The conversation about proposed changes aimed at giving City Council more oversight of downtown development projects and hotels has heated up as Council prepares to vote on new rules at its Tuesday, Feb. 14 meeting. The city’s Planning & Zoning Commission on Feb. 1 voted 6-1 against the changes, while on Feb. 9 the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce said in its newsletter to members that the city should wait until its Comprehensive Plan is complete before making any final decisions on tightening development regulations.
At the end of 2015 — that is, right after two development skeptics, Brian Haynes and Keith Young, were elected to Council, while then-Vice Mayor Marc Hunt (viewed by many as a business-friendly politician) was defeated — Todd Okolichany, the city’s top planner, told Council that most of the large buildings and hotels constructed in downtown Asheville since 2011 had not required Council’s approval. The elected officials asked the Planning and Urban Design Department to gauge public interest in having Council scrutinize more projects.
Council’s limited oversight resulted from zoning changes put in place after the 2010 Downtown Master Plan recommended a different standard for downtown projects than for development in other parts of the city. Instead of reviewing any project over 100,000 square feet in size or 100 feet in height, Council decided to up those thresholds to 175,000 square feet or 145 feet high in downtown. Allowing larger and taller projects “by right,” so long as all applicable zoning requirements were followed, was seen as a way to encourage investment and concentrated development in the city center.
But the changes may have worked too well for some. According to the Asheville Citizen-Times, from 2009 to 2018 $187 million will have been invested in developing hotels in downtown Asheville, more than during the 40 years preceding that period. The pace of change has been too fast for many locals, who charge that the hotels do not pay a fair share of the cost of city services, that hotel employees earn low wages and that the focus on developing amenities for guests from out of town is diluting Asheville’s character as an eclectic, diverse community.
Council will vote on a proposal to return the threshold for Council review to the previous level, 100,000 square feet or over 100 feet in height, for all projects in the city. Additionally, the proposed changes will make all Council reviews of so-called “Level III projects” conditional zoning requests, which allow Council to communicate with the developer prior to the public hearing and to negotiate conditions for Council approval (for example, committing to a living wage for employees or contributing money to the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, as hotel developer John McKibbon did in early 2016 when he successfully sought approval for the rehabilitation of the former BB&T building on Pack Square as a hotel and condominiums).
The changes also include new requirements for developers to meet with nearby neighbors in advance of other city reviews (such as the Downtown Commission or the Planning & Zoning Commission).
And, if the changes pass, hotels will receive more Council scrutiny, no matter where they are located in the city. The new rules require Council approval for any hotel project with 21 rooms or more.
Council will hear public comment on the proposed changes during the public hearings portion of its agenda. Members of the public may comment for three minutes as individuals or for 10 minutes as the representative of a group with at least three members present who cede their comment time to the representative.
March 1-7 will be “Southern Conference Basketball Championship Week” in the city of Asheville.
If Council approves a Transportation Department proposal, new parking fees at metered street spaces and city parking decks will go into effect on April 1. The new fees represent an increase of 25 cents per hour. Council will also vote on a new fee schedule for use of the city’s Aston Park Tennis Complex.
The Asheville-Buncombe Homeless Initiative Advisory Committee’s Five Year Strategic Plan on Homelessness in Buncombe County will also come up for Council’s approval. According to a staff report, the plan “continues to emphasize support of public-private partnerships, creation of opportunities to increase the affordable housing supply in the community, system-wide collaboration and measurable actions adopted annually by the HIAC that are designed to decrease the many barriers homeless individuals and families face in accessing safe, stable and affordable housing. ”
City staff members have reviewed bids for a new retaining wall along Tunnel Road, and Council will vote on a contract for the project. The staff report explains, “A tributary to Grassy Branch has eroded the substrate of the sidewalk that runs along Tunnel Road in Oteen. A retaining wall must be constructed in order to rebuild the slope and maintain safe pedestrian access along the corridor.”
Council will vote on several measures related to the replacement of its secondary communications tower at 166 Reservoir Road. The city will partner with New Cingular Wireless, LLC (doing business as AT&T) for the construction of a new tower. AT&T will underwrite the construction project in exchange for approximately seven years’ rent for space on the tower for AT&T’s equipment. Verizon has also expressed a desire to secure space on the tower.
A proposed ordinance will reduce the speed limit to 20 miles per hour on Depot Street from Livingston Street to Clingman Avenue and Roberts Street from Clingman Avenue to Lyman Street. The ordinance will reduce the speed limit to 25 miles per hour on:
- Clarendon Road from School Road to School Road
- Congress Street from Choctaw Street to Livingston Street
- Depot Street from Livingston Street to End of City Maintenance
- Faircrest Road from Beaverdam Road to End of City Maintenance
- Le-An-Hurst Road from Edgewood Drive to Round Top Road
- London Road from Belvedere Road to West Chapel Road
- Pine Acre Boulevard from Midland Drive to End of City Maintenance
- Roberts Street from Haywood St-W to Clingman Avenue
- Spooks Branch Road from Beaverdam Road to End of City Maintenance
- Sweeten Creek Industrial Parkway from Sweeten Creek Road to End of City Maintenance.
The final item in Council’s Consent Agenda makes for interesting reading. The “Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law for 192 Haywood Street” lays out in detail Council’s rationale for its denial of the conditional use permit requested by the developers of the proposed hotel at 192 Haywood St. on Jan. 24.
Council will vote on budget amendments related to the $74 million bond referendum approved by city voters in November 2016.
Council will consider a bid for improvements to Pritchard Park at Patton Avenue and College Street downtown. Council originally heard a report on the proposed improvements at its Dec. 13 meeting, but the officials asked the Parks and Recreation Department to seek out additional public input on the plans. According to a staff memo, Parks & Rec held an open house on Jan. 12 and met with the Homeless Initiative Advisory Committee on Jan. 24 and with the Downtown Area Residential Neighbors on Feb. 6. The department also met individually with each member of Council.
The memo continues:
Based on the feedback received to date, with the original bid is presented to City Council for review and consideration. The project – as bid – can move forward to meet the needs and feedback received by ensuring that fencing is of the height and location in areas to encourage pedestrians to cross at marked crosswalks and to protect the large tree (to the dripline) from root damage. While some modifications can be made, the project may need to be re-bid if the scope of the project changes significantly. Staff will be available during the Council discussion to address what adjustments might be of significance that require a re-bid.
Council will also consider which applicants for seats on the Board of Education for the Asheville City Schools to interview, as well as appointments to the Board of Electrical Examiners and Homeless Advisory Initiative Committee.
Council will meet at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 14 in Council chambers on the second floor of Asheville City Hall. The meeting is open to all members of the public. For the full agenda and supporting documents, click here.
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