With a laugh, Shuford feigned surprise that the Staples office-supply building swept the voting among bad examples.
Attendance at recent city-sponsored meetings about development issues in Asheville has surged, and a July 20 public hearing was no exception, with more than 100 people showing up to discuss the future of Merrimon Avenue.
Among those in the crowd were a host of city officials, including Mayor Terry Bellamy, Vice Mayor Holly Jones, City Council members Jan Davis and Brownie Newman, Planning & Zoning Board Chair Tom Byers and P&Z members Buzz Canady, Cindy Weeks, Darryl Hart, Steve Sizemore and David Young.
Planning & Development Director Scott Shuford opened the meeting with a summary of progress to date on the awkwardly named “Merrimon Avenue Zoning Study for North Asheville’s Critical Corridor.” As part of the ongoing study, a city-sponsored survey in February garnered 337 responses from people who live near the corridor, he reported, representing what he termed a surprisingly high return on the mailing of about 900 surveys. Shuford noted that while the results included some widely divergent responses, overall there was a good deal of agreement.
On the question of which structures are examples of good development in the corridor, the Atlanta Bread Company led the poll, followed by the Medicine Shoppe and the North Branch Library. With a laugh, Shuford feigned surprise that the Staples office-supply building had swept the voting in bad-example category, followed by the CVS and the Medicine Shoppe. In the preferred design for new development category, Atlanta Bread Company came in first, followed by Iris Photo/Graphics.
The survey indicated a great deal of interest in walkable shopping, with a large majority of respondents saying they would avail themselves of that option. In addition, a substantial plurality asked that no drive-through windows be permitted. Among those willing to permit drive-throughs, banks received the most support. Most respondents preferred one- or two-story height limits.
Among the complaints, Shuford said noise, commercial lights, the scale of buildings and lack of buffers were high on the list. In describing their vision for Merrimon’s future, respondents listed specialty retail shops, neighborhood-supportive development and mixed use as preferred outcomes, with less support for multifamily, lower-income housing and businesses catering to regional rather than local shoppers.
Shuford said that study objectives, based in large part on the survey results, include supporting pedestrian-friendly design, mixed-use facilities, retail businesses, restaurants, small offices and residences, transit-supportive planning and traditional designs.
He outlined the current zoning for the corridor, which ranges from Highway Business just south of Beaver Lake (Ingles, Fresh Market, Steinmart, as well as the Deal Motor Cars property), to Corridor Business II south to CVS, to Corridor Business I from CVS south to the Greenlife/Staples area, which is also CBII. Each zoning district has differing size, use and signage standards.
Shuford noted that the study project is currently evaluating the merits of converting the current zones to Neighborhood Corridor District zoning, or some variant, which would permit a larger building footprint than does CB zoning but offers the opportunity to address other city goals through incentives. Such goals could include wider sidewalks, rear parking, traditional design, orientation toward the street, entrances directly connected to the sidewalk and an appropriate amount of windows on street frontage. He said that Urban Village zoning could also be appropriate; local examples using that design include Biltmore Park’s town square and the Gerber urban village on Hendersonville Road.
“Over the past year, the Merrimon Avenue Study Group and Merrimon Avenue Business Group got together and focused on areas of agreement rather than disagreement,” Shuford said, adding that, “They conducted public outreach and a lot of great things were done.” The two groups agreed that utilities should be underground, big-box development should be avoided, there should be limits on drive-throughs, if not prohibition, and that design standards should include attractive windows and wide sidewalks, with a 4-foot-wide planting strip at curbside. (A joint report by the two groups is available for review at Shuford’s office and at the North Asheville Library.)
The public speaks
Public comments from more than two dozen attendees at the July 20 meeting tended to echo the survey results reported by Shuford, and many of the speakers had been involved in the study group.
New ideas included a suggestion from Michael Figura that the city conduct a study about trip generation — where people traveling the corridor are coming from and going to. He added that he hopes the state Department of Transportation can better synchronize traffic lights and reduce the speed limit.
Gus Barlas, owner of the Beaver Lake Office Plaza next to Ingles, said, “I don’t know why we have to fix something that is not broken. Merrimon Avenue has been working for mixed use, for different tenants and residents. I have practiced real estate for 30 years, and some of these proposals don’t make sense.”
Resident Richard Moore said, “I think City Council and the city should find some way to get people off Merrimon and divert the traffic to Broadway.”
Resident Joe Ebel, who lives near the intersection of Murdock and Merrimon avenues, said, “We’re living in fear of what might happen to the big green space at the corner of Merrimon and Weaver,” which is currently a large wooded parcel with one private residence. Citing the destruction of a wooded buffer at the Campus Crest development, he said, “We’re afraid we’ll be looking at a big development and bright lights on that corner.” He added that he “would like to see that changes are not made to please developers, that there is better enforcement of zoning rules and that taxation be based on current use instead of zoning designation.”
Local businessman and developer Jerry Sternberg expressed concern for “a group of people who are not represented here — the hundreds of people who are low income who live on the borders of Merrimon Avenue,” adding that “I wonder if these meetings are set up by design or omission to eliminate them.” Sternberg went on to say, “I don’t want to see plans for Merrimon preclude drive-ins, because these poor people depend on drive-throughs to feed their families.” He added that, in emergencies, low-income people need drive-through pharmacies to purchase medication at night. He argued that new zoning should not block development of supermarkets, since “poor people need a grocery store.”
Shuford took note of all comments and said they will be added to the ongoing study, with more meetings and discussions to be scheduled in the near future.