Supporters of a park on Haywood Street, across from the Basilica of St. Lawrence and the U. S. Cellular Center, would have raised a hearty cheer at the close of City Council’s Dec. 8 meeting. Would have, that is, if all but one of their number hadn’t already left the chamber by the time the meeting adjourned after 9 p.m.
Likewise, advocates for expanding the city’s newly-revised homestay short-term lodging ordinance to include accessory dwelling units (ADUs, which include basement or garage apartments, or mother-in-law suites), also had cause for celebration as Council directed staff to begin the process of amending the rules.
And there was something for those Asheville residents who believe the city’s growth has gotten out of hand: an agreement among Council members to bring greater scrutiny to bear on new building projects downtown.
The details of each of these policy directions remain to be worked out. None of them came to a vote, and even the limits of various Councilmembers’ agreement in principle seemed unclear. But they are all headed to the same place for further review and refinement: the Planning & Economic Development committee, newly under the direction of Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler.
Joining Wisler on the committee are Councilmen Gordon Smith and Brian Haynes. The three-member body, which meets at 3:30 p.m. on the third Tuesday of each month, will work with city staff and other committees to hash out the details of how the city will move forward.
Haywood Street lot
When it comes to the property on Haywood Street, Mayor Esther Manheimer said the first step had already been taken. “The property is no longer on the market,” Manheimer clarified.
“The essential first decision we need to make is what the streets are going to be like there,” commented Councilman Cecil Bothwell. “There are ways to make that place better, and the roads are going to define what we do from this point forward.”
Wisler, responding to the mayor’s request to take up the next steps in the process in the Planning & Economic Development committee, asked for a consensus around the general use of the property: “Will it be public space only?”
Wisler’s question provoked an active discussion. Newly-elected Councilman Keith Young, whose campaign was based in part on his support for a park on the property, responded, “That’s where I’m at. Public space and zero development and community conversation.” Newly-elected Councilwoman Julie Mayfield said she supports examining a variety of options and their associated costs and potential benefits.
The mayor acknowledged that Council members hold “a range of ideas of how to approach this.” Wisler said her committee, working with city staff, would explore options for a public process surrounding the future use for the site and bring a proposal to Council.
ADUs as homestays
Manheimer noted that she recently has gone on the record in support of exploring the use of ADUs as homestays. A homestay is a type of short-term lodging offered by the primary resident of a home while the resident is present.
In the city’s revised homestay ordinance enacted by Council on Nov. 17, rules for offering homestays were loosened to enable more Asheville residents to participate in the activity.
ADUs are self-contained units separate from the primary living space of the residence. ADUs were specifically excluded from the homestay ordinance in order to boost the number of units available to long-term renters. In a city that is experiencing a rental property vacancy rate of less than 1%, Council planned to preserve as many housing units as possible for residents.
But several factors prompted Council to reconsider: pressure from property owners wishing to gain the revenues associated with renting ADUs on a short-term basis, the results of November’s election and, possibly, a lawsuit brought by short-term rental operators.
Thus, Manheimer directed Wisler, as chair of Planning & Economic Development, to begin working through the process of drafting an amendment to the homestay ordinance in consultation with city staff. Additional city committees to be consulted include Housing and Community Development, the Affordable Housing Advisory Committee and possibly the Neighborhood Advisory Committee.
Downtown Development Review
Prompted by concerns that downtown development is happening at an increasingly rapid pace and without sufficient oversight from elected officials, in November Council requested a report on current thresholds for Council review of development projects downtown.
In a presentation, city planning director Todd Okolichany explained that, since the passage of the Downtown Master Plan in 2010, Council only reviews downtown development applications classified as Level III projects: buildings larger than 175,000 square feet or with a building height above the intermediate height zone (from 145 feet to a maximum of 265 feet).
Only three projects have met those criteria in recent years: the life safety tower for the Buncombe County Courthouse at 60 Court Plaza (2010), the Buncombe County Courts Building Amendment at 60 Court Plaza (2011) and the Buncombe County Health and Human Services Building at 40 Coxe Ave. (2015).
Council will hear a conditional zoning request related to the redevelopment of the BB&T building at One West Pack Square on Jan. 12.
In his presentation, Okolichany outlined a wide variety of possible strategies for amending the current review standards, including lowering the size thresholds that trigger Council review, as well as the possible implementation of conditional use permit and/or conditional zoning requirements.
This matter, too, was referred to the Planning & Economic Development committee for further action, though Council did generally signal its intent to tighten the regulations and the level of oversight controlling downtown development.
Council passed its consent agenda unanimously.
Council held public hearings on two matters: an amendment to a previously-approved conditional zoning at 671 Sand Hill Rd. to add a two-story, 8,000 square foot building for the New Classical Academy, a private school; and the permanent closing of an unnamed alley off Jarrett Street. Council approved both matters unanimously.
I-26 Connector Resolution
Council heard a presentation from city transportation department director Ken Putnam on his department’s activities surrounding the release of the NCDOT’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the I-26 Connector project.
After Putnam’s presentation, which included a summary of the comments his department plans to submit to the NCDOT as part of the public comment process, Councilwoman Mayfield delivered an introduction to Council’s resolution on the I-26 project.
“This will be the largest infrastructure project we will likely ever see in WNC and it will dictate the character and feel of our city for decades to come,” said Mayfield. “It is enormously impactful to homes and businesses along the corridor.”
Mayfield responded to the calls from some in the community to “just get it done,” explaining that “until now, we have not fully known the relative impacts of the different alternatives.” The DEIS report released on Oct. 16, she said, was the first complete report the community has seen. Thus, though the city has been discussing the project for a long time, “we have not had a full understanding of the project’s impacts for our city.”
Following Mayfield’s comments, Council heard extensive public comment. Most of those who spoke focused their remarks on the impact of various NCDOT design alternatives.
Montford resident John Gordon, however, said that Council hadn’t thought “far enough out of the box,” pointing out that interstate highways don’t generally intersect with cities and that the roadway could be routed around Asheville. Gordon presented a sketch illustrating his idea, which showed a re-routed I-26 joining with I-40 for a short distance, and then turning northward on the west side of the city to join with I-26 north of UNC Asheville.
Mayfield responded that, over ten years ago, city leaders demanded that the roadway come through Asheville. Manheimer mused that she didn’t know whether the NCDOT would reconsider the route at this late date.
Council unanimously passed a resolution to be submitted to the NCDOT. Key elements of the resolution include:
- Minimizing the footprint of the project.
- Analyzing an option of fewer lanes through West Asheville and building as few lanes as possible throughout the project.
- Creating a collaborative working group with the city during the NCDOT design phase of the project.
- Endorsing alternative F1 for section C (the smallest alternative for the I-40, I-240, I-26 interchange)
- Endorsing alternatives 4 and 4B over the 3-series of alternatives, while urging further work to minimize the impacts to businesses and the Burton Street, Emma and Montford neighborhoods.
In closing, Manheimer noted that this was Council’s final meeting of 2015, and wished Asheville citizens a Merry Christmas and a happy holiday season.
Vice mayor Wisler thanked former Councilmembers Marc Hunt and Jan Davis, as well as members of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, for their work on the I-26 project.
Young asked Council members to familiarize themselves with the Ban the Box initiative, which he said he would soon be bringing to the Governance committee.
Smith wrapped up with “Peace, love and joy.”