The Patton-Parker House from Charlotte Street
P&Z okays development in secluded historic district
By Roger McCredie-Chestnut Street forms the northernmost limit of “central” Asheville. It is bisected by Broadway into West Chestnut, which travels a few blocks before it peters out in Montford, and East Chestnut, which runs straight as a ruler across a mini-ridge that overlooks downtown. The East Chestnut corridor and its environs are known as Chestnut Hill.
Chestnut Hill is a designated – and theoretically protected – historic district. Most of it is lined with ancient oaks and poplars whose canopy shelters houses that, more than a century ago, belonged to pillars of Asheville’s upper middle class. Many of these old homes, renovated inside and spruced up outside, now house professional offices. Others, likewise restored, were turned into sought-after apartments. There are even some apartment buildings, also generations old, set in their own yards and scrupulously maintained: the Commodore, the Liberty, the King James, and, at the end of east Chestnut, where it tees into Furman Avenue at the foot of Town Mountain, the Princess Anne, once a tiny hotel.
And last week the Asheville Planning and Zoning Commission cleared the way for a brash new kid on the block: a proposed 16-unit, streetside apartment complex with resident parking on the building’s bottom floor.
The proposed complex is the brainchild of Pierce, Brinkley, Cease and Lee (PBCL), an architectural/development firm with offices in Asheville and Raleigh. Known primarily for ultramodern public, industrial and institutional projects, PBCL recently merged with Clark Nexsen, a similarly oriented “sustainable design” firm with offices in Charlotte, Roanoke, Washington, DC, and also Atlanta, Macon and Brunswick, Georgia.
In granting the preliminary go-ahead, the planning and zoning board granted PBCL an exception to existing city zoning rules by invoking a new “density bonus” clause that allows a project to exceed the normal number of units allowed if the project is designed to bring “affordable development” to major city traffic corridors (in this case Charlotte Street).
However, the 16-unit complex itself is not intended to be “affordable housing.” As part of its package, PBCL includes the renovation of an existing fourplex on the property for use as an affordable housing site. And both the size and design of the project itself and the tactics PBCL used to obtain preliminary permission to build it have angered neighbors and preservationists.
The property to be built on comprises three lots described as “187-191 East Chestnut Street. Numbers 187 and 189 are presently occupied by 1920’s-era apartments; 191 is presently a vacant lot that backs up to the historic Patton-Parker House, which serenely faces Charlotte Street from within its park-like, ivy-covered grounds as it has done for 144 years. The house was built in 1869 by (Confederate) Captain Thomas Patton, former mayor and a son of pioneer Asheville settler James Patton. The landmark house was home to seven generations of the family until the last descendant/inhabitant died in 2012. In 2000 it was made a City of Asheville Local Landmark, protected by restricted covenants which the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County said would “ensure a safe future” for the house against what it said “may be extreme development pressures in the near future.”
When PBCL first introduced plans for its apartment complex last May, battle lines were immediately drawn between conservationists and neighbors on one hand and proponents of affordable housing and urban density on the other. Those who argued that the project would be too large, incongrously out of keeping with its surroundings and a potential source of traffic congestion found themselves accused of “thinly veiled racism” and “elitism,” and were labelled “rich white NIMBYs”, an acronym for “not in my back yard.” The anti-PBCL faction was quick to point out that none of the 16 new apartments would fit the definition of “affordable housing,” that PBCL was “throwing in” renovation of the other, existing four unit building as affordable housing purely to satisfy the letter of the zoning law, and that even so, those one-bedroom units are to rent for $661 per month, the maximum amount they can be rented for and still qualify as affordable housing.
“I make $40,000 a year and I couldn’t afford $661 [in rent],” one social media writer said.
Another posted, “I guess this [$661] may be affordable to some people. But keep in mind that a work-force family can buy a 4 BR home through Habitat for Humanity (no traditional down payment required) for about $575 (taxes and insurance included) per month.”
According to city-data.com, the Chestnut Hills area, for all its quiet, well-manicured charm, is solidly middle-middle-class in nature, with an average household income of about $32,000 (slightly below the city median) and a total white population of about 54%.
The charges levelled at the opponents of the new complex – nimby-ism, xenophobia, racism, elitism — have closely paralleled those directed towards citizens who objected to another development project, the construction in 2011 of two large apartment buildings, totaling more than 50 units, on East Larchmont Road, on the site of the old Naval Reserve headquarters on a hill above Merrimon Avenue. There, the objections were also the same: a disproportionately large facility, traffic complications and aesthetics. The difference was that the Larchmont project was always intended to be affordable housing and the neighborhood it backs up to, while it is one of Asheville’s oldest and most upscale locations, boasts neither the age nor the historical importance of Chestnut Hill.
Having cleared the planning and zoning hurdle, PBCL will now take its presentation to City Council, where its ultimate passage, given council’s approval of the Larchmont project, is virtually assured. Councilman Gordon Smith, a vocal proponent of density as a solution to most of Asheville’s growth problems, told the Tribune, “I haven’t studied the final plans, so it’s difficult for me to comment in an educated way. You’re right that I’m a proponent of density and affordable housing. I am also in favor in increased predictability for all parties.
“I’m aware that there are many varied architectural styles represented in the area and that the proposed design is an area of concern for some neighborhood residents. I will be meeting with various people between now and the decision date to learn more,” Smith said.