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Developer messes with staff, won’t play ball

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By Leslee Kulba-Some members of Asheville City Council acted as if they were hearing about the law of supply and demand for the first time. What’s more, they spoke as if they believed the mighty arm of government was more effective in establishing affordable prices.

The discussion was set in the backdrop of a conditional zoning hearing for a 192-unit apartment complex to be built on Sweeten Creek Road. Council finally approved the request on a 5-2 vote. Only Gordon Smith and Chris Pelly opposed the development.

Back in December, Marc Hunt was able to buy time for the project. Back then, the main issue appeared to be that the developer, Triangle Realty, wished to build the apartment on land zoned Industrial.

The land, indeed, was in an industrial area. It even had access to a railroad track. Years ago, high water rates, among other factors, were spurring an exodus of large-scale industry from the city limits. Ever anxious to recruit job-creators to the area, the city council at that time decided to make it policy to preserve industrial zonings.

G. Thomas Jones, an engineer working with the project, pointed out that the property, as zoned, had been on the market untouched for ten years. The site is a 10-acre parcel, but two acres are unusable, as they were in the railroad’s right of way. What’s left of the land lies on a slope that drops 58 feet from front to back. It just wasn’t suitable for a factory.

Hunt had suggested that staff research how much industrial land the city has to spare, and whether or not this parcel was, as Jones had claimed, unsuitable for a serious job-creator. With further research, staff decided the parcel did not lend itself well to heavy industry, and it would be a good idea to, as Mayor Esther Manheimer had suggested, get something built on the vacant land to start generating tax revenue.

Defending the project a second time before council, prominent attorney and former mayor Lou Bissette reviewed the developer’s qualifications. Triangle Realty is a family business that builds, retains ownership of, and operates properties. Of over 4500 projects they have built, only one has been flipped. Because the family is a long-term owner, they are going to be interested in sustainable building practices. Vice President William Ratchford gave council the greenwash.

When it appeared council would quickly wrap up the public hearing, Councilman Gordon Smith reminded the developer that there was another reason for buying time. Council had in 2006 adopted an affordable housing policy, and it had been reinforced at their recent retreat. Smith asked the developer to restate his suggested rents, and asked if he would reconsider providing some affordable housing.

Ratchford said the apartments were in the Workforce Housing range: $800-850 for a 1 bdrm, $925-995 for a 2-bdrm, and $1150-1225 for a 3-bdrm. Ratchford then repeated the spiel about how Asheville rents are second to only one other market in which he has built. His company decided to launch two projects at the same time in the market so they could work together to drive costs down.

The Palisades, slated to open next summer, will provide another 224 units of housing. Ratchford backtracked to explain. Asheville’s apartments have a vacancy rate of 4%. That means there is a shortage, and scarcity allows landlords to select tenants on the basis of who will pay more. With more apartments, landlords would have to lower rents to lure tenants away from each other.

Members of council said they appreciated the explanation. Chris Pelly pointed out that about 40 percent of renters in Asheville spend over 40 percent of their income on housing. Smith still wanted Ratchford to offer some units at subsidized rates.

Ratchford wasn’t going to bend, but he did offer some flattery. He said, “[Asheville’s] city staff is better than any we’ve ever messed with.” He said he appreciated how they laid down the law upfront so developers aren’t knocked off balance by a whimsy in the final stages of the development review process. He kept using the phrase “mess with” when referring to the process.

Pelly asked if city staff had not communicated with him council’s affordable housing goals. Ratchford said they did, but Triangle Realty, in not so many words, explained the process of increasing supply as a rising tide to lift all ships, as far as affordability was concerned. This result was preferable to the gentrification that results from artificially lowering rent on some units by raising the price on others.

At this, Hunt remarked , “I don’t think this developer is going to play ball.” Hunt did, however, think council should rewrite portions of the UDO, as it currently does not allow developers to build large multifamily projects without going through a rezoning process.

At that, Manheimer asked if she had heard a motion, and Hunt played ball. Gwen Wisler seconded.

Before the vote, Smith explained that conditional zoning hearings allowed council to impose conditions on a project to make it conform more to council goals. He didn’t want anybody to think they would be able to drift through a conditional zoning process without council exercising this power.

Smith added that the city has been interviewing developers to find out what council might do to get them to better align their projects with council’s goals. He asked if Ratchford would be interested in participating in such an interview. Ratchford said he would accept the invitation – again.

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