Friday, November 25, 2016

Lurking neighborhood “density” issue emerges during city’s development forum

By Roger McCredie

The city likes the idea of greater urban density.  Neighborhoods don’t.  At least that was a sentiment expressed when the hot-button issue surfaced during the fall City Manager’s Development Forum, held last week at the U.S. Cellular Center.

City Planning and Urban Design director Todd Okolichany told an audience made up primarily of private developers, realtors and property owners his department is drafting a zoning change that would slash lot width and area requirements in residential areas by 20 per cent.

Insiders say the city has long been considering such a move because it would promote infill – and therefore create more density – within Asheville’s neighborhoods.

Simply put, the lot size reduction would allow for squeezing more new structures into smaller available spaces.  But that doesn’t sit well with residents who see a distinct possibility that adjacent spaces which presently allow them elbow room and privacy can be replaced by cheek-by-jowl new houses or apartments.

Haw Creek resident Barber Melton, who sits on both the Neighborhood Advisory Committee and the Affordable Housing Commission, told Okolichany flatly, that “a lot of neighborhoods don’t want increased density.  Haw Creek certainly doesn’t,” she said, “and 90% of other neighborhoods don’t either.”  

“There’s got to be a balance,” Melton said.

City officials have frequently said that increasing population density by infill and building “up instead of out” would help prevent urban sprawl and promote pedestrian use and multimodal traffic, thus making life easier for non-drivers.

Opponents have said it will result in traffic problems, increased pollution, higher taxes and a general decrease in quality of life for those affected.  Last year an editorial letter in Asheville’s Mountain Xpress warned that the city’s infatuation with density creation could lead it down the same road as the state of Oregon, whose so-called “smart growth” infill-based zoning program has largely backfired.

  “[The Oregon plan’s] 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 … residents did not want to give up their cars and backyards,” the writer said.

Still, the city sees the 20% reduction in lot width and area as a first step in going down the infill road, and it’s been contemplating the measure for some time now.   "It's to allow for more land to be used efficiently," Vaidila Satvika, an urban planner for the city, told WLOS-TV back in August.

Satvika’s take on those benefits was smacked down in the same segment by West Asheville homeowner Karen Mathews, who said, “I really don't want to look out of my bathroom window or my bedroom window into someone else's, six feet from my house.

"With it crammed in like that, how many people are going to want to be that close? I don't know if it's greed or if it's insanity,” she said.

One example of the city’s aggressive dedication to density-by-infill was the 2012 creation of The Larchmont, a Mountain Housing Opportunities- underwritten affordable housing complex that was built on the site of the old naval reserve headquarters on Merrimon Avenue.  That project met with considerable but futile pushback from North Asheville residents who feared further traffic congestion and objected to the scale of the buildings.

A prominent fan of  increased neighborhood density is city councilor Gordon Smith, who has frequently called it a key to relieving Ashevillle’s affordable housing crisis.  Smith has for years advocated major revisions to the city’s existing development code, which he says,  “kind of comes out of a 20th-century sensibility that may not be fitting what’s happening here in Asheville today.”

After the Larchmont victory. Smith wrote to a resident who had opposed the project, “The Larchmont looks great. I know you didn’t like it and didn’t want it, but the opportunity offered to the sixty families who live there is one I’m sure you can appreciate.”

Okolichany told the forum audience that the city will hold public workshops on December 6 and 7 as part of a review and update of its Comprehensive Development Plan.  According to the city’s website:

“Workshop attendees will hear an update on the planning process, learn about the key issues facing the community and most importantly see how the public’s ideas will be incorporated into the vision. Then, residents will get the opportunity to participate in fun exercises that explore alternate development scenarios, choose their preferences, and see the results in real time.”

There was no further description of the “fun exercises.”

The workshop schedule is as follows:

December 6
  • North Asheville Library, 1030 Merrimon Ave., 12:30 to 2:30 p.m.
  • West Asheville Library, 942 Haywood Road, 4 to 6 p.m.
  • Central Asheville opportunity at the Dr. Wesley Grant Sr. Southside Center, 285 Livingston St., 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
December 7
  • South Buncombe Library, 260 Overlook Road, 12:30 to 2:30 p.m.
  • East Asheville opportunity at St. John’s Episcopal Church, 290 Old Haw Creek Road, 4 to 6 p.m.
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