Letter: Infill development presents problems for urban place zoning ideas

Graphic by Lori Deaton

As an admirer of New Urbanism, I have been following the city of Asheville’s Urban Place Form Code developments with great interest, starting with my review of this summer’s Citizen Times article “Transforming Asheville: Initiative Would Change Parts of City; Some Property Owners Object.”

During the past 20 years, I have worked with many renowned town planners, civil engineers, transportation planners, architects, cultural resource consultants and developers within the realm of neo-traditional neighborhood planning and New Urbanism. In light of such experience, I kindly offer a brief critique of the city’s efforts.

To preface, I do applaud the city for embracing New Urbanism; however, to be applied in a viable manner that is equitable to landowners, it cannot be done via a scheme or pattern that is arbitrarily forced — as if using a figurative Procrustean Bed.*

Biltmore Farms has done an exemplary job with Biltmore Park Town Square.  However, we must look at the realities behind its success before considering it as a potential visionary template. For example, with all due respect to its developers and business tenants, I seriously doubt the Town Square truly embodies live-work space, a common hallmark of many walkable, gathering place communities, since it is unlikely that most, if any, employees of the Town Square businesses actually live in its interior or perimeter housing.

Furthermore, I reasonably assume that grocery, pharmacy and core item vendors are not primarily supported by Town Square residents but rather by the greater Biltmore Park and surrounding neighborhoods.  In fact, the Town Square is strategically located, if only by default land ownership, to beckon travelers at the Interstate 26 interchange with Long Shoals Road. Nevertheless, interstates are not human-scale by any means, and actually created suburban sprawl — the antithesis of New Urbanism.

Frankly, New Urbanism is not viable for many areas of Asheville that would involve an infill development process versus beginning with a virtual tabula rasa — a clean slate on all key levels: land planning, transportation infrastructure, environmental engineering, etc. The latter fosters great application of New Urbanistic design principles; however, it normally also requires large, strategically located areas of undeveloped or partially developed land, similar to those that George Vanderbilt developed into Biltmore Village and with which the modern Cecil family conceptualized Biltmore Park and Biltmore Park Town Square.

Ultimately, for it to benefit the community and also be equitable to landowners and business occupiers, the ethos of New Urbanism must dovetail with socioeconomic practicalities. In that vein, New Urbanism is a challenge to implement when you have a blank slate, but it becomes tremendously difficult if it involves infill development.

To illustrate, let’s look at the typical regional grocery store model.  The relevant data tend to show that the business model requires a fairly large target market population surrounding or adjacent to a store’s location. Consequently, most grocery stores are not within truly walkable communities or gathering places embodied by New Urbanism, even when starting with a blank slate development.  And it is hard to use public transportation while transporting significant amounts of groceries.

As for grocery stores in urban infill areas, they tend to rely on highly dense populations, for example, Atlantic Station in Atlanta, which does not compare to downtown Asheville in scale or geography.

Ultimately, I seriously doubt that a regional grocery store chain, such as Ingles or Publix, could reduce its footprint and access infrastructure and remain economically viable, absent a significant population within true walking distance to each store.

As for live-work space design, unfortunately, absent a very dense, close-proximity population, the concept tends not to be viable on a practical level because the business economics do not mesh with resident workers’ incomes, which tend to flow more from embedded restaurant, retail and hospitality venues than higher-paying occupations.  And when it does work, then those truly in need of affordable housing in a walkable community are pushed out by rising costs elevated by gentrification.

As the city moves forward with its goal to implement the Urban Place Form Code, I hope it first studies the lessons learned from other towns and cities that have struggled to implement New Urbanism via infill redevelopment. I would recommend that Charleston, S.C., be studied to glean the good, the bad and the ugly of the process and the unintended consequences.

* In Greek mythology, Procrustes, a son of Poseidon, had an iron bed at his inn on which he compelled his victimized guests to lie. If a guest were shorter than the bed, he stretched him by hammering or racking their body to fit. And if the guest was longer than the bed, he would cut off their legs to make the body fit.

— Jay Kerr


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4 thoughts on “Letter: Infill development presents problems for urban place zoning ideas

  1. Mike R.

    Excellent insights. I think many intelligent and informed citizens inherently know that much of this stuff won’t “work” as well as intended in Asheville, as well as many other American cities.

    These plans are often overly idealistic in that they assume people will give up their car…….substantially. Realistically, individualized motorized transport will be the very LAST thing to go as our industrialized society runs our of energy. Cars will get incredibly small and efficient and the use of scooters will explode. Mass transit will never supplant that hard reality in Asheville simply because of the topography and layout of the city. And bicyclists? Asheville’s effort to provide bike lanes everywhere on existing roads while laudable, is probably 20 years ahead of itself. And then, with smaller vehicles, the roads will be much safer for bikers, even without specially marked lanes.

  2. Robert

    All future developments in our area must include thorough traffic and environmental studies (and not simply guesstimates provided by those in the employ of developers). Bridge, road, and infrastructure questions must be answered before one single aspect of one single project moves forward. Without these safeguards (and in the absence of Jet Packs For All), we are simply kicking a multitude of cans down the road for future leaders and taxpayers to handle.

  3. luther blissett

    This is a good essay on New Urbanism in general but it steps around the specific question of whether the city’s zoning code should disincentivize big box retail with its huge setbacks and parking lots and a whole bunch of dead space (both ecologically and economically dead) if there are potential alternatives.

    [ Traditional supermarket chains have settled upon a preferred size and format and will build where there’s space and expect customers to travel to where they are. That’s a Procrustean setup for the community at large. It isn’t what Ingles used to do, especially in more rural areas. ]

  4. indy499

    I’m guessing many readers don’t have the time to slug through this letter. Obviously written by an academic.

    Summary: Much of Asheville is already developed and coupled with a challenging topography not much is going to change.

    The end

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