Paradigm shift: City urges denser, greener development

BLUE LIGHT SPECIAL: This Kmart store closed in late 2018, leaving a Dollar General store as the only tenant in the shopping center near the corner of Louisiana and Patton avenues. A Wells Fargo bank sits on property there that the bank owns. Photo by Mark Barrett
AMERICA’S LARGEST CHAIN: There is no shortage of shoppers at the Walmart in Riverbend Marketplace in East Asheville, but some other retail space in the shopping center sits empty. Photo by Mark Barrett

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.

DEAD MALL: Only four of the spaces on the upper level of Innsbruck Mall in East Asheville are occupied by tenants. Photo by Mark Barrett

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.”



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10 thoughts on “Paradigm shift: City urges denser, greener development

  1. dyfed

    If you want urban and walkable, you need to: relax and remove height limits and setbacks; remove mandatory parking space minimums (which is, incidentally, the best way to lower the cost and increase the demand for public transit); and increase the scope of permitted uses.

    You also need to disregard NIMBYs. That means no listening to complaints that buildings are ‘out of scale’ (of course they are, density means bigger buildings!), ‘out of character,’ (“I don’t like it”), ‘increasing congestion,’ (density is density, and walk ability and public transit is not workable at low densities).

    A council and planning board that are responsive to what Asheville needs, not what it says it wants, will remove restrictions on urban development and reap rewards in the future. But they need a strong stomach.

    • If you remove height limits and setbacks, you’ll get concrete canyons that block the sunlight. That may be “urban”, but it sure isn’t “walkable”, as those of us who worked on the Downtown Master Plan can tell you (as well as any modern city planner). What you’re advocating boils down to building tall cubes that extend to the property line — the kind of cityscape you see in big-city business districts that become ghost towns at 5 pm because no one wants to hang around such a cold and inhuman environment. Guess we’re all NIMBYs in this town, by your estimation, because none of us who actually live here want to turn Asheville into downtown Charlotte.

      • dyfed

        Yeah, Manhattan is a real ghost town.

        No, I’m not advocating zeroing all height limits and setbacks. But yes, they must be significantly relaxed if you want density and walkability.

        The reason some cities become ghost towns after business hours isn’t ‘concrete canyons,’ it’s that there isn’t sufficiently variegated mixed-use development to support native neighborhoods. When residential and light commercial (apartments and bodegas) are mixed in, this doesn’t happen.

        No, I don’t think ‘you are all NIMBYs in this town.’ Many people in Asheville understand the necessity for removing growth restrictions before the city life we love chokes on them. I do think that if you worked on the DMP and didn’t understand how vital it is to relax the blight of harsh zoning, then you had no business working on it.

  2. Jay m reese

    Sadly many people have been blinded through their windshield perspective and fail to see the futility of trying to build a system that allows everyone to ride around alone in a gas guzzling vehicle. This attitude was manageable in the beginning of our hundred year love affair with the car but has now become an anchor around our neck that threatens to drown us in a sea of metal, glass, and dead bodies. By resisting the Sirens call of a car centric transportation system we can redesign our communities around people not the automobile. This is obvious to those who study the issues but sadly meets resistance from the majority who rely on emotion and biased, uniformed opinions based on habit and anecdotal musings.

    Fortunately our older and wiser cousins across the pond have shining examples of how cities should be built so there is no need to reinvent the sail here. The only hurdle is changing the imagination of Americans who have relied on the myth of unfettered individual freedoms. We must realize systems work best when designed around the community not the individual.

    If we all grab an oar and take it upon ourselves to drive less we could get this big ship moving in the right direction faster.

    • C-Law

      “The only hurdle is changing the imagination of Americans who have relied on the myth of unfettered individual freedoms. We must realize systems work best when designed around the community not the individual. “–Jay M. Reese

      Sentiments supported by the likes of–

      Robert Mugabe, . Mao Zedong, Adolf Hitler, Mussolini, Goebbels, Josef Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, Abraham Lincoln, Pol Pot, Kim Il Sung Kim Jong IL and his offspring, Idi Amin, Leonid Brezhnev, Teddy Roosevelt, Chiang Kai-Shek, Ho Chi Minh, Saddam Hussein, Ismail Pasha, Omar al-Bashir, FDR, Agha Khan, Hirohito and Hideki Tojo, Mengistu Haile Mariam, Fidel Castro, Woodrow Wilson, Alexander Hamilton and sadly too many others to list here..

      Although Stalin summed up your worldview more succinctly–“Death is the solution to all problems–no man, no problem.”

      Thanks for letting us all know where you stand. My ancestors and I have for all generations resisted your kind. My freedoms are as dear to me and my children as life itself. They come from God above, not you or any other man!

      Sic semper tyrannis!

      Deo Vindice

      • Jay m reese

        God? You base your rights on a myth? Wow! Your ignorant position negates any meaningful debate about what’s good for a community but I’ll respond any way. To start my family’s military history goes back a few generations also. I am a former marine and a gulf war veteran. You know what’s funny about the military? It’s run by the government and relies on communal participation to be effective. While I do favor the Democratic Socialist platform over the other two my comments in this feed clearly refer to the mindset of the American people on driving. My sentiments are not original since many people have written about this subject for years going back to the beginning of the automobile when the industry began its aggressive takeover of our roads and streets. Streets that were filled with pedestrians, cyclist and horses.

        • Lulz

          LOL what’s the last war the USA won? Not a put down on veterans or current military but nevertheless the record of the US military in modern times is abysmal. Mainly due to politics that constrain it and a leftist media establishment that wants the military to fail and in all reality are traitors.

          So any central planning in terms of population density and transportation are and never will be solved by the same morons that have poured millions into a soccer complex that just got washed away. Again.

          • Jay m reese

            “The last time Congress passed joint resolutions saying that a “state of war” existed was on June 5, 1942, when the U.S. declared war on Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania. “ But that’s not what you are referring to. First off all war is political. Militaries are used when diplomacy breaks down Force is applied to get the politicians to work out a diplomatic solution. So in essence there are no military victories or losses only political. But when judging our military you have to look at each individual conflict which clearly shows our military is the strongest in world history. We are far superior to any force we meet in the field. Had you spent time serving or actually studying the issue you would see how well the military works as a community.

            I do agree the soccer fiasco is embarrassing but I don’t see as emblematic if the work out council is performing.

  3. indie

    Given the huge disparity between Asheville citizen taxes and Buncombe (non city resident) taxes, it is unlikely clusters of development will occur inside the city limits. Just on the other side of the city line, developers are away from Asheville council and their taxes. No whiny council meetings. Buyers/renters save 40% on their tax bills (with Asheville taxes more likely to go up faster than county taxes).

    Btw, anybody know why city residents pay for some services twice, eg, policing? Our city tax department and finance head doesn’t know.

  4. luther blissett

    “Buyers/renters save 40% on their tax bills (with Asheville taxes more likely to go up faster than county taxes).”

    So you’re saying there’s a free-rider problem because a lot of people who live in Candler or Royal Pines or Arden do things that cost the city but don’t pay for them?

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