Stevens, is needed to keep the units affordable.
P&Z Chair Cindy Weeks, who also serves as project director for the Asheville-based nonprofit, recused herself from the vote.

Neighborhood residents who spoke against the Larchmont emphasized that they're not opposed to affordable housing or to MHO, but they believe the project is too dense and will add more traffic to an already congested area.

"Our initial consensus was that affordable work-force housing would be welcome, with the allowed density under the current zoning," resident Larry Holt told the board, adding, "We feel 60 units is excessive."

A traffic-impact study is needed, he asserted, citing existing congestion around the adjacent post office. "You could have a real problem," noted Holt. "Pedestrian traffic on Merrimon is hazardous at best."

But city traffic engineers and planners said the estimated number of trips per day would be minimal, and thus no traffic study is required. MHO said it will purchase bus passes for residents for their first year and is offering contribute $9,000 toward traffic-calming measures in the area if the city and the neighborhood agree they're needed.

Resident Andrew Tashie presented a petition with 350 signatures of north Asheville residents opposed to the project. "We are in favor of keeping it at the old zoning," he said.

Another resident, Cecil Bjorn, was even more skeptical. "Have you ever walked along Merrimon? Cars are going by at 40 miles an hour; walking to work is a pipe dream," he declared. "This sustainable-development stuff is ridiculous. What we need is capitalism: That's what made this city great."

Other neighbors spoke in favor of the project, however. "Work-force housing is what holds this city together," asserted Jenny Mercer. "When I moved here, this was an affordable neighborhood. That's no longer the case. We need projects like this."

And Beverly Nevins noted, "It's going to improve our view: Right now, I'm looking at a Subway. Density," she added, "is a fact of life in cities."

Speaking on behalf of the nearby Grace Episcopal Church, Louise Ruth also voiced support for the project, which she described as "working toward an open community for all."

Commissioner Tom Byers was swayed by the opponents' arguments, saying, "I can't support this, seeing the sizable neighborhood opposition. I feel this kind of density isn't desirable in that neighborhood."

But Byers stood alone, and though some other commissioners raised concerns about parking and traffic, they said they trusted MHO and felt the development's positives outweighed those flaws.

"I feel the pain of more traffic on Merrimon, believe me," noted Commissioner Jerome Jones. "But we need this kind of housing there for the greater good."

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