Asheville’s newest zoning classification became a reality on Feb. 23, but not without debate. Three areas in the city were the first to be rezoned Office II — a new classification that’s lower density than Office Business, which had been the only office category under the city’s zoning laws. In two of the cases, residents and business owners asked for a little clarification and relief.
“This is a classic conflict that you’ve heard often, between residential and nonresidential uses,” said Asheville resident Mel Thomason, representing Grove Street homeowners who wanted to make sure that future commercial development in one of the rezoned areas wouldn’t infringe on their neighborhood.
During the first public hearing on the proposed reclassification of the area, which is bounded by Asheland Avenue and Grove Street, City Planner Gerald Green explained the new category, saying that Office II had been created as a transition zone to fill a gap between existing classifications: “Office” limits buildings to a maximum size of 8,000 square feet, with a maximum first-floor area of 4,000 square feet, whereas “Office Business” allows structures up to 30,000 square feet, with an equally large footprint. The new Office II limits buildings to 16,000 square feet, with no more than an 8,000-square-foot first floor.
The Grove Street/Asheland Avenue properties are currently zoned OB, which meant that the reclassification would reduce the allowable size of future structures in the area, Green emphasized.
“We appreciate that,” said Thomason. On his neighbors’ behalf, he asked City Council to create a one-foot-wide strip zoned residential along the eastern side of Grove Street, to function as a buffer between the Office II district and the RS-8 residential area across the street. Such a strip would protect residents by preventing any future commercial development from using Grove as an access street, Thomason argued: “It’s a win/win situation: It would have a traffic-calming effect [and] preserve [our residential] property values.”
“We have a difference of opinion,” said Dr. Craignan Gray, one of several owners of the Asheville Women’s Medical Center on Asheland, which would be affected by the rezoning (along with two center-owned properties on Grove Street, behind the facility). Gray explained that, while he and his associates are “sensitive to the neighborhood” and have agreed to be downzoned from Office Business to Office II, the proposed one-foot buffer “would restrict [our] use of the property.” Although the women’s center has no plans for expansion in the immediate future, “we want to maintain some flexibility,” Gray noted.
“A one-foot buffer would not be asking too much,” countered Council member O.T. Tomes, noting that, five or 10 years from now, Gray and his partners might move the renters out of its two residential buildings and develop the properties commercially. That has happened along Asheland Avenue in past years, Tomes argued.
Gray replied, “We would have to rely on the wisdom of the Planning and Zoning Commission and [City] Council,” noting that he hopes to maintain the rental homes.
But residents objected, including Mary Warren, who voiced considerable concern for the present as well as the future, complaining that cut-through traffic and medical-office visitors parking on neighborhood streets already cause problems for Grove Street residents. “Please consider the one-foot [buffer],” Warren urged.
Council member Chuck Cloninger pointed out that this was first he had heard of the one-foot-buffer proposal and moved that the issue be remand to the Planning and Zoning Commission — where staff, commission members, residents and business owners might come up with a mutually agreeable solution. Tomes seconded, and Council agreed, 7-0.
In Council’s second Office II rezoning hearing that evening, it was the business owner who asked for relief: Telco Credit Union’s representative asked that Council exclude the 14,000-square-foot financial institution from a rezoning proposal for properties located south of Orange Street and adjacent to the north side of Interstate 240. The area included the new 30,000-square-foot Central Office Park on Central Avenue, a former apartment-complex.
That structure — which was permitted under the area’s current OB zoning — would be grandfathered under the new Office II classification, which limits buildings to approximately half that size, Green reported.
But, unlike the Asheville Women’s Medical Center, Telco does have plans to expand — which would not be allowed under the Office II classification. The expansion would add about 6,000 square feet to the building, the company’s representative reported.
Vice Mayor Ed Hay made a motion to adopt the Office II rezoning, but exclude the Telco property. Seconded by Cloninger, the motion passed unanimously.
The third and final Office II rezoning also passed unanimously, with little discussion, resulting in the rezoning of several properties — located off Hendersonville Road near Maude Avenue — from OB to Office II. On a motion by Barbara Field, seconded by Tommy Sellers, that recommendation was adopted.
Dollars and sense
Whose pockets will Asheville tap to raise the $1.4 million needed for a “champagne design” of Pritchard Park?
Squeeze it out of the $18 million in parks-and-recreation bonds that City Council wants taxpayers to approve in May, urged Merchants Action Coalition member Chris Peterson during City Council’s Feb. 23 formal session.
“Scale down the project,” suggested Asheville Council member Cloninger, repeating his 1998 assessment of the consultants’ plans: “We have a champagne design when we have a beer budget.”
According to city staff reports, approximately one-third of the Pritchard Park costs would come directly from city funds ($250,000 was budgeted for this fiscal year, $64,000 of which paid for the recently completed conceptual plan by the Genesis Group; an additional $300,000 will be requested in next year’s budget). The source of the remaining $1 million-plus remains uncertain.
Cloninger suggested trimming expensive or unnecessary items from the proposed project. Comments by the public, he said, indicate concern over the proposal’s high cost, at a time when the city has so many other pressing needs. Cloninger also urged city staff to come up with a plan to phase in the project, starting first with the park itself.
“We should look to do the whole thing at one time,” countered Council member Field. She mentioned that the adjoining Haywood Street will be torn up for water-line-replacement work later this year, and it makes sense to schedule the park demolition and construction at the same time — to avoid disrupting downtown traffic and businesses twice. Field also suggested dropping the public-art portion of the project and letting groups like the Urban Trail raise the $160,000 from donations.
She pointed out that a significant part of the estimated demolition cost stems from tipping fees to dump the materials at the Buncombe County Landfill; she suggested that perhaps the county would be willing to waive those fees.
“I agree with everything you said,” Mayor Leni Sitnick responded. “Yes, it’s an aggressive design, [and] we have other needs,” she added, agreeing with Cloninger that the project could be scaled back.
“I remember when the consultant first gave us the [$1.4 million] figure, all our jaws dropped,” Vice Mayor Hay interjected. “It doesn’t have to be $1.4 million,” he said, supporting a reduced plan.
Council member Earl Cobb tossed in that Field and city staff have indicated that the transportation component — the roundabouts, specifically — might be funded by the North Carolina Department of Transportation, which has recently shown an interest in supporting such new traffic-controlling measures. Drop the public-art cost, as Field suggested, figure in DOT’s contribution, “and we’re down to $650,000” needed, said Cobb. That amount could be raised out in the community, he ventured.
Peterson shook his head at Cobb’s fund-raising math. Local banks — whom Council members have hoped would help with the project — aren’t planning donations anytime soon, according to research by the merchant’s coalition, Peterson emphasized. He repeated MAC’s suggestion that Council get the money from the “champagne budget” outlined in the parks bonds — perhaps even by increasing the $18 million bond to $19.5 million.
“You’re saying you want a little bit of the champagne,” Field joked.
Cloninger observed that MAC has misunderstood the bond package and why Pritchard Park wasn’t included in it: Pritchard Park renovations were considered an ongoing project at the time the Parks and Recreation Department held public meetings to prioritize long-range parks-and-greenways needs in the city; and the overall project has a transportation component, which doesn’t fit into the parks-and-greenways bond referendum.
Cloninger suggested that Council members and city staff meet with MAC members at the group’s next meeting (scheduled for March 2), to describe other projects targeted for downtown, and to better explain both the Pritchard Park proposal and the bond referendum.
Field suggested that a Council subcommittee work with staff on scaling down the project and determining where to go from here. In previous meetings, city staff have suggested organizing a fund-raising committee and perhaps hiring a fund-raising professional.
Sitnick promptly appointed Cloninger (who supports phasing in the project) and Field (a “non-phaser,” joked Cloninger).
Copies of the Pritchard Park plan can be seen at the City Development Office (29 Haywood St.), the Quality Forward Office (29 Page Ave.), and the city Parks and Recreation Department (fourth floor, City Hall).
Cost breakdown for Pritchard Park
• Demolition (pavement, bus shelter, tip fees) $150,00
• Streets/sidewalks (including roundabouts) $590,000
• Park development $300,000
• Public art $160,000
• Additional design fees & contingency $200,000
TOTAL COST: $1.4 million