The changing face of Asheville

When neighborhood advocates complain about “creeping intrusion,” they’re not talking about kudzu. What gets their goat is the commercial pressure on residential areas — and, often, attempts to build multifamily housing in single-family neighborhoods (a Haw Creek Mews here, a super Wal-Mart there).

In fact, however, Asheville City Council has approved few residential-to-commercial rezonings since adopting the Unified Development Ordinance in 1997. Although the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission considers many such zoning requests, few actually make it to Council, and fewer still get approved. And those few approvals have tended to be small-scale and to reflect a recent shift in city policy toward “smart growth” (see box).

One key smart-growth precept is “mixed-use” development: Last October, for instance, Council approved the rezoning of land on Sweeten Creek Road — part of it previously zoned for multifamily use — for a new B.B. Barnes outlet. The rezoning will allow the garden-supply company to build a new retail facility with an upper floor containing several apartments.

Other residential-to-commercial rezonings in the last three years include a Milkco request that would allow a parking-lot expansion to rear of their facility (Sept. 26, 2000), and one for Appalachian Stove concerning company-owned property which, owners successfully argued, was unsuitable for multifamily development as zoned during the UDO hearings (Aug. 26, 1997). In a notable case of neighborhood residents successfully fighting commercial intrusion, several lots on Broad Street near Charlotte Street remained residential despite the owner’s request for Office zoning. The owner of the lots sold them to Neighborhood Housing Services, which renovated the single-family homes there.

Despite this trend, however, neighborhood advocates remain cautious, convinced there’s still cause for concern.

“Every month, we’re losing residential [property],” laments Council member Brian Peterson, who is generally supportive of smart-growth principles. A former president of the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods, he asserts that the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission considers two or three rezoning requests every month, “and they’re usually residential-to-commercial. Not all [requests] are approved, but when you look at that trend over a period of two or three years, it’s definitely a creeping encroachment.”

Over the years, he points out, most of the stately Victorian-era homes along East Chestnut Street have been converted into offices. And the city, notes Peterson, has also lost multifamily property in recent years: West Terrace (on Patton Avenue) and the Central Apartments (near downtown) both switched from apartment to office use, knocking HOW MANY????? housing units out of an already tight market.

Meanwhile, down in the trenches, Senior City Planner Gerald Green paints a somewhat different picture: Those lost apartment units were located on property already zoned for office or commercial uses, requiring no rezoning by City Council, he points out. And, although P&Z does hear many rezoning requests, many are dismissed, sent back to the drawing board or denied; few make it to the final level of a vote by City Council, he maintains. “We’ve really tried to hold the line on commercial development [that requires] rezoning of residential property,” says Green. He attributes this line-in-the-sand attitude both to the UDO and to Council’s endorsement, last winter, of smart-growth policies: “The development community, knowing that shift of attitude … has found profit in redevelopment. We’re seeing more redevelopment of existing commercial [property] than [requests] for rezoning residential property for commercial use,” Green reports.

As an example, he mentions the conversion of the old Lowe’s on Tunnel Road into a retail complex that includes a Barnes & Noble bookstore (a new, larger Lowe’s was built nearby). And a former convenience store at the corner of Merrimon and Edgewood avenues will be reborn as the Atlanta Bread Company, with a building behind it housing offices or retail downstairs and apartments up above. North Asheville residents had fought the property owner’s original plan to site an Eckerd’s drugstore there, which would have required rezoning to a higher-density classification.

“Neighborhood [advocates] interpret as ‘intrusion’ anything that isn’t single-family residential. [Their] opposition to commercial intrusion — that’s too simplistic. We need to get beyond that,” says Brownie Newman, director of the Western North Carolina Alliance, an environmental group.

He cites the Viva Europa deli near the head of Montford Avenue as an example of “commercial intrusion” that actually fits the scale of the neighborhood while helping to prevent urban sprawl. All too often, however, neighborhood groups fight any commercial intrusion or multifamily development case by case, forcing growth away from the urban core, says Newman. The irony is that neighborhood advocates like Peterson increasingly support smart-growth principles, which are aimed at curtailing urban sprawl. Newman warns, “If we continue current growth patterns, we’re going to follow, on a smaller scale, the growth patterns of Charlotte and Atlanta.”

Council member Barbara Field says she sympathizes with people’s desire to protect the place they live, up to a point. “I totally understand everyone’s passion about their neighborhoods. I live downtown, and I’m passionate about it. What I don’t understand is the fear.” When asked about neighborhood resistance to commercial intrusion, Field responds, She notes of commercial intrusion fears, “I see more resistance [from neighborhoods] to single-family [property] going multifamily.” Field mentions the vocal opposition to Housing Authority plans to build small-scale, multifamily units in Montford few years ago, which led the Authority to drop most of its plans. The nonprofit Neighborhood Housing Services did end up building a few duplex units, designed to blend with Montford’s historical character, she recounts.

“The principles of smart growth are building density at the inner core,” stresses Field, who is an architect. That includes infill development, such as building duplexes on vacant lots (the way NHS did in Montford), or the Atlanta Bread Company renovating a vacant Merrimon Avenue store. It also includes reintroducing residential units in commercial areas, such as downtown and the Haywood Road corridor in West Asheville, Field observes.

Both Field and Newman note the interrelatedness of smart-growth principles: Increasing density, particularly in the urban core, slows the flight of both residential and commercial uses out of Asheville, which protects and even bolsters the city’s tax base. That increased density makes public transportation more viable. And allowing small-scale commercial ventures in or near neighborhoods makes those communities more walkable (“You don’t have to get in your car to go get a gallon of milk,” says Field).

And the city isn’t forced to annex unwilling county residents swept up in urban sprawl.

Says Newman: “Commercial intrusion isn’t the primary threat to the integrity of neighborhoods. There’s more danger from the widening of roads necessitated by urban sprawl.” He points out that Asheville’s urban core — excluding the downtown — has experienced significant population loss over the last 20 or 30 years, with most of the growth in Buncombe occurring in the unincorporated areas.

That’s urban sprawl, and it means that more people have to get in their cars to drive into Asheville, the major employment and shopping center … which means the city must have wider roads, Newman argues. The proposed widening of Interstate 26 to eight lanes through West Asheville is a good example of the results of sprawl, he states.

“If most people saw the big picture of the dangers of continuing this sprawl pattern, they’d be more open to mixed-use development, small-scale multifamily and higher density,” he declares.

Projects like the Viva Europa, B.B. Barnes, the Atlanta Bread Company and the retail/residential facilities being built by NHS in Montford may go a long way toward breaking down what used to be automatic neighborhood resistance to commercial or multifamily developments.

But market forces also figure into the big picture. “Even with these projects,” says Peterson, “we haven’t been very successful at putting mixed-use development on major thoroughfares. And plans like the Charlotte Street Small Area Plan — which is supposed to encourage residential development in the commercial mix — that isn’t happening. We’re also still not seeing the small-scale multifamily units being developed, except by nonprofits.

“But maybe neighborhoods will look at these [examples] and think, ‘Oh, we can live with that.'”

Field, for her part, calls for balance: “Asheville has a strong sense of place — that ‘character and soul’ folks talk about — and I want to preserve that. But you have to provide the physical environment for development to happen in an orderly fashion.”

Smart growth

Soon after holding their annual retreat last year, Asheville City Council members endorsed this definition:

“Smart growth is a proposed city of Asheville development pattern that makes efficient use of our limited land, fully utilizes our urban services and infrastructure, promotes a wide variety of transportation and housing options, absorbs and effectively serves a significant portion of the future population growth of Buncombe County and Western North Carolina, protects the architectural and environmental character of the city through compatible, high-quality and environmentally sensitive development practices, and recognizes the city’s role as a regional hub of commerce and employment. Inherent to this definition is the need to implement smart growth through comprehensive, consistent and effective policies, regulations, capital projects and incentives.”

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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