Letter writer: Will Asheville make Oregon’s density mistakes?

In the late ’70s, Oregon embarked on a strategy to limit urban sprawl and became the first state to adopt an aggressive “Smart Growth” methodology of zoning. Its goals were exemplary but failed to anticipate that the most “efficient” way to populate the cities was directly opposed to the way that people actually wanted to live. They regretfully learned that in spite of best intentions, residents did not want to give up their cars and backyards. Thirty years after the fact, planners have realized such restrictive zoning rules have spawned a cornucopia of problems. These are laid out in [a] paper from the Thoreau Institute entitled The Folly of Smart Growth, which states in part:

“In order to achieve those goals, ‘smart growth’ governments nationwide are implementing a degree of land-use regulation that is unprecedented in the United States prior to 1990. Unfortunately, as we will see from the experiences of the Portland, Ore., area, such regulation can produce an even worse quality of life for residents. The policies’ real effects appear to be increases in traffic congestion, air pollution, consumer costs, taxes and just about every other impediment to urban livability.”

Just as damming our rivers and plowing our prairies led to unforeseen catastrophes, I believe zoning that focuses on maximum growth may also sow the seeds of future problems that cannot be undone. Just look at Branson, Mo., which has evolved into an entity that no longer resembles that original charm of the area that attracted people in the first place. Are we headed there?

As this article states, increased density in cities results in not only in higher taxes, gridlock and pollution, but a decreased quality of life for the residents — all under the guise of “stopping this terrible urban sprawl.” The recent attempt in Beaucatcher Heights to increase the density of houses per acre is an example of this inclination to overpopulate our city at the expense of the residents’ quality of life and the enrichment of developers who do not live amongst us. Due to strong neighbor dissent, the measure was denied — at least at the zoning board level.  It must still be voted on by the Council — who may or may not heed the recommendation of the zoning board. At least one Council member has stated he is in favor of increasing the density of population in Asheville by rezoning away from R2 (two homes per acre) to a more dense format. He states the same reasoning that has proven to be disastrous in Oregon.

As a concerned citizen, I would ask the following questions:
1) Based on current zoning designations in the city, is there a “maximum” population determination for our city?
2) Is our current infrastructure adequate to support this eventual “maximum” number? Or do we enter the destructive cycle exhibited in Portland by letting overpopulation make demands for more roads and infrastructure that lead to higher taxes to provide those services? Do we, as Oregon, enter a cycle that cannot be stopped and diminishes quality of life for all of us?
3) Does the city government’s appetite for more tax revenue at the expense of its citizens’ quality of life lead us down a shortsighted one-way street of overdevelopment?

I don’t think there is an easy answer to how our city should be allowed to grow, but I do know that stacking us up in high-rises and crowded neighborhoods is not where to start. If our current zoning has given us that “maximum” population number, then I think the Council would be ill-advised to increase that density without considering the very real consequences. We need to try to look as far into the future as we can and determine where our current path will lead us. Oregon perhaps wishes they could go back and change that path.

City Council will set our path at the next board meeting when they vote on the Beaucatcher rezoning Tuesday, Feb. 24. Maybe let them know you don’t want to live like the stacked-up cord wood in Oregon.

— Stephen Schulte
Asheville

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12 thoughts on “Letter writer: Will Asheville make Oregon’s density mistakes?

  1. Jordan Foltz

    So…in reading this, I can’t help but get a little irked. There’s a lot of smack-talk about the disaster that is Portland, Oregon and it seems like it’s all based on this one gig produced by the Thoreau Institute. The quote cited mentions that some contemporary density regulations were unprecedented prior to 1990. So what? 1950-1990 saw the complete disintegration of American communities in the face of urban sprawl, suburbia, and strip mall infrastructure. Using pre-1990 planning regs as some sort of meaningful standard for better communities makes no sense. I wonder if the author of this letter has ever even been to Portland and can offer some actual examples of why the planning is so disastrous?

    Before moving to Asheville, I lived in Portland for seven years. I have never experienced a US city as functional or beautiful to live. Polluted? Nope. Traffic? not so bad at all: lots of folks prefer the unstigmatized public transit and bikes. Also, I’ve never experienced such a density and plethora of parks and community gardens. The way that the city is planned assures regular intervals of commercial zoning so that restaurants, grocery stores, cafes, retail outlets and other services are usually within walking distance of where you live, and can be accessed on the quiet, residential streets that separate those commercial zones. People in Portland are pretty damn exuberant on average I’d say and gain a lot of cultural and societal benefits from their everyday face to face interactions that are facilitated by an infrastructure that doesn’t mandate car culture.

    Asheville, on the other hand—other than downtown, is not a pedestrian friendly place. If you don’t live near Downtown or Haywood Road in West Asheville, good luck finding your goods and services within walking distance, or having meaningful, enjoyable interaction and experience while accomplishing daily errands. Planning with density in mind allows everyday errands to be an artistic and aesthetic experience—experiences that are strictly delegated in this city to leisurely outings downtown. If we’re going to grow, we gotta move beyond just sprawling neighborhoods that surround the one commercially-dense destination. It’s not good for culture, it’s not good for quality of life.

    My suggestion is before unloading such a negative portrayal of Portland based on a single article—is to go spend some time there and hang out—and don’t rent a car, because you won’t need to. After taking a first hand look at quality of life, and attitudes, I’d be damn surprised if you could still think folks there wish they could go back and change the success that is that city.

    • Elaine Kabat

      In theory, I have to agree with Michael Donohue regarding the concept of a pedestrian friendly downtown that is convenient to all
      necessities. While I can’t speak for Portland since I’ve never been there, here in Asheville downtown, although attractive, is designed
      predominantly for tourists where basic everyday mundane commodities are just not available for the rest of us. For example, if a local
      Ashevillian should decide to spend some time downtown and wish to make a quick convenient purchase of a short order item; i.e., a slice of
      pizza or an item or two of fruit such as a banana or an apple to tie oneself over, non such establishment exists. Unfortunately, the gentrification mentality of designing
      upscale cities seems to be prevalent in the 21st Century not just here but globally.

    • Denise Meyers

      I grew up in Oregon and I can attest to the fact that Portland is an excellent example of what urban growth can look like. As a city, Asheville should be so lucky as to be compared the Portland. And quite frankly, we have a VERY long way to go before we should flatter ourselves by thinking we are in the same league as “Ptown”. I love this area, but I think people feel we are entitled to a level of snobbery about our community that is more than a bit precious. We didn’t invent cool cities. We just happen to live in an area that has the potential to be something remarkable, And by remarkable I mean, get over yourselves and stop thinking that if we hold fast to the idea that we will be hot forever, and the only way to be hot forever is to think we are the shit. Because that is NOT cool…..

  2. North Asheville

    “If you don’t live near Downtown or Haywood Road in West Asheville, good luck finding your goods and services within walking distance, or having meaningful, enjoyable interaction and experience while accomplishing daily errands.”
    The writer hasn’t visited areas of North Asheville, which have many of the amenities he describes: goods and services within walking distance, parks, meeting places.

  3. Cecil Bothwell

    Gotta say that having spent some time in Portland (months) I could easily wish for the same result here.

  4. hauntedheadnc

    Mr. Schulte is talking out of both sides of his mouth. In the same letter he disparages Portland for its density and Branson for its sprawl. So… if Portland is the example not to follow, is that to say the better option is the sprawl of Branson?

    I ask because it’s going to be one or the other. Take your pick.

  5. AVL LVR

    Good try. Portland, Oregon and Branson, MO are as popular as ever. There are still some people who want us to look like Rosman, Old Fort or Canton (shacks/trailer parks or even worse one mobile home per acre of formerly farmland); I guess make the city unlivable to keep people out.

    The widening of I-26 and new connector will relive through traffic. More of the city will become pedestrian and bike friendly with more greenways and sidewalks.

  6. Stephen Schulte

    I am pleased to see so much interest in this topic. Portland may indeed be a wonderful place to live. Some, no doubt, may argue that point. My letter is not based solely on the one article by the Thoreau Institute. A ‘modest google’ of the issue will prove that.

    My desires are pretty simple. Do not overcrowd the city. Do not trade short termed tax revenues for long term problems. Do not populate us to the tipping point of our infrastructure to support fire and police as well as transportation and city services. Do not hold up Smart Growth as a cure all and desirable pathway for our city without exploring the very real down side.

    Portland had the luxury of expansion. The geography allowed them to draw that city boundary far enough out to allow room for the bike paths and parks and all with new development under new laws. Asheville does not have that luxury. We are bounded by other communities and we cannot ‘sprawl’ if we wanted to. Asheville’s growth is ‘real estate limited’ which creates a revenue problem for the city. Increased building and density provide more tax base but the ultimate consequences of that process may be unanticipated and unpleasant further in the future.

    We are zoned a certain way at this time-for a certain perceived density. I think that first zoning took into account our narrow roads and terrain. I have been on Swannanoa at 4:00pm-even in the ‘non tourist’ season and it is backed up from Biltmore Village to Tunnel Road. Do we have the real estate to expand that road in the future to accommodate more and more cars?—or should we try not to ‘tip’ our infrastructure over that point?

    Take this test. Go home tonight and look to the left and right of where you live and ask yourself if double the number of homes there would please you. If it would not please you then we simply need to be vigilant of how we grow. Or, better yet. Take a drive up behind the ball park to the Hunt Hill development and see if that is your ideal. Point out the green space to me, the bike lanes and the little bodegas where every one can get a morning cappuccino. Then imagine plastering that all over the mountain and any other acreage that can be rezoned to accommodate it. Then imaging how many people and cars that is. Then take another drive down Swannanoa at four and I think you will see my concern.

    • hauntedheadnc

      Mr. Schulte, consider this.

      Asheville is already the most expensive city in the state of North Carolina in which to live. What effect do you think limiting the ability to grow would have on that situation? Would you really make Asheville into another Jackson Hole, Wyoming — where “gentrification” there means that billionaires are pushing out the millionaires — just because you don’t want to look at a few more houses?

      People want to live in Asheville. Lots of people already live in Asheville and struggle to do so. Your arbitrary growth limit will do nothing more than limit supply and therefore raise prices, and therefore bodily heave out anyone who isn’t a rich Atlantan looking for a weekend home. That is not the city I want to live in.

      • Stephen Schulte

        You are correct. I also think that ‘gentrification’ is going to happen regardless of what you or I think. And I am not against growth–just more growth than our infrastructure can handle. I am also concerned that as more and more people pour into this city that whether we limit growth or not the costs will continue to go up and drive out the very people who make this place special. We will then have a city full of observers….with nothing left to observe. I don’t know if plastering the mountainside with Hunt Hill type of housing will help the costs of living here more or less than just letting the current zoning prevail but either way I think greater density will bring its own irreversible downside on top of expense.
        My sister in law wishes to move here and she has very limited means. At the Hunt Hill development a one bedroom cost about $890 per month. There is a mirror image of the Hunt Hill Complex down in Fletcher, but that rent for the same one bedroom is $390 per month. I don’t know why, other than those units are not pre-filling like Hunt Hill. The depressing point is that if I am a developer interested in the higher rents I am going to push to do my building in the city. Since that creates tax revenue (Property taxes) for the city I see them pushing that agenda. That will produce a city that not only is expensive to live in–but a crowded-gridlocked-no parking- polluted one to boot. With more people and more demand for services the taxes will go up and further increase costs of living here. I honestly don’t know a correct answer–just the choice between a bad and worse answer. I would be interested if you would share any perspective you might have on the correct path.

        I have posted this article in other comments. It is only 6 pages long but I would refer you to the part about the high costs of single family homes but high density apartment rents that cannot keep up with inflation. I think the message here is nothing turns out the way you expect. Need a better crystal ball.
        http://object.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/serials/files/regulation/2001/10/otoole.pdf

        • hauntedheadnc

          Apartment rents won’t drop until there’s enough apartments to affect supply. We’d need almost 6,000 to do that currently. Meanwhile, studies have shown that mixed-use buildings generate far more in tax money than any single-use venture such as a subdivision or a strip mall. By my thinking, that’s the way to grow — especially to the point that people living in those mixed-use buildings can get around to where they need to go without having to drive. Voila! — people living in town paying taxes and patronizing businesses, without affecting traffic.

          Personally, I want to see more efforts to put more people in the heart of town, and more efforts in the county to develop the kinds of gridded neighborhoods that were going up all over Asheville in the 1920’s and before. A better growth pattern allows more growth with fewer headaches. Trying to block growth — even “more growth than our infrastructure can handle” does nothing but drive the price of living here beyond the means of anyone but the “observers” from Atlanta and Florida who won’t even use their house for half the year.

          Better growth, not no growth. We should be so lucky to follow the growth patterns of Portland. It’s easily the most liveable city in America.

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