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Council protects citizens from fast food

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By Leslee Kulba –

In another grand public hearing, Asheville listened to citizens’ concerns about outparcel development at the new Harris Teeter site on Merrimon Avenue. The site has been vacant and underutilized for about a decade. The site of the former Deal Buick dealership has been home to many proposals that have not gotten off the ground.

City planners zoned it as Urban Village, and three developers invested in plans to give the city everything it wanted in New Urbanist Smart Growth. Merrimon would have its own little Gerber Village with walk-to-work setups, but the neighbors did not embrace the diversity. Dense infill development, by building up instead of sprawling, would cast shadows on the residents of Holland Street. Unable to mollify the victims of developmental externalities, the developers went back to the planning stages. And there they stayed until the economy played into the hands of environmental advocates who should have been delighted to see development come to a screeching halt downtown – were it not for the massive unemployment that accompanied the building slump.

But recently, to cries of, “Oh, no! Not another grocery store!” Harris Teeter announced it would essentially move its South Asheville operations to the Merrimon Avenue site. An advantage would be that grocery stores typically don’t have much more than two stories. Designers went to work, developing a maze of trees for the parking lot, but then that pesky price-point objective reared its head.

Like most grocery stores these days, Harris Teeter wanted to rent space to other businesses. They expected a bank would be good, but not until asked point blank by Councilman Cecil Bothwell did their representatives outright say they would not accept a special zoning conditioned with a ban on a fast-food drive thru.

Residents indicated they could tolerate a bank or Starbuck’s drive thru, but they were afraid of what fast food would do to the community. Activist Heather Rayburn, who lives in the nearby Five Points neighborhood, explained. Fast food drive thrus generate extra traffic, idling cars increase the city’s carbon footprint by emitting greenhouse gases and volatile organic compounds. Not only that, there is an obesity epidemic. As Michael Moore aptly showed in the film documentary “Supersize Me,” there is a direct correlation between obese children susceptible to Type 2 diabetes and substances pushed by the Red Clown.

Former Vice Mayor Dr. Carl Mumpower had warned that zoning leads to elitist communities. Nobody who spoke had a problem with the creation of a wine-and-dine sit-down. After all, today’s conveniences do provide multiple options of pull-top, microwaveable items for brown bagging members of the working class who get no more than a half hour for lunch. With double-digit inflation, middle class people should be eating more at home, anyway.

Nobody mentioned the bugaboo that fast food restaurants are also corporate chains. Years ago, when the city attempted to rezone Merrimon Avenue into a mecca of Smart Growth, locals warned of the “unintended consequence” of multinationals being the only companies capable of complying with all the mandatory stylings. The Great Wall of Staples was built to conform to Smart Growth requirements for pedestrian interaction that required parking behind any new building. The Temple to the Goddess of Urban Planning still sits empty in front of the Walgreens. The little building was built just so the drug store wouldn’t have to tear up the parking lot and existing foundation, to swap them out – for pedestrian interaction.

A couple members of council Tuesday regretted that business and property owners on Merrimon Avenue had alarmingly resisted even more Smart Growth stylings. It was cheaper for Burger King to leave than comply with the New Urbanism. The owner of the former The Hop property complained that once he planted all the trees, there was nothing left for his building. Old businesses were concerned they would need to shut down before they could upgrade with elevators and curb frontage. Commiserators jested the funeral home could become mixed-use compliant with housing for the elderly on its second story – for drop-in service. Council heard the complaints, and dropped the idea of letting visionary activists dictate even more to people trying to do business in the city.

During the public hearing, one girl asked the developers not to be so greedy. There was even a request from the other side of the dais for the developers to focus more on returns of their investment to the community, rather than their bank books. It was as if the crowd was saying, “Go bankrupt to give us what we want!” It’s the new model. Numerous unqualified homeowners tried it on, and the federal government is doing an even better job. Now it’s time for the 46 percent to burn all their capital on pipedreams. Of course nobody put it that way. It remains politically-incorrect to mention the supply side at public meetings. Following the public hearing, council unanimously decided to continue the public hearing at the developers’ request.

In other business, council approved including the Municipal Food Policy Goals & Action Plan in the city’s Sustainability Management Plan. Approval was, of course, “exciting.” Speaking to the issue was Susan Garrett. In a dramatic reading voice, she painted a “Vision of Abundance.” She asked all to imagine eating locally-grown berries with locally-grown mint in our tea in a breakfast now only the elite can enjoy. Then, we were to look out our window and see our neighbor farming organic herbs on land he rented from the city. As we bicycled to work, we could pluck a couple apples from the edible frontage of an urban forest . . . Get the picture?

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