Asheville City Council

City planners are prepared to test-market their “smart growth” concepts on Charlotte Street, along a corridor stretching 10 blocks from Chestnut Street to Evelyn Place.

Planners hope to entice what they call more urban development, by offering an incentives-based overlay-zoning district. If developers meet certain criteria favoring uses that combine residential and commercial spaces in the same building, they’ll be allowed to erect projects up to 75 percent larger than would otherwise be permitted in the area.

At City Council’s March 21 work session, Council member Terry Whitmire hailed the proposed zoning rules as a way to promote traditional neighborhoods, where residents can walk to needed services. She cited the example of City Bakery on Charlotte Street, which is housed in a building with apartments upstairs: “What you need is right there at your doorstep.”

Just last month, City Council took another step to promote the smart-growth concept when it voted 5-1 to amend its zoning ordinance to include conditional-use zoning. The new concept allows existing zoning rules to be waived if certain conditions are met, in effect, creating special districts-within-districts.

Most Council members said they liked the Charlotte Street plan, and Council member Ed Hay suggested that it would provide a “model for what we can do throughout the city.”

Only Council member Brian Peterson — who cast the lone vote last month against conditional-use zoning — voiced displeasure. Bigger buildings with more residents and more vehicles, he reasoned, would worsen an already poor traffic situation. To prove his case, he quoted a traffic study done by the city’s own engineers in 1997.

In that study, former City Traffic Engineer James Hicks described the area in question as having “conditions that are extremely unstable. Any new vehicle entering the traffic stream causes delay. No maneuverability. Driver comfort is extremely poor. Pedestrian comfort is very low with very unsafe conditions.”

“If we are going to allow bigger development on that street, it’s going to lead to gridlock,” declared Peterson.

City Planner Mike Matteson replied that current traffic problems exist only during rush hour, and that proposed curb cuts on driveways and shared parking will reduce the number of cars on the street and improve traffic flow. He also noted that current Traffic Engineer Michael Moule had reviewed the overlay district and “didn’t raise any concerns.”

Peterson remained unconvinced, but his concerns failed to generate any support from other Council members.

What did garner immediate support was Whitmire’s suggestion that the incentives-based zoning ordinance encourages development plans that would create affordable housing. Matteson liked Whitmire’s idea, and said he would recommend it to the planning staff.

One concern kept coming up in the discussion: Nothing in the proposed zoning ordinance requires the new development to remain the same in the future. Mayor Leni Sitnick wondered what would happen, for example, if a developer put in a restaurant on the first floor and, within a year or two, it went out of business. What if no other restaurant were interested in moving into that space, she conjectured, and the owner opted to turn it into a condominium.

“The reality is, the market changes,” said City Planning Director Scott Shuford. “City markets go up and down — and, fortunately, ours is coming back.” The infrastructure, Shuford noted, would still remain in the buildings’ designs, even through downturns, and the buildings could easily be returned to their original uses when the economy bounced back.

There will be a public hearing on the proposed ordinance on April 11.

The politics of butts

The city is launching a campaign to stop smokers from throwing their cigarette butts on the sidewalk.

Solid Waste Manager Richard Grant says he worked with the Asheville Downtown Association, the Merchants Action Coalition and the Downtown Commission to come up with a plan for fighting cigarette trash.

Last year, the merchant community became disgruntled over a proposed ordinance that would have required business owners to install cigarette receptacles at the entrances to their stores. Merchants pointed to two existing city ordinances that already prohibit littering and require businesses to keep storefront sidewalks and gutters clean. The real problem, they maintained, is the mentality of cigarette smokers, which leads them to dispose of their butts improperly.

Grant recommended that City Council consider a publicity blitz to keep smokers from using Asheville as an ashtray. He suggested some slogans: “The butt stops here. Keep downtown Asheville butt free. Nip it in the butt. No ifs, ands or butts about it.”

Whitmire told Grant to speak with some local PTAs before spreading the “butt” word all over the city, where little kids can see it.

Sitnick said the city might ask a local celebrity, such as Andie McDowell, to do a public-service announcement. In addition, Sitnick said Asheville could display its two new sidewalk sweepers, which ordinarily operate at night, to remind people not to litter.

“They are cute, they look catchy, and they’re fun to operate,” said the mayor.

Other suggestions for controlling cigarette waste, noted Grant, include continuing to use inmate work crews to sweep the sidewalks once a month — a program that’s now in its third month — and adding more cigarette receptacles downtown.

Only 28 of 245 trash containers downtown have cigarette receptacles attached, and most of those are concentrated in the Battery Park area. Grant said he’s looking into buying more of the units, which cost between $90 and $200 apiece.

Council member Barbara Field urged Grant to buy receptacles that keep out water, to avoid winding up with cigarette soup.

“A lot of people don’t use [the receptacles] because they are so nasty,” she said.

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