Asheville’s next political battle: sustainability advocates vs. neighborhood activists

I’ll go out on a limb and make a prediction: Asheville’s next big political battle will pit advocates of sustainability and affordability against neighborhood activists.

Now, granted, ask members of either of these groups and they’ll each tell you that they support both sustainability and affordability in housing, as well as the character of Asheville’s neighborhoods.

And, indeed, historically the two groups have been allied in Asheville politics; both tend to be on the progressive end of the political spectrum, have voted for the same candidates and allied on a number of political issues.

The fight over the controversial Larchmont affordable housing development, located just off Merrimon Avenue, was perhaps an indicator of things to come. Affordable housing advocates and nonprofits (including the developer Mountain Housing Opportunities) saw a unique opportunity to put much-needed affordable housing near a major corridor. Neighborhood advocates, many of whom emphasized they generally supported affordable housing, said the project would be out of scale with the neighborhood and increase traffic too much in the area.

Both groups do support sustainable, affordable housing and neighborhoods in principle, but how those principles translate into actual policies — and where they place their particular priorities — differs greatly. Both groups are being honest, but the devil, as with any matter of politics, is in the details.

Previously, they often allied because they had a common enemy: the more conservative, generally pro-developer faction. Think back: Most of the time, sustainability advocates and neighborhood activists were allied was against high-end projects (like Parkside) that were perceived by both to be out of keeping with the area — unsustainable and unaffordable.

Now, however, the results of several City Council elections have given more clout to the progressive politicians that both groups have supported. That shift — combined with the end of the housing bubble — has diminished the number of developments disliked by both groups, so there’s less common cause for them to rally around. That means the attention starts turning to where the groups disagree: namely, in exactly how those principles should be enacted.

Which brings us to the second major sign that this dispute will probably turn out to be Asheville’s next big political fracas, the recent fight over the proposed sustainability ordinance. This is the first skirmish that’s seen the two groups directly battling over a larger issue. To its proponents, the ordinance is a necessary step in making better, cheaper housing more available in larger areas of the city. To its detractors, the new rules endanger the democratic process and threaten to swamp Asheville in inappropriate development.

So why such fighting between groups that were once allies? In short, here’s the mindsets behind each, and why they’re in conflict with the other. I’ll try to be fair to each in my summary, and take it with a grain of salt because there’s a lot of generalizing here.

To advocates of sustainable and affordable housing, Asheville’s current rules make such development more costly and difficult than is practical — requiring a lengthy review process before multiple governing bodies — along with adherence to what they see as an often overly complex and outdated set of rules. Moves like the sustainability ordinance make the process, in their minds, far easier, thus meaning that more people will be able to live energy-efficient lives close to downtown. The advocates see the cost of housing as a major crisis and one that needs to be addressed through redoing how Asheville handles development — a new norm that is best enshrined getting affordable projects as far away from potentially costly political battles as possible.

If this requires an alliance with some developers, so be it. Sustainability advocates generally haven’t seen affordable housing developers (like MHO) of a piece with the corporate developers that attracted their ire.

What they’re not saying — but what’s at the heart of the conflict — is that making Asheville’s housing fit their vision of sustainability will require changes to existing neighborhoods, sometimes drastic ones, because many of those areas weren’t configured to meet those goals. It will mean denser structures and hundreds — if not thousands — of new residents in neighborhoods around the city.

To the advocates, that’s a necessary sacrifice to rein in drastically unaffordable housing while creating a more sustainable city, and they generally see community as more flexible than their opponents.

By way of example, City Council member Gordon Smith, a supporter of the sustainability ordinance, asserts that Ashevilleans will “have to look beyond the old objections” in favor of more sustainable and affordable housing, noting that many older neighborhoods mix denser development with single-family homes.

To the neighborhood advocates, the character is the point: they see it as what makes Asheville vital and contributes to its quality of life. In many cases (if they’re not natives), it’s why they moved here. That character is, in their mind, closely tied with community action of the town meeting/public hearing variety, something they revere. Thus there tends to be a distrust among this faction of planners, city staff and appointed boards. Neighborhood activists, in my experience, might be more positively inclined towards groups like MHO, but still see them as a developer, like other developers.

What they’re not saying — but what emerges as a major point of conflict — is that neighborhood advocates prefer the development process to be longer and entrenched in complex rules. It helps their political power to have multiple potential veto points and many points on which to raise legal complaints. The way they perceive it, money and appointed boards already tilt the process in favor of the developer. It evens the score to have more developments come before Council, and to have extensive checklists of rules a project must meet.

While sustainability advocates focus on numbers (housing costs, distance from transit), neighborhood activists tend to focus on factors such as views, conformity of new development with existing architecture and scale. While sustainability fans want a streamlined process, the neighborhood defenders prefer development to be slower, project-by-project — the better to preserve what they see as their area’s character.

Elaine Lite, an activist whom Smith endorsed in her 2007 run for City Council, provided an example of this viewpoint when she said that the rules removing much affordable development from a Council hearing would “bastardize” the process and that the measure is “too sweeping.” Neighborhood activists give examples of long-running zoning disputes (such as Greenlife’s loading dock) as little reason to trust city government unless they have say in the final approval, backed by rules that strictly constrain neighborhood intrusion.

But past both mindsets is the simple fact that it is often not possible to do two things at once. Asheville can have communities that change their character slowly, with each new development carefully tweaked to fit what’s already there. Asheville can have large amounts of new housing of the kind that sustainability advocates believe is sorely needed. It cannot have both.

That’s why this fight won’t end anytime soon.


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14 thoughts on “Asheville’s next political battle: sustainability advocates vs. neighborhood activists

  1. Lindsey Simerly

    When did neighborhood advocacy become defined by valuing “views, conformity of new development with existing architecture and scale” over people’s ability to live in Asheville?

  2. Jim

    Part of what is left out here is that executive power is often misused or under-used:
    • The County Commission sold part of the town square at half price, essentially in secret
    • Planning and Zoning in April 2006 blessed a Wal-Mart proposal, when they opportunities to oppose it
    • The City Planning department approved a misleading Greenlife application and a shoddy Staples one, which proceeded to cost hundreds of hours of staff and city council time.

    There is also the aspect that affordability will ALWAYS be lower in Asheville– it is what people will put up with in order to be here/stay here/move here.

    Realtors & developers have polluted the public dialogue with numerous lies & distortions (housing never goes down in price, they care about the environment and other greenwash lies); and activists over-react in response.

    One of the most important sustainability reforms we can make is campaign finance reform.

    Another would be an open dialog on Asheville’s future in the reality of a warming planet where fuel is raising in price.

    A third would be for people to start on the road to moving away from cars. Most people want to, but they shy away from bike and bus commuting.

  3. Josh Benson

    I agree with Jim that we need to start thinking on a city and county-wide level about how to reduce our dependence on cars. One of the major complaints about the Larchmont project was that it would put more traffic on a road that’s already over capacity. We need a comprehensive plan that looks at the city as a whole and plans for a drastic reduction or even (dare I hope?) the elimination of the need for cars within the city limits.
    I feel conflicted on this issue myself, because while I recognize in a very personal way the need for affordable housing with proximity to public transit and basic services, at the same time I don’t think the rich history present in a lot of our neighborhoods should be dismissed offhand as irrelevant. Would Montford still be Montford if we bulldozed all the homes there and put up housing blocks, regardless of how sustainable they were? Would Kenilworth be the same if we flattened it and covered it with high-rises? I think not. But at the same time we still need affordable housing, and it still needs to go somewhere, and putting up complexes at the extreme edges of the city is not a sustainable solution.
    I hold out hope that some sort of compromise can be made if, again, we can come up with a citywide plan that calls for sacrifices from some neighborhoods while at the same time creating benefits for everyone by reducing our dependence on cars.

  4. Sanuk D

    I agree with the basic point that Asheville has some choices to make about sustainability versus neighborhood advocacy. There is a risk that, failing to compromise on either end, Asheville will get neither. The current regulatory and tax environment in the City pushes development to outlying areas. Failure of recent incorporation movements in Leicester and Swannanoa further calcify the discrepancies between the City and its immediate neighbors. These differences can be leveled somewhat with a more reasonable distribution of the tax burden, but the City needs to become more accommodating of the development process if it does not want to be ringed by unplanned workforce housing that, lacking a massive infusion of subsidized public transportation, requires the use of cars to get the people to the jobs. The end result is environmentally damaging growth in substandard ways which does not improve the city’s ability to deliver services to neighborhoods already voicing dissatisfaction at the level of service they are currently receiving. This trend was starting to manifest prior to the housing downturn. It will come back even more robustly as the recovery takes hold.

  5. Jonathan Barnard

    “Previously, they often allied because they had a common enemy: the more conservative, generally pro-developer faction. Think back: Most of the time, sustainability advocates and neighborhood activists were allied was against high-end projects (like Parkside) that were perceived by both to be out of keeping with the area — unsustainable and unaffordable.”

    I agree with much of this article, but not this bit. Why are high-end projects downtown unsustainable? Is it better that a wealthy retired couple live in a 1200-square-foot apartment downtown or a 4500 square foot McMansion on the side of a mountain 15 miles out. Their carbon footprint will be much, much lower downtown.

    Furthermore, according to basic (noncontroversial) laws of microeconomics–the laws of supply and demand and the impact of “substitute goods”–the building of more high-end housing in the city should work to bring the cost of all housing in the city down (or moderate its rise). Another progressive reason to support the construction of high-end housing in the city is that the net revenue gain from taxes (with only modest additional expenditures on city services) allows the city to spend more on progressive causes and services (including subsidizing low-income or workforce housing).

    Sure, the building of affordable housing is even more progressive. But there’s nothing “unprogressive”–and certainly nothing “unsustainable”–about supporting the construction of housing for all income levels downtown. And I don’t think I’m unusual in thinking this way.

    This is not to say there weren’t good arguments raised against Parkside, including concerns about the process (no public hearing before the County Commission vote to sell the land) and concerns about the project’s potential impact on the quality of the most important public space downtown.

  6. This whole argument puts the cart before the horse. Instead of working to build more affordable housing, why aren’t we working to make existing housing more affordable? Is it because local and state politics are controlled by the real-estate industry’s money that measures such as rent control aren’t even on the table? Why not press for more mortgage-reduction measures like Obama’s Making Home Affordable program?

    And just why DO we still pay more for housing than anyone else in the state, even though our wages are among the lowest?

    Anyway, I was at the P&Z hearing, and I think the compromise Jerome Jones crafted is a wise one: Take single-family zoning off the table (for now) and focus on commercial areas, major corridors like Patton Ave. and Hendersonville Road, and areas by the most high-frequency bus lines. Let’s see how this works on that scale before we apply it across the board.

    That scaled-back approach was also recommended by the environmental-sustainability committee that first worked on this ordinance (SACEE was the acronym, I think).

    It was the second, affordability-focused committee that pushed to expand the ordinance to cover practically the whole city, over the objections of the first.

    Every developer improves their project when they are required to be accountable to the public. MHO’s Larchmont was no exception — the design was far better at the end of the democratic process than at the start, as was clear from watching the public hearing.

    When you sacrifice democracy to achieve it, even a noble goal can have tyrannical consequences. Look at the “urban redevelopment” schemes that well-meaning planners imposed on Asheville 40-50 years ago — which permanently gutted the Eagle/Market community and a big swath of historic downtown neighborhoods.

    FYI, the figure city staff quoted to P&Z as officially “affordable” was $600 for monthly apartment rent.

  7. A bit of historic perspective might be useful.

    Montford was built up during a boom. Wealthy folks built mansions on a grand boulevard. Crash. Many Montford mansions were subdivided into apartment units. Boom. People bought somewhat run-down quadruplexes and restored them to single family mansions. Crash.

    Neighborhoods change. Montford is just an example. We now have a multi-year supply of million dollar homes ringing Asheville with no buyers. How long before mortgage lenders begin pressing for rezoning so redevelopers can carve them into apartments?

    I agree with Jonathan Barnard that construction of high-end housing downtown is one factor in reducing costs overall. The zeitgeist has changed in recent decades. Rich people who fled cities after WWII are bidding up downtown property.

    While I also agree with Sanuk that we don’t want to be ringed with “unplanned workforce housing” – the truth is that affordability has moved from blighted downtowns to the margins. Nationwide, property values are higher along transit corridors. Which is why in the past, developers paid for the Asheville trolley system (and transit in other cities) in order to increase the saleability of their projects. Good planning might include corridor tax districts with the money directed to transit. It will prove easier to let the market dictate where housing is affordable than to force affordability into high-end projects.

  8. Betty Cloer Wallace

    @ cecibothwell: It will prove easier to let the market dictate where housing is affordable than to force affordability into high-end projects.

    @ Diuvel: When you sacrifice democracy to achieve it, even a noble goal can have tyrannical consequences.

    @ Jonathan Barnard: There’s nothing “unprogressive”—and certainly nothing “unsustainable”—about supporting the construction of housing for all income levels downtown.

    Yes, exactly. Historical perspective is good.

  9. Betty Cloer Wallace

    NOTE: To comment on this topic, you have to go to the “news blog” site and click on the title there.

    Anyone living in Asheville and environs should become involved in this discussion now. Whatever happens will affect the future for all of us, economically and socially and culturally; and the issues are not either-or issues. There is a lot of gray among the multitude of factional arguments.

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