Unfolding green

A proposed ordinance that would allow eco-friendly, affordable-housing developments in certain areas for considerably more density — and faster approval — met with a reversal July 22 when the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission voted it down 3-2, instead recommending a scaled-down approach. The incident has triggered a spirited debate about exactly how Asheville will pursue its oft-touted goal of transitioning toward sustainability.

The future? A developer’s slide of the controversial Larchmont project, an example of dense, affordable housing similar to that encouraged by the new ordinance. Opponents of the project say it is out of keeping with the neighborhood.

Two years in the making, the ordinance crafted by the Mayor’s Affordable Housing Task Force would allow developers to exceed the usual density limits to varying degrees if the project were considered affordable and/or sustainable and were located in target areas within a quarter-mile of major transit corridors. Exactly how much denser a given project could be would depend on how affordable, green and close to transit it was. The rules would also allow Planning and Zoning to directly approve such projects, which would never come before City Council for a vote.

The commissioners, however, were sharply split. Advocates of the proposed rules said they would play a key role in making Asheville a better place to live; opponents feared they would intrude on neighborhoods and undermine the democratic process. But after the initial proposal was narrowly voted down (only Jerome Jones and Cindy Weeks supported it; two commissioners were absent), the commission then unanimously approved asking city staff to revise the proposal, exempting neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes and reducing the affected areas to those within an eighth of a mile of transit corridors.

“Our concerns were with the single-family zones,” commission member Mark Brooks, a local engineer, said later. “A multifamily development in a single-family area could have some unintended negative effects. The quarter-mile zone, once we looked at the maps, included almost the whole city. It only left out a few pockets. Going back to an eighth of a mile, you don’t run into much conflict with single-family residences.”

An overwhelming need

Among those who helped design the ordinance is Robin Merrell, a managing attorney at Pisgah Legal Services. She believes the rules are sorely needed.

“We’ve debated, considered and weighed lots of options,” she explains. “There’s an overwhelming need for affordable housing; we hear a lot about it, but it’s true. The clients I talk to all the time struggle with housing.

“Now, the clients at Pisgah are low-income. But also, when I talk to my peers — other professionals working in the city — they’re struggling to find decent housing in the city that they can afford to rent. I was just talking to a friend last week who’s renting one room for $550 and is stunned at what he’s run into. Some people don’t realize it’s like that and to what a crisis point it’s come.”

Putting density along transit corridors, adds Merrell, will help encourage people to use mass transit, “which is environmentally conscious and economically sound. All of the research we’ve done, everything we’ve read, indicates that density bonuses are the greatest way to increase the supply of affordable housing.”

And even having fewer projects come before Council, Merrell maintains, will help spur the desired types of development.

“That was an intentional part of this ordinance,” she reveals. “Having to defend a development through the conditional-use process is very expensive, which increases the cost of the housing. … This is not a density bonus for any kind of housing, but for affordable housing (which is a stated priority for City Council); for lots of entities in this area, that’s a greater public purpose that outweighs the necessity for a public hearing.”

As an example, Merrell points to a 2001 Chunn’s Cove project “that was really damaged by the outcome of the hearing, opposed by people who really didn’t want people with disabilities in their neighborhood. Some of the animosity towards [the ordinance] comes from it being so soon after the Larchmont project” (see “Asheville City Council,” March 31 Xpress).

But she believes the modifications the commission has requested won’t significantly harm the proposal.

Bypassing the democratic process?

Local progressive political activist Elaine Lite has a radically different take on the ordinance, particularly the idea of eliminating City Council approval.

“I am a huge supporter of affordable housing, believe me, but affordable housing doesn’t give them carte blanche to bypass the democratic process; it’s too critical to how our city functions,” Lite asserts. “As it is, developers of all stripes — affordable and gated communities — have the upper hand in the process, as far as the citizens are concerned. There is no way they can eliminate this point from the process: That just doesn’t fly. I think it’s a good idea in theory, but they have to examine it.”

Scaling down the ordinance and staying away from single-family neighborhoods, says Lite, “makes a lot of sense. But that’s just the technicalities: The process is my main concern.

“I wasn’t thrilled about the ordinance — I thought it was too far-reaching — but we can’t even begin talking about that if we’re going to bastardize the process like this. We elected the City Council, not the Planning and Zoning [Commission]. Everybody wants to have their say; people have come up with some very valid objections to some of these developments.”

Looking beyond old objections

Council member Gordon Smith was in the audience the night of the commission’s vote. And while he and Lite have agreed on many issues in the past — “Scrutiny Hooligans,” the political blog he founded, endorsed her 2007 City Council run — Smith stands behind the ordinance as originally proposed.

“If we … are going to be serious about becoming a sustainable city, if we’re going to be serious about our carbon footprint as well as the quality of life for people living in Asheville, as well as for our workers who often can’t afford to live here, then we have to look beyond some of the old objections,” Smith declares. “We really have to start to ask where we want to be in 25 years.”

And unlike Merrell, he believes the suggested modifications will do some harm. The reduction to an eighth of a mile, he says, “will drive up costs, because there’s simply going to be less land available to do this kind of development affordably. Eliminating single-family neighborhoods from the ordinance kind of ignores the historical nature of Asheville, where you have so many neighborhoods that have duplexes, triplexes and quads. Asheville used to be a city where neighborhoods were made up of many different kinds of housing units. It’s only in the last several decades that we’ve switched to this more sprawling idea of how we should live in cities.”

As for eliminating Council review of such projects, Smith doesn’t see a problem with it.

“Over the last few elections, what you’ve seen is those who talk about affordable housing, about sustainability, are [those] who move forward politically,” he maintains. “It seems the electorate has made a decision about which way they want to go. So we can enshrine that in our development ordinance, or we can hash it out project by project. If you want people to invest in your city, you have to give them some confidence the process is going to work for them.”

Nonetheless, Smith concedes that “There’s still a lot of question marks around what the final [ordinance] is going to look like.” And whatever form this particular set of rules may eventually take, the fight about precisely what course Asheville should chart toward becoming a more sustainable city doesn’t look to die down anytime soon.

David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at dforbes@mountainx.com.


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