For most Asheville residents, trips to work, the drugstore, a bar or a restaurant all start the same way: inserting the key in the ignition and hitting the gas.
If a city government initiative is successful, however, more and more people may be able to accomplish those same tasks just by walking out the door and making the rounds of their “urban center” neighborhood on foot or by catching a bus.
The city has taken initial steps toward rezoning real estate in four places around town in hopes of encouraging new development that would offer a denser mix of housing, shops and office space, similar to Biltmore Park Town Square or Reynolds Village in Woodfin.
The targeted properties are: Innsbruck Mall on Tunnel Road, Riverbend Marketplace on Swannanoa River Road, the former Kmart site on Patton Avenue in West Asheville and the shopping district north and west of the Merrimon Avenue/Beaverdam Road intersection in North Asheville.
The idea is to create more housing where there’s both space to put it and infrastructure to support it, while boosting the tax base and generating fewer negative environmental impacts than you’d get by building single-family homes and strip shopping centers out to the horizon.
Compared with most post-World War II development, the kind the city now wants to encourage takes up less land, is more energy-efficient and is better suited to foot, bus and bicycle travel. A bus passes by each site at least once every 30 minutes, and that frequency would increase if the city succeeds in fully funding its Transit Master Plan.
The Living Asheville comprehensive plan that City Council adopted last year calls for more intensive development along key city corridors to accommodate expected population growth, so folks who work in Asheville wouldn’t have to drive outside the city to find a place to rest their heads.
Supporters say the proposed urban centers would help make living in Asheville more affordable by increasing the overall supply of homes and reducing the need for residents to own cars. People forced to move outside the city to find something they can afford are “saving money on housing but spending a whole lot more on transportation costs,” notes Mary Weber, a local landscape architect who serves on the city’s Multimodal Transportation Commission.
The plan suggests that buildings in the urban centers should be at least two stories, with parking to the side or rear, and be placed close to primary streets. In addition, developments should be designed to encourage travel by means other than a car.
Public input received as the plan was being written showed that “Asheville wants to move in a direction that is more urban, that is more walkable, that has a greater mix of uses,” says city planning staffer Vaidila Satvika.
But early reaction to the proposed zoning changes and to development plans for the former Sears property at the Asheville Mall — a project that would include many of the features the city plan favors — suggests a disconnect between what property owners and some city residents want and what the Living Asheville plan envisions.
The city will solicit public input next month on what specific tools to encourage urban centers should be included in the new zoning rules, which it hopes to have in place by year’s end.
Not only the lonely
All of the targeted sites include acres of parking. The Walmart parking lot alone is bigger than two aircraft carrier flight decks.
But the prospects for redeveloping individual properties in those areas vary widely. Some are home to active and apparently successful businesses. In or near others, the wind blows trash and dust through empty parking lots.
At the Innsbruck Mall, an escalator still runs from the ground floor to the tired-looking upper level, but hardly anyone uses it. Only four of the upstairs spaces have tenants, and none appear to generate much foot traffic. Tenants say there was talk of the property being redeveloped several years ago, but the project was apparently dropped. A parking lot on the north side of the building looks like a good place for your teenager’s first driving lesson: no obstacles other than a few light poles, and almost no traffic.
But the Ingles next door is usually bustling, nearby businesses on targeted parcels see varying levels of activity, and even the Innsbruck Mall’s ground floor is almost fully leased.
The gigantic parking lot at the former West Asheville Kmart, which closed last year, is another lonely place. In the entire strip shopping center on Patton Avenue, only a Dollar General store is still open. Elsewhere along Patton, however, banks, restaurants and retailers (including the Harry’s on the Hill car dealership) occupy other parcels the city is looking to rezone.
Over on the other side of town, there’s plenty of traffic in and out of the Walmart in Riverbend Marketplace. The buildings there are less than 20 years old, and although there are a handful of empty storefronts, several businesses appear to be doing well.
It’s too early to say how most property owners will react to the city’s initiative, but opposition seems likely; some have already raised objections.
The city initially tried to get stopgap rules in place to head off any conflicting redevelopment proposals that might surface while planners were drawing up more permanent rules. That effort was dropped after some property owners complained that the city was moving too fast and that they hadn’t received adequate notice concerning the planned changes.
In November, an attorney representing the owners of buildings housing a Sav-Mor grocery store and a bank on Merrimon Avenue told the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission that his clients were concerned because the proposed rezoning would leave their holdings out of compliance. Although existing properties would be grandfathered, the rezoning would apply to any new structures or major renovations.
Wyatt Stevens, an attorney for the company that owns Harry’s on the Hill, wrote the city in January saying that while his clients want to cooperate, it “makes no sense” to adopt rules that would threaten a business that’s been there since 1967.
“In the event of a fire or … a major renovation — which could be mandated by General Motors — [the company] could not rebuild the dealership. The zoning designation could, in effect, kill the operation of this successfully family-owned business,” Stevens wrote.
Meanwhile, company President Pat Grimes says, “I understand what the city’s trying to do, but I don’t know that what they’re trying to do fits every property where they’re trying to do it.”
Too tall, too short or both?
The debate over a recent proposal to redevelop the former Sears property at the Asheville Mall illustrates some of the pressures the proposed urban centers may face.
Opposition can come from various directions. Neighbors often react negatively to proposals for denser development along commercial corridors near their homes, and developers may be put off by excessive restrictions. For planners and city officials, that can mean striking a balance between mandating that projects include certain desired features and recognizing that overly strict rules might end up killing development altogether. “We don’t want to make something so restrictive that nothing ever happens,” notes Satvika.
On March 12, City Council postponed a decision on plans for a movie theater, several commercial buildings and a six-story apartment building, all set around an outdoor courtyard on the nearly 16-acre Sears site. The plan calls for 205 apartments, 21 of which would meet city affordability guidelines.
The developer, Seritage Growth Properties, proposes demolishing the existing Sears building, converting the former Sears Auto Center into retail space and constructing six new buildings, all but one of which would be one story tall. City staff recommended denial, saying some of the new buildings should be at least two stories tall and placed closer to South Tunnel Road. Staff also wanted Seritage to improve pedestrian and bicycle connections to the road and to neighboring properties.
Neighbors and other critics, however, argued that the project would aggravate traffic congestion and that the six-story structure would be out of scale. East Asheville resident Barber Melton, a longtime neighborhood activist, said it would “look like a bandaged finger.”
Council member Keith Young said the required number of affordable apartments should be quadrupled, from 10 percent to 40 percent. The chair of the development company, he pointed out, also heads the company that owns Sears, whose bankruptcy put many local people out of work.
In April, former Asheville Mayor Lou Bissette, an attorney who’s representing Seritage, said company officials will consider that request. He declined to speculate on whether it would be financially feasible.
Other Council members were more encouraging.
“If the mall is a pig, this is a tremendous amount of really good lipstick. It’s just so much better,” said Council member Julie Mayfield. But she stopped short of endorsing the proposal without changes, telling the developers, “You’re kind of the test case, and … if we say yes to this that doesn’t have the density, the height, the feel that we’re looking for, I feel like we’ve shot ourselves in the foot going forward.”
In an interview, Bissette said the company is looking at changes, and he’s optimistic that the developers will be able to satisfy most of Council’s concerns. The project, he said, would quadruple the value of the property and inject life into unused land. “The old Sears building is sitting out there vacant. It’s not good for anybody,” he pointed out.
Steering the ocean liner
The Asheville City Development Plan 2025, which City Council adopted in 2003, also calls for more densely developed urban centers along key corridors. It even includes a drawing by then-city planner Alan Glines showing what redevelopment of Innsbruck Mall might look like under that plan’s “new urbanist” guidelines. It also speaks of an “urban village” around the Merrimon Avenue/Beaverdam Road intersection.
Many of those hopes were never realized, although Gerber Village and Biltmore Park Town Square have opened since then. Both developments were already in the works when the city plan came out.
For at least 10 years, the city has offered to let developers build more densely along key streets in exchange for including some affordable housing in their projects, but there have been few takers. Satvika, the city planner, says that’s partly because the rules are so complex.
Although mixed-use developments are becoming more common around the country, both Satvika and Glines note that many developers specialize in only one type of project and aren’t willing to tackle the more complex challenge of combining retail and residential facilities on the same site.
That reluctance comes despite evidence that there’s a robust market for housing units in such new-style development. Demand for the 120 rental apartments in Biltmore Park Town Square is “very, very high,” says Brad Galbraith of Biltmore Farms, the project’s developer.
Recent sales suggest that condominiums completed in 2009 have increased in value by an average of 34.5%, according to figures compiled by Carol Fisk of Beverly-Hanks & Associates. The mostly two-bedroom units are now selling for just under $390,000. Retail space there was more affected by the Great Recession, says Galbraith, who is Biltmore Farms’ vice president for community development. Almost all the retail space is now occupied, he reports, and the office space is 99% leased.
Over in Woodfin, however, several retail spaces at Reynolds Village sit empty.
Part of the problem with the previous call for urban centers, says Satvika, was that the city didn’t follow through with strategies to encourage their construction. In addition to the rezoning effort, he explains, the city and other government agencies are beginning studies of key corridors with an eye toward identifying specific steps that could help shift development patterns.
Changing what gets built amounts to “a cultural shift,” he points out — no easy task.
“How do you make something walkable when it’s on an auto-oriented corridor?” asks Satvika. “We’re at the beginning of redirecting a massive ship.”