Fighting our way to a better place?

One of the questions most often posed to newly elected individuals is, “Are you enjoying your office?” Somehow the word “enjoy” doesn’t quite capture the essence of the experience. “Appreciate,” “value” and “honor” come to mind, but the generous doses of conflict, criticism and contradiction the job entails seem to limit the outright enjoyment to either the ultra-mature or to those frustrated souls who thrive on resistance because it makes them feel they matter.

One of the more visible areas of conflict here in Asheville is the persistent power struggle between neighbors and developers. Although we have made headway in easing the friction, this city still has room to grow in moving beyond the limited concept of fighting one’s way to a better place.

The most recent neighbors/developers clash concerned the new Neighborhood Corridor District on Broadway. It may come as a surprise, but a lot more was done right than wrong in this instance. The decision-making process was inclusive, constructive and proactive, and there was a strong effort from all four legs of the table — neighbors, developers, city Planning staff and City Council — to reach a little higher and establish a healthier model. This higher reach may have drooped a bit here and there, but there was clearly a collective wish to do things better this time and thus lay groundwork for a better next time.

In that same spirit, and given that we’re all in this together, it might help if we briefly explored some of the myths and realities about development in Asheville. One of the bigger realities centers on our housing needs. It’s estimated that we will need 25 percent more housing in 20 years than we have now. One of the myths is that we can or should stop this growth. With every action comes a reaction, and to artificially restrain growth is to guarantee even higher inflation of housing/land costs, sprawled out development over our countryside and hillsides, and the progressive loss of opportunity for the average wage earner to live and thrive within our city limits. Rather than limiting growth, our best chances for success will come from nudging growth in better directions. Increasing housing density in our commercial corridors, for example, is one of the best ways to affordably meet our housing needs and limit the intrusion on traditional neighborhoods. Any growth or change has consequences, but smarter growth policies step on your toes without cutting off your legs.

Another myth centers on “greedy” developers and “selfish” neighbors. We have some of both, but most developers and neighbors do have an eye on the common good. Your average developer wants to make a profit but also recognizes the limits of pillaging and plundering. Most of the homes, landmarks, neighborhoods, parks and historic resources of Asheville resulted from good developers’ good works. At the other end of the playing field are the neighbors. There are some who seem determined to resist any change that looms on Asheville’s horizon. Most concerned neighbors, however, recognize the limits of NIMBYism and take a more genuine interest in understanding the facts and trying to make sure that whatever change does come is as positive and helpful as possible.

With all due respect for contrasting viewpoints, I don’t believe the Broadway Corridor process failed. The level of communication, cooperation and compromise was too dramatic and persistent. No one leg of the table dominated the process. An example might be “drive-throughs.” For some, this term triggers images of fast-food restaurants and other high-traffic magnets — the antithesis of a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood. At the other end of the spectrum, eliminating drive-throughs represents heavy-handed governmental control and artificial exclusion of what could be a useful resource. Who do you think is most likely to use a drugstore drive-through?

The final outcome was a compromise allowing drive-throughs under certain circumstances but requiring a conditional-use permit from City Council. This is a grounded compromise that leaves the door open to possibilities without giving anyone a blank check. And though it won’t necessarily satisfy all the individual preferences on either side of the fence, this compromise does reasonably preserve the integrity of both the Neighborhood Corridor District and private-property rights. This is one of many examples where, together, the majority of those who participated “aimed for the middle” and crafted a reasonable outcome.

Having said all this, however, there are still more general obstacles to cooperation that we can work to fix. Trumping, vilification, arrogance and misinformation are temptations we might all do well to avoid as ways to approach the neighbors/developers conflict.

Trumping happens when one party appears to participate in the process in good faith right up to a crucial point — when they suddenly pull out a “trump” card and try to roll right over the other folks at the table. One example might be a Council vote that’s grounded in political maneuvering rather than fact-gathering and measured decision-making. Another example might be threatening a lawsuit at the 11th hour when things aren’t going according to one group’s wishes. A developer can “trump” a neighborhood by unilaterally choosing to do whatever the law allows instead of making a reasonable effort to arrive at a compromise that best serves the collective good. Although everyone is free to play their cards as they wish, the heavy clunk of trumping does little to help us all arrive at a better place.

Vilification results when we succumb to the temptation to personally attack or insult those with whom we disagree. At times, we’ve all seen different people mock developers, city Planning staff, neighborhood advocates, and those who make the policy decisions. It feels good, for the moment, to play “good guys and bad guys,” but the price is high. Making villains out of those with whom we share this city undermines communication, commonality and cooperation — all of which are necessary for good development.

Arrogance implies unique insight. Although it may be true that some know more than others, certainly none of us has cornered the market on enlightenment. Arrogant voices often seem to feel entitled to special consideration and are thus more comfortable with bullying, indifference and simplistic solutions to complex problems. But while each of us is blessed with a unique perspective, the limits of our vision offer little validation for an arrogant mindset. One set of self-directed eyes will rarely do as well as multiple sets of eyes collectively searching for effective solutions to common problems.

The temptation to spread misinformation knocks firmly on everyone’s door. Sensationalizing, magnifying, ignoring or otherwise distorting the facts can temporarily firm up an advocacy position. In the process, however, trust, goodwill and truth are sacrificed to limited short-term gain. It’s easy to say that a particular Council member is in the pockets of developers or that a certain city staffer is biased toward a specific social agenda. The truth, however, is rarely so simple, and the more we can all keep the clutter of misinformation off the table, the more stable that table will be.

Good development requires constructive, voluntary participation by all the players. If we want a “stable table,” then we need to continue seeking ways to strengthen our respective legs. Council can lead the way by doing our best to make decisions that are grounded in principles and facts rather than politics and personal preference. Developers can smooth both their own and everyone else’s way by trying to work with neighborhoods to craft development that works for a majority of those affected. Neighbors who concentrate on reasoned and balanced positions shared in partnership rather than adversarialism will strengthen their impact and more effectively preserve the integrity of their neighborhoods. And city staff members — by helping us improve development standards, lines of communication and collective participation — can also have a dramatic positive impact.

Putting less emphasis on winning, proving, fighting, controlling or competing, we have the ability — together — to take the development process to a higher level. Development, like all forms of change, will never be problem-, stress- or conflict-free. We can, however, get things to a point where the fussing and fighting no longer overshadow the opportunities and visions now unfolding here in Asheville. Together, we can ensure a balanced development process where everyone at the table has a voice and no one voice gets more than a fair share of the table.

A good starting place for change might be with you and me. When my adult son was a child, I made a deal with him that whenever I indulged my temper over something he did, then any subsequent discipline was canceled and I owed him five bucks. That arrangement helped keep me on the right track as a parent — and my son made much less off of my temper than he’d anticipated. Maybe you and I can have a similar arrangement? Think about ways you can improve your end of the process, but if you catch me giving in to the temptations of trumping, vilification, arrogance or misinformation, let me know and I’ll buy you breakfast. Perhaps, over a meal, we might be able to find still more ways to nudge Asheville’s development in a good direction…

[Carl Mumpower serves on the Asheville City Council.]

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