Broadway Street, a four-lane stretch of roadway that runs north from downtown to U.S. 19/23, now has the distinction of being the first swath of land in the city to be designated a Neighborhood Corridor District.
After a lengthy public hearing at the Asheville City Council’s Jan. 14 formal meeting, Council members appeared to have finally decided the fate of this long-contested thoroughfare.
In recent years, this strip of road has been noted for its dual personality. The southern stretch, from the Five Points intersection to the I-240 overpass, has long sat idle, notable mostly for a smattering of businesses surrounded by the shells of boarded-up buildings and weed-choked lots. Driving north from downtown, one gets the impression that life once thrived here — but no more. After years of controversy, the state Department of Transportation widened the ramshackle roadway in 1996. Thus, beyond Five Points, the road now broadens to four lanes with a tree-lined median. Homes poke up here and there, and gray turns to green as foliage softens the pavement’s grim reign. Here too, the road gently bends as it passes the bucolic UNCA campus en route to its terminus at Riverside Drive.
That schizophrenic character loomed large as Council tackled the thorny issue of whether to rezone Broadway from Community Business II and RS-8 (residential, single-family, eight units per acre) to Neighborhood Corridor District, a new zoning designation adopted by City Council back in November. According to city Planning and Development staff, the new designation is designed to foster “smart growth” in a city that’s struggling to regulate development. The hope is that permitting mixed-use projects while emphasizing pedestrian-friendliness will produce a revitalized, balanced commercial/residential corridor linking downtown and the university.
But the potential for commercial intrusion into historically working-class residential neighborhoods has sparked a concerted effort by area residents to work with city planners and developers drawn by the road’s growth potential to find a mutually acceptable plan. Until recently, those efforts appeared successful, with all three groups praising the level of cooperation during the nearly three years of planning for the corridor. As the Jan. 14 public hearing drew near, however, several sticking points threatened to sour the relationship and possibly derail those many months of hard work.
At issue was the impact of development on the northern portion of Broadway. Attorney Betty Lawrence, who represents the neighborhood interests, argued that this strip has historically been residential, even tracing back to the days when Broadway marked the end of the old drovers’ road that livestock herders used to drive their fowl and hoofed stock to town. Neighborhood residents feared that allowing buildings up to four stories tall would threaten both the character of the area and the long-promised greenway slated for development along the western edge of Broadway.
More specifically, a clause in the proposed zoning would allow drive-through windows for new businesses that apply for and are granted a conditional-use permit — raising the specter of Broadway morphing into another Patton Avenue lined with fast-food eateries. Asheville architect Mike Burton opined: “There’s something completely antithetical about drive-throughs and being pedestrian-friendly. Those two things are wholly incompatible.” Neighbors also feared that nearby side streets would act as overflow parking lots for the new businesses.
With the clock ticking and the parties unable to reach an amicable resolution on these points, Lawrence submitted a protest petition to City Attorney Bob Oast. The legal maneuver marked a turning point in the cooperative effort to reach consensus on Broadway’s fate. If validated by the city attorney, the petition would require a unanimous Council vote in order for the rezoning to go forward. Thus, if even a single Council member voted no, the measure would fail.
Oast, however, rejected the petition. It was a difficult decision, he told Council, because the state law that sets the criteria for such documents is hard to interpret in light of the situation at hand. The law requires that such petitions be signed by at least 20 percent of the property owners in the area to be rezoned or 20 percent of the property owners whose land is located behind or next to the properties to be rezoned and within 100 feet of them.
The problem, according to Oast, is that both the law itself and the legal cases that have interpreted it have assumed standard, rectangular property lots. But the irregular shape of the 91 parcels in the 40 acre Broadway rezoning made it hard to interpret the state guidelines. Oast said he’d consulted other attorneys as well as the Institute of Government, a Chapel Hill-based think tank that specializes in North Carolina law, explaining that there was no clear guidance to be had and that ultimately, “These are judgment calls. The law isn’t clear — it’s a question of what’s reasonable.” According to his interpretation, however, the petition drive had fallen short, having gotten signatures from only 17.3 percent of the eligible property owners.
Oast’s rejection of the petition rankled Lawrence and others. Lawrence argued that she hadn’t been notified of Oast’s decision until two hours before the meeting. And Margaret Muller, speaking during the hearing, noted that Oast’s decision “seemed somewhat arbitrary.”
It quickly became apparent that most of those in attendance wanted Broadway treated as two separate entities, divided by the Five Points intersection. Neighborhood resident Peter Brezny explained that “one of the reasons we haven’t met consensus [with the developers and city planning staff] is due to the difference between north and south. The southern portion is much more suitable to the zoning; the land north has traditionally been residential.” Fellow resident Greg McCoy went further, declaring, “If you open the door to do this, houses are going to fall.” Veronica Gunter, who’d been involved in the planning process on behalf of the neighborhoods, raised a technical argument by pointing out that “the land north of Chestnut [part of the Five Points intersection] is not large enough to develop.” Her point was highlighted by Lawrence, who showed pictures of some of the lots and said that measurements taken by volunteers working with her had estimated some of the lot depths at only 35 feet. “What can you build on these lots?” she inquired; then, answering her own question, she continued, “What you can build on is the idea of a super greenway.”
But one of the developers advocating for the rezoning reasons that the entire length of Broadway needs to be rezoned as a Neighborhood Corridor District in order to avoid rampant commercial development in the unprotected section. With the help of a snappy PowerPoint presentation, David Hill, representing Community Corridors LLC, a partnership with considerable holdings along Broadway, explained that without the rezoning, the fast-food establishments that neighbors fear the most would sprout up unchecked. To illustrate his point, he showed a map of the area dotted with the logos of Taco Bell, KFC, Burger King and other rulers of the drive-through world. To heighten the fear factor, Hill also displayed a slide chronicling the more than 1,800 calls for police assistance that he said the APD has had to respond to in the area during the past 12 months — a function, Hill maintained, of the undeveloped corridor’s derelict condition.
During Council’s deliberations on the matter, it became apparent that a troika consisting of Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy and Council members Brian Peterson and Holly Jones — apparently swayed by the arguments of neighborhood advocates — wanted the northern and southern portions of Broadway considered in separate votes. Jones revisited the drive-through issue, saying: “I am genuinely puzzled about how drive-throughs can be compatible with pedestrian-friendliness. Ideologically, drive-throughs aren’t part of the mix.”
Bellamy, meanwhile, argued that the portion north of Five Points should be rezoned for multifamily housing to encourage greater density and affordable housing. But Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford warned that because the area’s proximity to the university, any affordable housing would quickly be snapped up by students, possibly resulting in the kind of noise problems that some neighbors near the school have complained about in the past.
In the end, Jones made a motion to vote on the two sections separately, with the Five Points intersection as the border. But the motion failed 3-4, and Mayor Charles Worley and Council members Joe Dunn, Jim Ellis and Carl Mumpower voted to rezone both sections.