How should Asheville balance the need for affordable housing with the desire to provide housing in general to fuel revitalization of the River Arts District? That question came to the forefront at City Council this week as it approved a large apartment complex with no affordable units while restricting short-term rentals in the neighborhood.
A new zoning code for the River Arts District that has been two years in the making won approval from the Asheville City Council on Nov. 14, with the stipulation that lodging of 20 rooms or fewer will not be allowed as a use by right in mixed-use districts.
A motion to approve the RAD form-based code with restrictions on whole-house and whole-unit short-term rentals passed 5-2, with Council members Cecil Bothwell and Keith Young opposed. Bothwell had put forth a motion to allow STRs in the new code, but that motion failed to get a second.
Competing visions for RAD
The River Arts District form-based code creates seven new zoning districts specific to the RAD that are designed to foster a mix of development. Its stated intent is to preserve the “industrial and creative arts feel” of the neighborhood, support artist studios and adaptive reuse of buildings, and ensure that future development reflects the community’s vision.
For Council, the key issue in adopting the code was whether property owners can rent entire units for fewer than 30 days, most commonly offered on sites such as Airbnb and VRBO. Such rentals are currently banned as a use by right in all residential districts of the city, and the city is gathering information on how many of them exist in commercial and mixed-use districts.
Council member Gordon Smith pointed out that RAD is not being singled out for a crackdown on short-term rentals. “What’s been moving here on Council is a more broad examination across all the commercial districts, with the RAD going first, and that’s because we’re at this place with the zoning,” he said.
Smith’s comments were met with laughter by some in the City Hall chamber, and he defended the desire to scrutinize short-term rentals in the RAD. “The fact that City Council is saying, ‘Hey, we want to make sure that we aren’t going to squeeze out locals to make room for tourists in one of Asheville’s most popular, attractive, wonderful, places full of so many folks’ is a credible, reasonable perspective, held by thousands and thousands and thousands of people, so dismissing it doesn’t make sense,” he said.
A form-based code places emphasis on defining a building’s form and its relationship to its surroundings, as opposed to conventional zoning, where the focus is on controlling the uses that are allowed within the buildings. That distinction is why Bothwell said he was going to vote against removing lodging of 20 rooms or fewer as a permitted use — because the new code specifically is designed to be based on form, not use.
Several members of the public, including Dee Wiliams and Delores Venable, highlighted an area on Ralph Street and expressed worries that its designation in form-based zoning would cause gentrification and decrease affordability, especially for marginalized communities, and would preclude it from being included in a community land trust at a future date. Mayor Esther Manheimer and other Council members repeatedly assured the crowd that the code would have no effect on the parcel’s ability to become part of a community land trust.
Council member Julie Mayfield responded to concerns that the form-based code could spur gentrification in the RAD. “Asheville is gentrifying because we are super popular. People like to come here and people like to move here, and that’s making it less affordable for a lot of people,” she said. “What a form-based code does is it takes a place that somebody has decided is a special place … and it says we’re going to make a decision about what this looks like as it develops — we the community are going to make that decision.”
RAD resident Rachel Larsen stated her position clearly: “I beg of you, please, just pass the form-based code already so we can get on with making the improvements and adjustments as they need to be made over time.” She pointed out that people who live and work in the RAD have been working with the city and consultants for two years, through several drafts and many meetings, and she’s a bit disappointed about people bringing up last-minute changes.
Hedy Fischer, who owns property on Depot Street, agreed that the process should have been respected. “We spent over two years in meetings with staff to address issues in River Arts District. We came up with what we thought was a good plan,” she said. “Bit by bit it’s being changed without our input.”
Kim Roney asked City Council to consider existing communities that need affordable housing in the area. “The River Arts District form-based code looks like what I hear in the community, the new redlining, the new gentrification. You have to acknowledge why it looks like that,” she said. “Because I know you’ve had a long process of two years going to this, but our city that a lot of us love so much has decades of systems of oppression and systems that are broken by design.”
Parking kept to minimum
After the RAD form-based code passed, most of the members of the public who had come to speak on the topic left the Council chamber. Directly following that exodus, Council moved to the next agenda item, which was to remove the River Parking Reduction Area from the River Arts District. That reduction in required minimum parking spots was adopted in 2011 before RAD began booming, prompting some to advocate for more parking availability in the neighborhood.
City Planner Sasha Vrtunski said the philosophy behind the plan is to ensure the availability of parking doesn’t pose a barrier to development. “We do have to accommodate cars, we do have to make sure cars do not become a problem in our neighborhoods, but at the same time, we are not developing around cars,” she said.
Even eliminating the parking reduction area in the RAD, the new code approved earlier in the meeting still has lower minimum parking requirements than other areas under the city’s Unified Development Ordinance, Vrtunski explained.
Mayfield said she feels the city should go further, and announced she would be voting against eliminating the parking reduction area on principle, even if no one else joined her. “Eventually what I would love for us to do is get rid of mandatory minimum parking requirements here and in other parts of the city like we’ve done downtown, just because we know that is the best way to create the kind of walkable, dense, bike-friendly place that I think we want to build in this city,” she said.
Mayfield was not alone in wanting to discourage car traffic, however. Smith said her comments inspired him to vote against removing the parking reduction, and Bothwell and Young also voted no, leaving Manheimer, Brian Haynes and Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler voting yes. The motion failed, 4-3 — a turn of events at which Council members expressed surprise.
Assistant Planning Director Alan Glines said he would report back to Council if staff ran into any issues with determining parking regulations in the RAD based on the new code existing alongside the current parking requirements.
Council OKs 133-apartment project
Despite the objections of affordable-housing advocates, Council gave the go-ahead to the Stoneyard Apartments complex, approving conditional zoning of the property located at 175 Lyman St. in the River Arts District.
The project will bring 133 apartments, commercial space, a restaurant and a parking structure in five buildings with parking on the ground level due to its location in a floodplain. The 2.88-acre property has served as the site of J.R. Stone Sales and features the Carolina Ice and Coal Building, which dates to 1912 and will be rehabilitated as part of the project.
The applicant asked the city to allow 46 units per acre instead of the 35 permitted in that district. The developer could have been allowed a density of 70 units per acre if it committed 20 percent of the units to be affordable housing, but the developer cited the high costs of building in a floodplain as a prohibiting factor in doing so.
Smith asked developer David LaFave what the monthly rents would be, and LaFave said they are not yet set in stone, but the range would likely be: studio apartments, $750-$800; one-bedrooms, $1,100-plus; two-bedrooms, $1,300-$1,400; and artist studios, $300-$400.
One condition of the rezoning is that the developer give $50,000 to the city’s Housing Trust Fund, which assists in the development of affordable housing. Wisler and Smith told LaFave they would vote for the project if he would up that to $175,000, since he was opting not to include the 20 percent affordable housing element.
Smith pointed out that “fewer than half of Asheville residents would be able to afford to live there” and that approving the project would go against Council’s commitment to affordable housing in the city. “I wonder where we’re going with all of this. And I wonder if there’s going to be room for everyone in Asheville or if there’s only going to be room for those folks who can afford that market rate and those hotel rooms,” he said.
Casey Campfield suggested that Council should ensure the project provide affordable rental rates. “Asheville is experiencing a housing crisis. Low- and middle-income renters are being forced to leave the city in large numbers,” he said. “So it’s surprising and a little disappointing to see a proposal for a mixed-use development for 133 residential units in which exactly zero of the units are designated for affordable housing.”
Some residents of the RAD expressed their support for the Stoneyard Apartments project, saying it would bring vitality to the area. Helaine Greene, an owner of the Riverview Station artist studios, said she was excited at the idea of more people living in the district. “I feel it would just be a real benefit to the community,” she said.
Pattiy Torno, owner of Curve Studios, said she welcomed its addition of 10 artist studios that she sees as affordable. Roney followed up by commenting that although she was thankful for the addition of artist space, she did not see the studios as being within the range of affordability for most artists.
Council approved the Stoneyard Apartments project in a 5-2 vote, with Haynes, Manheimer, Bothwell, Mayfield and Young in favor, and Smith and Wisler against.
The face of homelessness
Manheimer read a proclamation naming Nov. 11-19 as National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week in the city of Asheville and encouraged people to “take action to end homelessness and food insecurity in our city.”
The declaration calls for ending the criminalization of homelessness and recognizing that it is a serious problem for many families and individuals in Asheville. It states that Buncombe County has 500-600 people experiencing homelessness at any given time, and 20 preventable deaths occur each year due to homelessness-related health issues.
“There are many different reasons our friends and neighbors in Asheville are hungry or homeless, including the shortage of affordable housing for very low-income residents and the presence of food deserts in our community,” Manheimer read from the proclamation.
Amy Cantrell of BeLoved Asheville, a grassroots group working to lift up communities in need, accepted the proclamation and introduced members of the group’s Homeless Voice community to speak.
Joshua Roseman said the group in attendance represented the face of homelessness in Asheville. “We are just some of the people behind the numbers, and there are many of us who could not be here because they had to be in the shelter or had to get to their campsite before dark,” he said. “We are part of the city, we care very much about the city. … We are people just like you — we have dreams, we laugh, cry, and we bleed and die. We are dying on average 25 years before our time, and we believe that we can change that.”
Randy Stoudt said the group wanted people to know they are more than a stereotype. “We are making gardens and free farmers markets for elders, increasing voter engagement and working to be solutions to some of our top city problems,” he said. “In response to the death of Janet Jones, a homeless friend who froze to death in her sleeping back on the river last October, we started the first street medic team in the country made up of people who are experiencing homelessness.”
More information can be found at www.belovedasheville.com.