Asheville City Council Nov. 23 meeting
- City sales-tax revenues higher than expected
- Council endorses ethics code
After two years of discussion, debate, committees and consultants, the first major changes proposed by the Downtown Master Plan came before the Asheville City Council Nov. 23 and were approved with only one dissenting vote.
But not without controversy. The changes include a bevy of design guidelines restricting building height and width, and requiring upper-story setbacks, in an effort to preserve downtown's current aesthetic.
To balance the stricter design guidelines, the rules also raise the threshold for direct Council approval of downtown projects from 100,000 square feet to 175,000 square feet. Both the consultants who drafted the master plan and the residents who served on the various committees that helped refine it intended this two-pronged approach to provide clear standards while ensuring approval for any project that satisfied them, replacing a Council-review process that some have seen as too arbitrary, unpredictable and political.
But the threshold change, in particular, drew the ire of neighborhood advocates such as the grass-roots group People Advocating Real Conservancy, which had urged residents to oppose it. Empowering appointed committees rather than elected officials to approve all but the biggest downtown projects, the group argued, would be undemocratic and would give developers too much power. By the time Council members took their seats that evening, some said they'd received more than 150 e-mails opposing the new threshold rules.
And it didn't end there.
“Until we can ensure that public input actually has some teeth, we should keep [the threshold] where it is, all throughout downtown,” argued activist Steve Rasmussen. “It's a stopgap; it's a way to pull the brakes on the train. It's your responsibility as elected officials to have that kind of oversight.”
But Rasmussen, who served on the Urban Design and Development Action Committee that helped craft the plan, said it doesn't do enough to protect views or historic structures, though he did praise the way it helps preserve “the pedestrian experience.”
Downtown resident Rylan Hanson was also skeptical. “We don't need a situation where citizen input and the Council's vote is reduced,” she maintained. “Developers can't be relied upon to have the same interests at heart as longtime residents do. … We have to be careful we don't kill the goose that laid the golden egg to make sure we make developers happy in the short term.”
Fellow downtown resident Susan Griffin, however, said the changes were long overdue. “The key word here is growth: These are all scenarios for how we grow the city,” she observed. “We looked at how it was growing four, five years ago, and that wasn't working for many people. This is a reasonable way to look at future growth. The city will change; everything changes. This does it in a reasonable, organized way.”
Joe Minicozzi, executive director of the Asheville Downtown Association, said his group also backed the new rules. “We've tried to create a better process for everyone — a more predictable, more transparent process — for developers and citizens to know what's going on,” Minicozzi asserted. “Let's get [the rules] in place and see how it works.”
Vice Mayor Brownie Newman, a longtime proponent of the master plan, said the adjustments are needed “because we want to see more changes in our downtown; we don't want it sprawling out and up our mountainsides. But we want that development to look great. We want to build something future generations will be proud of.”
Newman also said: “Big buildings in downtown have always been controversial, including the building we're sitting in right now. When this building was proposed, it was very controversial; when the Jackson Building was proposed, it was controversial. Now those buildings are well-liked.”
Opponents, however, found an advocate in Council member Cecil Bothwell, who supported the design guidelines but repeatedly attempted to amend the threshold change.
“I have not yet heard an explanation that makes sense to me about why the 175,000 figure was picked,” he said. “In the city of Durham, the city has to approve all projects over 10,000 square feet; this seems fairly arbitrary to me.” Bothwell informally floated the idea of a 125,000 square foot threshold for Asheville, with larger projects allowed without a Council vote if they supported other city goals such as affordable housing or sustainable design.
“I got a letter from former Mayor Leni Sitnick noting that the 100,000 limit was extremely high in the first place, and she has regretted that she wasn't able to keep it lower,” he noted.
City staff and developers, said Bothwell, tend to get too wrapped up in trying to make a proposed project work, and Council needs to serve as a balance. “We're the voice of the people,” he declared. “We're how people get a voice in shaping their community.”
Bothwell’s first amendment, which called for keeping the threshold at 100,000, failed as Newman (who’d made the motion to approve the higher figure) declined to accept Bothwell’s proposal.
Council member Gordon Smith, who’d earlier called the consensus achieved by the Master Plan Committee “miraculous,” broached a compromise, suggesting that the threshold be raised to 137,500 square feet. Bothwell then proposed a second amendment endorsing that figure, but only he and Smith supported it.
The problem, said Newman, is that the design rules won’t work without the higher threshold. “If we just put these strict guidelines in place without that change, we'll just get more sprawl as people build outside the city.”
Bothwell’s third amendment, which would have applied the same threshold rules throughout downtown and in peripheral areas, found support from Smith and Council member Jan Davis but still failed to gain the requisite four votes.
Council member Esther Manheimer said the whole idea of the master plan was to get input from everyone to “reflect what our community wants in a set of rules, so we don't have to make this decision each and every time. If you look at this plan, we're basically telling you how high your building can be and what it has to look like, down to some pretty minute details.”
Mayor Terry Bellamy, meanwhile, pointed out that City Council has dealt with these issues many times. A lot of the current proposal’s critics, she asserted, were “misinformed” and didn’t understand that the rules would apply only to downtown. Even under the current guidelines, the mayor noted, “We can't say, ‘Oh, your building's ugly — you can't build it in downtown.’”
In other business, Council members:
• heard a quarterly financial report indicating that, although sales-tax revenues were higher than expected, income from fees and investments was lower, due to the sluggish economy;
• unanimously approved an ethics code with revised guidelines for censuring Council members for unbecoming conduct. The code also requires Council members to attend classes on state and local ethics rules.
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.