BY KAREN RAMSHAW
“We have met the enemy and he is us” was the slogan on an Earth Day poster back in 1970, compliments of Pogo. Nothing has changed since then.
Asheville is growing, Asheville is changing, and many of us are worried that we’re losing the soul of our city. Too many long-term locals are being left behind. Housing is in short supply and unaffordable. Rather than take an honest and comprehensive look at the issues, barriers and contributors to the problems, however, we in Asheville have smugly chosen the easy way out. It’s the evil hotels! It’s the greedy developers! It’s the luxury condos! It’s the tourists! It’s not us — it’s them!
But while raising our fists and screaming about hotels or tourism can be very satisfying, it isn’t actually going to change things. The true barriers to affordable housing can be found a bit closer to home. Asheville is growing, we need more homes, and our codes and our zoning have not kept pace with changing practices and needs. You can build a 3,000-square-foot house with a three-car garage and get no pushback, but you can’t build a 3,000-square-foot triplex unless you first get conditional zoning for the property.
Development costs in the area are high and even higher within the city limits, where additional regulations and the overall process are more burdensome. Yet it makes sense — socially, environmentally and financially — to encourage development in the city center, where we already have infrastructure, rather than subsidizing sprawl and clearing acres of our mountain forests.
Neighborhood after neighborhood fights denser infill development because they’re “protecting the character of the neighborhood” or “concerned about traffic” or “want to protect the special experience,” etc. A proposed 214-unit development in East Asheville becomes a 24-unit enclave with prices starting at $675,000. Plans for 200 apartments — 20% of them affordable — on the Fuddrucker’s site in North Asheville had the neighborhood in an uproar, and the project never got off the ground. This despite the fact that the site is within walking distance of two grocery stores and downtown’s jobs and cultural amenities.
Don’t endorse sprawl
Traffic congestion is a big and increasing problem here, but growing numbers of people can’t find a place to live in Asheville. Pushing development farther out into the county will only exacerbate the traffic problem, even as we make our civic contribution to global warming.
The last city budget didn’t fully fund transit needs, and spreading already inadequate resources to cover a larger area further burdens vulnerable families. Folks who might have been able to walk, ride a bike or take a bus at least sometimes if they lived close in must now make all trips by car. That means these families must shoulder those additional costs, not to mention the time they now spend in traffic. In the “right” neighborhood, privileged homeowners’ concerns about congestion may be enough to kill a proposed development. Meanwhile, giant apartment complexes go up in South Asheville, and those residents are simply expected to put up with it.
The Montford neighborhood is the latest entrant in the “we’ve got ours” development wars. Developers are proposing two 11-unit brick apartment buildings, two stories on the street side and falling to three at the rear. Five neighborhood property owners hired an attorney to file objections to the project, and at least two of them are investors who don’t live in Montford. There’s also a website that’s drumming up opposition because there will be disruptions, and “When the construction is over, our neighbors will look out on not one but two apartment buildings.” The horror!
Historical guidelines are being weaponized to fight inclusion and provide cover for homeowners whose real message is that their property value and right to a quick commute and protection from the inconveniences of growth trump the community’s need for housing, smart growth development and social equity. Asheville is growing, but it seems that some areas of town are to be protected while others are asked to absorb all the growth and construction and traffic. South Asheville, anyone?
I believe a number of neighbors have signed up to man the barricades without first doing their own research. We all feel overwhelmed these days, but let’s not automatically jump on the anti-development bandwagon. The Montford neighborhood has historically included small apartment buildings, and the proposed design is based on existing multifamily structures. At 37 units per acre, the proposed project is less dense than many existing Montford multifamily developments, such as 60 Flint St. (48 units per acre), 73 Cherry St. (72), 136 Chestnut St. and 28 Elizabeth St. (both 100). The proposed units would be on transit lines and within walking distance of downtown, enabling those residents to easily participate in the civic and cultural life of our city.
Put up or shut up
The issue of affordability is playing out nationwide, and the problems won’t go away on their own. We need to have honest, grounded conversations, understanding that we all need to contribute and we’re all going to have to give a little. How are we going to facilitate smart growth that protects our neighborhoods while welcoming new neighbors and new housing? How do we make our neighborhoods more equitable with a mix of housing types and prices? Nicely designed apartments won’t drive down home prices: Check out Montford and Kimberly Avenue. The Larchmont did not destroy North Asheville, and the Longchamps didn’t wreck property values in the Grove Park neighborhood. Should we allow triplexes or fourplexes by right, as they do in Oregon, or do away with single-family-only zoning entirely, as they have in Minneapolis?
I don’t have the answers, but I do know that we need to start asking the questions, educating ourselves and listening to one another. Let’s work together to live out the values of respect and inclusion that we so love to put on our bumper stickers — and demonstrate that all are truly welcome here.
Karen Ramshaw moved to Asheville in the back of the family station wagon in 1966 and has seen a lot of changes over the decades. She began working for Public Interest Projects, a local investment/development company focused on downtown, in 1992.