Sunday, May 14, 2017

Asheville Riverfront Commission finds its voice & questions Form Based Code and RADTIP

Form Based Code passes by only 3 votes
Commission Members start questioning the RADTIP costs

Last week's Asheville Area Riverfront Redevelopment Commission (AARRC) meeting was a history maker for two reasons: 

1) The final draft of Form Based Code vote was met with surprising opposition and narrowly passed by 3 votes.

2) Members actually started asking questions about the cost of the RADTIP and who would be responsible for paying for those costs.

Form Based Code
8 to 5 vote

For the first time since its inception in 2010, this Commission, which was setup by the City of Asheville had to take an actual vote count with regard to the proposed final draft of the Form Based Code put online April 25th. They had been asked by Stephanie Monson Dahl to recommend to City Council that the Council should support this final draft and pass it but rather than getting the unanimous, business-as-usual support, 5 members indicated they would vote No causing lively discussion and City staff questioning the sudden change.

RAD-Riv District in Blue
Form Based Code
Remove the RAD-Riv District
In discussions prior to the actual vote, there was lengthy discussion started by member George Morosani who said frankly that he would vote against recommending this final draft if the Form Based Code district called "RAD-RIV" could not be removed. He specifically stated that this is the only area in this part of the City that has access to rail and that rail access is important for certain types of businesses such as recycling.  

Unintended Consequences and Variances 
Jason Young, Woodfin representative, voted against it and in his remarks stated that Woodfin aldermen felt it would create a top-down approach to zoning and unintended consequences. He gave examples such as the 700 sq ft building in front of Walgreens on Merrimon Ave and Staples, also on Merrimon Avenue, both of which found ways to comply with requirements of building close to the road.  He did, however, first state that Woodfin was not there to dictate to the City of Asheville how they do their zoning but only to share their thoughts on the matter.

Others voting against this draft of the final Form Based Code were:

  • Al Whitesides, recently appointed to Buncombe County Board of Commissioners
  • Kristi Quinn, riverfront property owner and 
  • Karl Koon, riverfront property  owner.
In addition to unintended consequences, dissenting members stated they did not want to tie the hands of the current property owners. Furthermore, they said there are a lot of changes already going on because of RADTIP and they thought it would be better to wait to make such drastic zoning changes until after the construction was completed (in 3 years) and then see what kind of zoning changes needed to be made.  Others cited current zoning tools that can be used to help riverfront development projects such as variances and conditional uses.

It was no surprise that professional members who stand to gain from these changes and those closely aligned with the City of Asheville such as the Asheville Convention and Visitor's Bureau would vote for the Form Based Code.

Finally, after discussion that made this meeting longer than the usual hour, it came down to a vote. 

Motion to Amend Rejected

Jane Mathews of Mathews Architecture read the language that was written and presented by City Staff and put in the AARRC member packets:
Suggested Motion: I move to recommend the approval of the River Arts District Form-Based Code and find that the request is in the public interest and is consistent with the mission of the Asheville Area Riverfront Redevelopment Commission and the Wilma Dykeman Riverway Plan in the following ways: 1) the code reflects a vision for the area that was developed with all stakeholders; 2) the seven districts will build on the district’s assets and ensure a walkable, friendly public realm; 3) the code offers predictability for developers and property owners investing in the area.proposing to City Council that the AARRC supports this form based code and that it was in alignment with the Riverfront Redevelopment Plan and stakeholders.
Peter Sprague then requested an amendment to Mathew's motion that the section known as RAD-River not take effect until October 2022 (after the completion of RADTIP).

Mathews denied Sprague's amendment to the motion and the motion, as presented, carried on with Chair Carleton Collins asking for a show of hands.

Final count of 8 in favor (Collins, Cartwright, Green, Brown, Turner, Bothwell, Mathews, Sprague) and 5 against (Whitesides, Young, Quinn, Morosani, Koon).

First signs of AARRC finding its own voice
Who pays for RADTIP and what will it cost?

Before the discussion of the Form Based Code, there were hints that this commission was not going to behave as usual. It began with Stephanie Monson Dahl informing the commission that it was time they make a recommendation to Council in writing:
[Paraphrasing] "We want you to make a recommendation to council regarding their funding for the rest of this program. The last time a budget was adopted was in 2014 when we were awarded the 14.6 million tiger grant. The 14.6 million will pay for constructions costs only - hard costs.  It doesn’t cover engineering, utility relocation, land acquisition. It does not cover over escalating construction costs."
"In the budget we had $38 million but we know we need more. So far, we already have costs above the $38 million. We don’t expect costs to exceed $50 million. We want you to recommend to Council approval."
And, like a light coming on in the attic, it seemed as though this Commission realized it had been working on the design of a mega mansion but now it was time to start building, and that means, it's time to come up with the actual money.  Planning had been a lot of fun but as Mrs. Mathews put it, "There are all kinds of things I want for my home, but I don't necessarily get them all."

Members questioned "how can we make a recommendation when we don’t know about the total cost? Don’t we have a fiduciary responsibility?" 

Others cited their responsibilities to be stewards and did not want to put a burden on taxpayers.  

Some asked whether things could be cut out if they find they don't have the funds or will cause too much of a burden.  One particular exchange was very interesting:  Stephanie Brown indicated she wasn't ready to make that kind of recommendation without knowing the costs or knowing if anything could be cut.  Dahl responded that there wasn't anything that can be cut without it impacting our federal grant to which Ms. Brown said, "We have to do this no matter what it costs?

Dahl confirmed - 
"You don’t have the numbers and you’re not going to have them before Council reviews the costs...instead of talking clearly about numbers, you can recommend impacts."
City Manager Gary Jackson then stepped in to clarify.
"We are running up against the timeline to use the grant. We are on the critical path."
Potential Changes -
Jackson, confirmed that the City will be reviewing any and all details and plans and stated that the protected bike lanes were added to the RADTIP project but were not part of the RADTIP project and the federal funding.  If the bids come in too high, they may cut the protected bike lanes.

Costs - $56 million
Jackson further confirmed that this year's budget contains $56 million for the RADTIP, of which $24 million is funded ($14 million from Tiger VI grant and $10 million in other grants). The remaining $38 million would be debt financed or a portion from general fund.  Keep in mind, however, that this $38 million figure is a moving target.  Until final construction costs are known, this number could actually go higher.  All of this for a 2.2 mile stretch along the French Broad River. [NOTE: City Council are scheduled to review and approve the final bids at its June 13th Council meeting.]

In the end, the Commission voted to support the RADTIP project.  We don't have the final language but one thing is clear:  The Asheville Area Riverfront Redevelopment Commission has found its voice and is finally representing stakeholders other than themselves.

Important Dates

  • If you wish to comment on this or the City's Proposed FY 2017-18 Budget, attend the May 23, 2017 City Council meeting at 5pm at City Hall.  This is the ONLY meeting in which public comment specifically on the budget is allowed.
  • At this time, City Council is scheduled to review construction bids for RADTIP at its June 13th Council meeting. 
Article by Mari Peterson, Research and Data for Asheville Unreported

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