Asheville floats zoning changes to boost dense development

Urban centers graphic
TRADING PLACES: Asheville's proposed urban center zoning would require new development to break up large surface parking lots and encourage taller buildings. Graphic courtesy of the city of Asheville

Like a gangly teenager, development in Asheville is set to grow up and fill in. That’s the goal of proposed zoning changes outlined by Vaidila Satvika, a city urban planner, in an Aug. 6 presentation to the Council of Independent Business Owners.

Satvika told the Asheville-based trade group that the city’s urban centers initiative, as well as updates to open-space requirements for new projects, were both meant to encourage denser development patterns. Such approaches, he suggested, would help preserve Buncombe County’s farmland and undeveloped areas while supporting less car-dependent communities and increasing the city’s tax base.

The first of the two efforts would rezone about 122 acres in three parts of the city: the intersection of Merrimon Avenue and Beaverdam Road in North Asheville, the area surrounding the Innsbruck Mall on Tunnel Road and the shopping center that includes the Walmart store on Bleachery Boulevard. (Eight more areas, including a portion of the Asheville Mall site on Tunnel Road, could also be targeted for urban center zoning in the future.) Under the updated rules, Satvika explained, new development in those areas would have to be placed along a street — a move that would break up large surface parking lots and structure blocks similar to those in a city core.

While developers would not be required to build housing as part of new urban center projects, Satvika emphasized, they would be heavily incentivized to do so. New commercial buildings could not exceed 20,000 square feet without including some residential units; those that included affordable housing could be built larger and taller by right. That requirement, he added, will likely be applied only to development on larger parcels, in response to feedback already received from business owners.

The open-space changes, Satvika said, would correct what he called a “significant flaw” in the current zoning code. Existing regulations, he explained, require new multifamily developments to include at least 500 square feet of open space per unit, which often makes dense housing on smaller infill parcels economically infeasible. Asheville’s open-space requirements for other types of development are also higher than those of other North Carolina cities such as Raleigh and Charlotte.

Under the new rules, developers could include significantly less open space if it were of higher quality, such as a picnic area on flat ground with included seating. Developments on more than 1 acre, Satvika said, could also cut their required space if they included stormwater control measures such as rain gardens and vegetated runoff channels.

During the Q&A session that followed his presentation, Satvika was asked for his response to property owners who felt that the city was making big changes without their consent. He said that Asheville had consistently listened to businesses’ concerns, but that ultimately, the city had the authority to align zoning regulations with its long-term vision and goals as outlined in the Living Asheville Comprehensive Plan.

More city information on the proposed changes is available at avl.mx/a7m. The urban centers zoning is scheduled to go before Asheville’s Planning and Zoning Commission on Wednesday, Sept. 1, followed by Asheville City Council on Tuesday, Sept. 28. No timeline had been set for approval of the open-space revisions as of press time.

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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the Assistant Editor of Mountain Xpress, regularly contributing to coverage of Western North Carolina's government, environment and health care. His work has previously appeared in Capital at Play, Edible Asheville, and the Citizen-Times, among other area publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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12 thoughts on “Asheville floats zoning changes to boost dense development

  1. dyfed

    I’m actually shocked at how many steps in the right direction this proposal is taking. Where has Satvika been before now?

    • Adam R

      Agreed. This is a huge step in the right direction (and I say that as someone who lives very close to one of the proposed urban centers). I really hope the city and the Planning and Zoning Commission can stand strong in the face of inevitable NIMBY bingo (see below). This offers a real, tangible opportunity for the city to do something to address climate change and housing scarcity. Now we just need to get rid of parking minimums . . . a guy can dream.

      https://bingobaker.com/view/1756130

  2. Scott Duncan

    This zoning change “to preserve country farmland & undeveloped areas” has a downside of encouraging tree removal, and less open space. It may be winning a battle but losing the war (as AVL rapidly grows), to give up the multiple benefits of having more trees around – cleaner air & cooler temps from tree canopies and shade, the enjoyment of trees in our midst, the habitat for birds, and more, etc…
    Several good suggestions & goals are set out here, but having an Urban Arborist on staff, contributing to all planning & development seems a much-needed long-term enhancement, before or along with implementing these ideas. And, unless farmlands and undeveloped areas are actively protected, they’ll continue to be gobbled up, to BE developed.

    • luther blissett

      “a downside of encouraging tree removal, and less open space”

      Except this is about developing spaces that are mostly big box retail and empty asphalt right now. All the Tree-Americans were displaced from the Innsbruck Mall lot a long time ago.

      Anyway, it’s been a slow process: the area around Innsbruck Mall was specifically earmarked for that “urban center” model a couple of years ago, along with the defunct K-Mart on Patton Ave and the area around the defunct Sears at the Asheville Mall. It’s all good stuff. It doesn’t address some of the issues around land-squatting downtown, but it’s easier to remove restrictions to encourage density than create financial disincentives for property owners who keep parcels undeveloped or underdeveloped. (I think surface lots downtown should be assessed at a much higher land value, but that’s tricky given that a bunch of them are owned by the city’s most prominent lawyers.)

      But to refer back to the article:

      “Satvika was asked for his response to property owners who felt that the city was making big changes without their consent.”

      Municipalities aren’t HOAs. That’s the answer.

      • dyfed

        Luther Blissett supports something that I support? And it’s rezoning?? And it’s a move to higher zoning density???

        Better lace on my skates and call Virgil.

        • luther blissett

          It’s fun to ride a unicorn, but rest assured that we’ll disagree on plenty of things where you’re more of a deregulator. (You may have missed the discussion on 101 Charlotte where I have opinions, but the Mx archives are searchable.) This particular rezoning plan is a no-brainer.

          I’ve talked before about how Portland sticks most of its big boxes up at Cascade Station just by the airport — think the Airport Rd Target / Lowes / Best Buy strip but on a much bigger scale. But also think about Atlantic Station in Atlanta, or the area around the Charlotte Ikea, or Greenridge in Greenville. Downtown San Francisco has a two-level Target and a three-level Safeway. Big box drags or strips with immense parking lots are literally a waste of space. Put them by an unloved section of an interstate, put them by an airport. Get them out of the penumbra of a city. Build up.

          It’s a cliché that nice liberal Rick Steves-devotee American tourists spend lots of money to go to Europe and fall in love with cities that not only can’t be built in the US under existing zoning laws, but that they actively campaign against building when they get back home. (Gotta speak out for all those Tree-Americans.) Transforming parking-lot space that has been allocated for Thanksgiving or Christmas is the lowest hanging fruit.

          I’m pretty sure that nobody thinks that the little two level strip mall off Merrimon with Zen Sushi is an atrocity, or that the little two-level strip just south of the Parkway on H’ville Rd is horrible, and yet they pack in a lot of small businesses in a compact space and still leave adequate room for parking.

          Build a little way up over a decent amount of space. First floor retail, second floor offices, third floor residential is an exceptionally good way to add residential and office space to a city that would benefit from all of them, and absolutely nobody would fuss about it once it’s done.

    • dyfed

      I’m not sure what article you read, but no, this does not discourage tree cover. It discourages large parking lots. Developers don’t plant large amounts of tree cover in parking lots because their roots destroy the asphalt.

      There is zero need for an ‘urban arborist.’ If you want more tree cover in Asheville, look at Charlotte’s solution.

  3. reuben W dejernette

    What do we need more of …Retail Stores and Franchise Quick Serve Food Stores or any kind of housing.
    Within the narrative… “While developers would not be required to build housing as part of new urban center projects, Satvika emphasized, they would be heavily incentivized to do so. ” This is shorthand for there will be no house units. House units add costs and expenses to any building, not to mention continual maintenance and dedicated administration of the units. These companies do not want the headache that accompanies housing units and instead look to routine profit from leases and/or sale to smaller business. So what do we as Citizens of Asheville gain by adding more concrete to the City ?

    • dyfed

      “New commercial buildings could not exceed 20,000 square feet without including some residential units; those that included affordable housing could be built larger and taller by right.”

      I will make you a bet. If passed, I guarantee that 5 years after passage there will be more residential units in those areas than there are today (today, zero, tomorrow, more than zero). How much would you like to wager?

      • reuben W dejernette

        Ha…I’m not the betting type !! City Admin Rules and /or Ordinances are just waiting to be broken !! These seem to change periodically or are applied to each unique venture !! I do agree with your assessment that anything is better than ZERO…I’ll still ask you do we need more Retail / Commercial presence in Asheville ?

        • dyfed

          If we were suffering from an excess of retail and commercial space, surely much of that space would be vacant?

          I agree that current zoning and planning has too many site review processes that allow individual variances. Uses should be by right or not allowed at all, and there should be virtually no review process—only a checklist applied to the site plan to make sure it confirms; no presentation or comment period.

    • luther blissett

      More than preserving acres of bare asphalt, which a) adds little to municipal revenue; b) creates heat islands and issues with stormwater runoff. You don’t need to build high to add density: you need to build moderately upwards in moderately large spaces. It’s the same math that makes it more important to increase fuel efficiency in gas-guzzlers than in smaller vehicles. It’s how Asheville’s downtown works. This is Joe Minicozzi’s beat: his index is “property tax revenue per acre”, and big box retail with large parking lots delivers very little of that.

      If the city truly wants affordable housing it needs to build housing and rent it at affordable rates. Mountain Housing Opportunities is a better vehicle for this than trying to squeeze a dozen “workforce” units out of private developers. Capital investments are more feasible with an increased tax base.

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