BY JESSIE LANDL
In recent weeks, we’ve seen the fight over the proposed Charlotte Street development simplified down to an incredibly shortsighted headline — progress vs. preservation — and accusations of NIMBYism have been lobbed at preservationists in order to shut down what should be a much more nuanced conversation.
Here’s what we ought to be asking ourselves: What is smart growth, and how can we accomplish it in our city? Can we allow for growth and address our affordable housing needs while also combating climate change and maintaining the character of our neighborhoods?
Preservation, as architect and sustainability activist Carl Elefante told me recently, is not the goal but the tool for accomplishing that goal.
Economist and preservationist Donovan Rypkema had this to say about affordable housing: “You cannot build new and rent or sell cheap, unless there are very deep subsidies or you build crap.” This expresses a fear that many of us have as we glance across the landscape of new construction in Asheville. “The chance of a dwelling unit being razed and replaced by a more affordable unit is virtually nonexistent,” Rypkema points out.
The developers behind the roughly 180-unit 101 Charlotte St. proposal would have you believe that their project, with its promised 18 units capped at 80% of the area’s median income for 20 years, would make a difference in our city’s affordable housing crisis. And yet, for decades, they’ve taken the income from the 13 homes they own on this block without reinvesting in them.
Based on mailboxes and electrical meters, there are an estimated 30-plus units in these homes. The developers have pointed out that not all of them are habitable at this point and that they aren’t currently deeded affordable. But they’re much more affordable than the proposed new units would be at 80% AMI. And yes, your math is correct: The existing inhabited units add up to more than 18, not to mention the 30-something there might have been if the owners had been more conscientious landlords all these years.
When the people currently living in those units are kicked out, where will they go? And how long will it take before construction is complete and the 18 new units are up and running? Years, to be sure.
Combating climate change
The greenest building is the one that’s already built. Elefante first said this in 2007, and it is no less true today. A 2014 report by Rypkema spells out the impacts of demolishing even a single home:
“To put these environmental costs in context, when a decision is made to demolish one modest-sized house in a Raleigh historic district, 62.5 tons of waste is generated for the landfill. That’s as much waste as one person would generate in 79.5 years. When the energy costs of razing and hauling to the landfill are added to the embodied energy already within the existing building, the demolition of a modest-sized historic home in Raleigh is equivalent to throwing away 15,285 gallons of gasoline.”
Asheville is a city that cares about the environment, and clearly, we must make preservation a tool in the fight against climate change. Even green construction takes decades to offset its environmental impacts, making up-fitting existing structures a better solution than demolition.
Character and charm
As Asheville booms with tourism and new arrivals from across the country, we seem to be losing sight of the very reasons people want to come here: our mountains and our architecture. Every time Asheville graces a list of top places to visit, there is mention not just of Biltmore House but of the eclectic mix of building styles in our downtown and our charming historic neighborhoods. If we demolish those old homes and mature trees and, by extension, the character of our neighborhoods, we won’t need to worry about where new residents are going to live or where tourists will be able to stay.
The demolition threat posed by 101 Charlotte St. is the biggest one we’ve faced since the failed 1980 plan that called for demolishing 11 blocks of downtown Asheville to build a mall. Think about it: Would today’s boom even have been possible if that debacle had been allowed to happen? We must consider the consequences of opening our historic neighborhoods to these kinds of threats.
The Preservation Society has offered to buy eight of the targeted historic homes on Charlotte Street, which would be resold to individuals and permanently protected from demolition. In addition, the Preservation Society would orchestrate the sale of four more homes, at a discounted rate, to a local affordable housing nonprofit. Together, the latter four contain 16 units that would be deeded permanently affordable — a much more meaningful and impactful solution. This would leave the developers with more than 4 acres of property to work with (by way of comparison, the adjacent Fuddruckers site is less than 2.5 acres).
Acknowledging that Asheville’s historic resources are a valuable asset doesn’t have to mean an all-or-nothing battle between progress and preservation. We can have both, and the result will be a city that grows in a healthy way. Old and new can work together to better accomplish our goals for affordable housing, density and combating climate change without throwing away the things we care about.
Jessie Landl is the executive director of the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County.