Gary Jackson treated a roomful of locals interested in city planning and development to lunch on Friday, Nov. 18 at the U.S. Cellular Center. The City Manager’s Development Forum provided an overview of recent demographic trends, construction activity, city planning, proposed zoning changes and water department achievements. Jackson, Asheville’s city manager for the past 10 years, also briefly discussed the next steps for planning the use of $74 million in general obligation bonds, which were approved by city voters in the Nov. 8 general election.
The city continues to grow, said Community and Economic Development Director Sam Powers. According to the state demographer, Asheville is approaching 91,000 residents, Powers said. North Carolina is now the nation’s tenth largest state, while Asheville is the eleventh-largest city in the state. “So we’re not a rural area anymore,” Powers noted.
The unemployment rate in the Asheville metro area continues to go down, Powers said, while the economy continues to grow.
Some of that growth comes from manufacturing. “We certainly don’t have the total manufacturing base that we once had here in Asheville and Buncombe County,” said Powers. “But the companies that we have are doing advanced manufacturing, they’re doing value-added manufacturing. They’re doing the kinds of things that companies that moved off shore really don’t have the capacity to do.”
Today’s local manufacturers, Powers said, may not offer as many jobs as they did in the past, but those are “very skilled jobs — and most of them are hiring.”
Other busy areas of the economy include professional and business services, healthcare, retail, leisure and hospitality. Housing prices and sales are holding steady, Powers said, and the tourism sector is returning money to the area through the portion of hotel occupancy tax revenues that funds local projects. Airport passenger numbers and revenues also remain strong, he said.
Development Services Director Jason Nortz reported that 2016 is trending slightly below 2015 levels in terms of the number of construction permits issued, though the average assessed value per permit is higher.
A slide Nortz presented showed the following comparative construction data:
2013: 3,175 permits, $290,634,189 construction value
2014: 2,990 permits, $335,630,307 construction value
2015: 3,198 permits, $435,704,929 construction value
2016: 2,477 permits, $356,330,850 construction value (year to date)
According to Nortz, the amount of residential new construction is trending downward, while commercial construction is on an upward trajectory.
The high volume of construction activity has meant that the Development Services Department serves an average of nearly 100 customers a day in its Development Center on South Charlotte Street, Nortz said. To shorten wait times, the department has issued a request for proposals for an electronic document review system. A vendor for the new system, which would allow customers to both send and receive documents electronically, should be selected by the end of the year, according to Nortz.
Todd Okolichany, the city’s Planning and Urban Design director, provided an update on the city’s comprehensive planning process, which kicked off earlier this year. The first public input session was held on Oct. 3, he said, and additional sessions are planned at a variety of locations throughout the city on Dec. 6 and 7.
The planning team recently released a 150-page assessment document, which examines all existing city plans and also considers benchmarking data from several other cities (including Raleigh, Wilmington, Greenville, S.C. and Chattanooga, Tenn.). The document is available at ashevillenc.gov/compplan.
The Planning and Urban Design Department is also working on a potential zoning change that would reduce required lot width and area by 20 percent to increase density within the city’s residential neighborhoods. Increasing density is seen as one potential solution to boosting the supply of housing in the city, which is suffering from a shortage of affordable housing options.
Barber Melton, a member of the city’s Neighborhood Advisory Committee, pushed back on that idea, saying, “Many neighborhoods don’t want increased density. Haw Creek certainly doesn’t, plus 90% of the other neighborhoods.” Noting that she also serves on the city’s Affordable Housing Committee, Melton said, “There needs to be a balance.”
Alan Glines, assistant director of planning and urban design, outlined a zoning ordinance change which would give City Council a greater role in approving large building projects, as well as hotels with more than 21 rooms. Current rules require City Council review for downtown projects greater than 175,000 square feet in size or 145 feet tall. The changes would require Council review for projects over 99,000 square feet in size or 100 feet in height, for residential communities with 50 units or more (same as current) and for all but the smallest hotels.
That proposed change, Glines said, should go before the city’s Planning & Zoning Commission in January 2017, and it could then come before Council for approval as soon as February.
With Water Resources Department Director Jade Dundas at his side, Jackson outlined recent progress toward efficient management at the city’s water system.
Ten years ago, Jackson said, the system was in bad shape. Problems included over $60 million in documented deferred maintenance, deficiencies at the Bee Tree Reservoir treatment plant, and a loss of 6,000,000 to 7,000,000 gallons of water daily.
Now the system enjoys an upgraded bond rating, the Bee Tree Reservoir is operational and the daily loss rate has dropped to 4,000,000 gallons per day, Jackson reported.
Jackson also discussed the next steps the city will take in planning for the use of $74 million in bond funds approved by voters. Through Council work sessions (which are open to the public), Jackson said, opportunities for layering bond funding with budgeted projects to achieve economies of scale will be explored. City staff will present City Council with options as the Fiscal Year 2017 budget is developed, he said.
The bond funds, Jackson said, are likely to be drawn in three separate disbursements (called “tranches”) over the next five to seven years.
Editor’s note: Barber Melton is a member of the Neighborhood Advisory Committee. The story was updated to reflect her position on Nov. 19 at 4:14 p.m.