Asheville City Council’s recent vote abdicating much of its responsibility for overseeing downtown development was redolent of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, which opened the door to unlimited corporate campaign contributions. Both decisions reflect a treacherous assault on our democracy and a gargantuan shift toward corporate domination.
On a 6-1 vote, Council members ordained that downtown developments involving less than 175,000 square feet would henceforth be reviewed only by planning staff and appointed committees, rather than elected City Council members. Super Walmarts average around 190,000 square feet, and in my experience, most development committees are dominated by pro-growth advocates.
Thus, future projects of approximately super-Walmart dimensions are all too likely to be rubber-stamped, with little or no public discussion. It's a growth-obsessed developer's wildest dream — and a sustainability-minded resident’s worst nightmare. Furthermore, as each new development drives up downtown rents, our unique, humane, locally owned businesses may be driven out.
Only Council member Cecil Bothwell opposed this treason. That should make him the hero of those who believe that the people, and not just the profit seekers, should control what happens to Asheville.
Perhaps his Council colleagues have been frightened by the heroic citizen resistance to other recent development proposals. Remember the high-profile opposition to the parking garage that threatened to engulf the Battery Park Apartments? And the attempted magnolia-tree murder by the 90,000 square foot Parkside condos? With this new law, Council can dodge most such debates, proclaiming that it's out of their hands, and thus avoid the negative publicity.
But we, the people, are the ultimate cause of this horror. In 2008, the city spent $15,000 on a survey to determine our priorities. According to a Nov. 23, 2008 Asheville Citizen-Times article, two of the top three priorities stated were "Get a handle on development" and "Don't move here." Yet we keep electing Council members who mainly represent developers!
Attack of the “market forces” monster
True, hundreds of dedicated residents recently waged a heroic fight forcing developers to make aesthetic and other concessions. Google "Downtown Master Plan Asheville" and you'll eventually find a hundred-page document describing the outcome. It's replete with pictures of Asheville shot from interesting angles, cheery photos of many of your friends and neighbors, and funny slang such as "culture vultures" and "desk pilots."
Ironically, the plan also purports to quake with fear of a rampaging monster called "market forces," which could "threaten downtown's most celebrated assets" and "kill the goose that laid the golden egg." But while it references many of the awards this city has won for its livability and arts scene, the overall assumption is that the Asheville we have now isn't good enough. We need change, and that means establishing "design guidelines to be current, clear and to promote sustainable development."
The plan does outline methods by which residents can weigh in on certain development proposals. As noted, however, most people don't have the time or energy to review every developer's whim. And in all probability, the Technical Review Committee, Downtown Commission, Planning and Zoning Commission and Board of Adjustment will all continue to be dominated by development interests, since their members are chosen by our growth-obsessed City Council.
So despite imposing many commendable architectural limitations, the master plan eventually surrenders to market forces by constantly encouraging "sustainable development." Or, perhaps more accurately, conjuring sustainable delusions about the impact development will have on our golden downtown goose.
Still, considering what gigantic developmental forces ordinary citizens were fighting, the Battle of the Master Plan was indeed a noble effort.
Growth is inevitably assumed
Meanwhile, Mr. Bothwell noted: "I have not yet heard an explanation that makes sense to me about why the 175,000 figure was picked. In Durham, the city has to approve all projects over 10,000 square feet. This [175,000 square foot figure] seems fairly arbitrary to me." What’s more, it almost doubles the previous 100,000 square foot threshold, which was put in place only a few years ago. At this rate, Council members will soon double the present limit, and developments as large as The Ellington and Tony Fraga's twin towers will also be able to avoid Council review.
Perhaps residents’ own surrender to such patently false assumptions as "Growth is inevitable" has something to do with why we’ve so often been bamboozled by Council. In fact, however, we Ashevilleans could decide what population and building density we want to have competing with our magnificent natural and cultural environment. There would still be plenty of room for construction, but most of it would consist of putting clothes on the bare buttocks of such existing downtown monstrosities as the BB&T building.
Eventually the entire world must confront these same growth decisions or be subject to Malthusian overpopulation and overdevelopment horrors that will make today’s Patton Avenue resemble a pastoral parkway. And Asheville seems a likely place for all this to begin, since we have so much more beauty and life quality to lose.
For now, however, at least we know exactly where all but one of our City Council members stand on this issue: "Asheville is a jewel to be exploited for the maximum benefit of developers with as little citizen input as is politically possible."
It's always clarifyingly terrifying when America's big-business plutocracy exposes its hidden face, shark teeth gleaming. The Citizens United decision did this nationally, and now, City Council has done the job locally, ensuring that future almost-super-Walmart-size downtown developments will be barely a blip on Asheville's democratic radar.
— Freelance historian Bill Branyon is presently marketing his latest book, Liberating Liberals: A political synthesis of Nietzsche & Jesus, Vonnegut & Marx (Groucho, not Karl), Gandhi & Machiavelli.