Where some people see a parking lot, others see the potential for affordable housing.
The latter perspective is what some members of Asheville City Council had in mind Sept. 28 as they approved new zoning rules that will loosen building requirements for large commercial developments if property owners add residential units.
Council members voted 4-2 to approve an update to the definition of the Urban Place Zoning district in the city’s Unified Development Ordinance. Sandra Kilgore and Antanette Mosley opposed the amendment, while Mayor Esther Manheimer recused herself due to the retainment of her employer, The Van Winkle Law Firm, by several property owners impacted by the change.
According to a staff report, the new zoning district will encourage more mixed-use development and walkability in areas currently dominated by big-box stores, such as Walmart and Ingles, and their associated parking lots. Housing would be required for commercial projects of more than 20,000 square feet on sites over five acres and zoned in the new district; developers could build taller structures by right if they include affordable housing. The strategy was developed in accordance with Asheville’s 2018 Living Asheville Comprehensive Plan, which encourages growth near transit lines, walkability, affordable housing and better connectivity between areas where people live and work.
After voting to create the new zoning rules, Council voted to rezone a total of 122 acres into Urban Place Zoning, including the current site of the Innsbruck Mall on Tunnel Road and the shopping center on Bleachery Boulevard in East Asheville. That vote fell along the same lines as the first decision, with Council members Kilgore and Mosely opposed and Manheimer recused.
“We know that growth is coming. I don’t know that anybody can live in Asheville in recent years and not feel that we’re growing fast and that there’s a lot of pressure to build and grow,” said Council member Sage Turner in support of the new zoning. “And if we don’t plan for where that makes sense and where those nodes are and where we can fit it, I think we’re going to end up continuing to see it pop up everywhere, kind of like Crossroads or the Bluffs.
“We have an affordable housing crisis in this community. The bottom line is that we need more affordable housing and there are limited places in the city of Asheville where we can build it,” added Vicki Meath, executive director of Just Economics. “We need you to continue to fight for affordable housing using every tool available.
But the zoning ordinance also drew criticism from property rights advocates and lawyers representing some business owners whose properties are located in the newly rezoned areas.
Wyatt Stevens, a commercial litigation attorney representing Ingles (which will have two branches impacted by the new zoning) said before the vote that the housing requirements did not consider issues such as existing infrastructure, including water, sewer and stormwater, that could restrict new structures on the rezoned properties.
“Although city staff has been working on this for three years, it’s not ready to be applied to any properties in our city,” Stevens said. “These are laudable goals, but they have to take into account the character of the land and the practical realities of private property owners redeveloping these sites with their own money and without any help from the city.”
“I’m not aware of it being done in the entire state of North Carolina, and I’ve been a land use lawyer for 30 years,” added Craig Justus, who questioned the legality of the zoning rules. Justice said he also represents Ingles, among other property owners impacted by the change. “There’s never, to my knowledge, an ordinance in the entire state that mandates what the city is mandating.”
Kilgore suggested that the new zoning would create multiple property rights lawsuits for the city, while Mosely raised concern about its impact on the East End neighborhood, a historically Black community near the Innsbruck Mall. She pointed to the staff report, which notes that redevelopment of the Urban Place Zoning properties could increase neighboring property values over time, and argued that the result would be gentrification.
“I’ve had personal conversations with some folks who live there,” Mosley said. “I grew up in that neighborhood, so there are concerns.”
“It’s important to think about displacement,” city planner Vaidila Satvika responded. “At the same time, whenever we have opportunities to influence development patterns, let’s make sure that we do so in a way that guides it in a direction that is supportive to those most vulnerable.”
Council member Sage Turner also noted that the business owners will still have the option of coming before Council for conditional zoning if they find the new rules incompatible with their plans.
“We can always adjust things. We can always amend. We can always revisit if we find that these regulations put on these particular parcels are too much for that developer,” Turner said. “We have to make a move on this. It’s time.”