Kickoff session deflects questions; PR campaign paves way for ‘charette’
By Roger McCredie- At its much heralded “kickoff session” earlier this month, the Texas consulting firm that’s charging the city $100,000 for a riverfront building code plan put its best foot forward.
Then it wouldn’t answer questions about where it was putting its feet, and why.
Instead, Code Studios of Austin tracked about 60 members of the public, including French Broad riverfront property owners and representatives of the River Arts District (RAD) community through a presentation that outlined ways a “form based” zoning code, applied to riverfront development, “can be used to enhance communities challenged by change and growth.”
The 66-page presentation recited Code Studios’ 30 years of experience in implementing form-based code projects in cities such as Chattanooga, Knoxville, Raleigh, Los Angeles and even Asheville, where the firm devised a form-based code that was approved by the city and is now in effect along Haywood Road. It described how FBC “shapes the public realm” by mandating sidewalks and bike paths, fixing building heights and setback, regulating parking areas and introducing other features designed to provide “clear, predictable results” in transforming previously sketchy neighborhoods into “a unified whole.”
What neither Code Studios principal Lee Einsweiler nor city project manager Sasha Vrtunski did at the meeting, according to some attendees, was allow questions from the audience.
“They told us [during the meeting] the entire presentation would be online [next day] and there would be no questions answered,” said Mari Peterson, a business consultant and wife of outspoken FBC critic Chris Peterson.
“They told us this was ‘a one-way presentation,’ that this kickoff meeting was just for them to tell us how the process would work. These guys from Texas said they will be here for one week in July. They will take some input but in the end, they will write it and present it to the council. Why is Texas influencing our zoning laws?”
Peterson was speaking of a “charrette” the city and the consultants plan to hold from July 25-29. The consultants define a charrette as “an intensive planning session where citizens, planners and other technical professionals collaborate.
“Throughout the process, the public will have the chance to give input and react to concepts, leading to a more refined vision with many of the details for the new zoning already worked out. Charrettes are inclusive by nature and are designed to build consensus from the outset, providing a collaborative forum to bring all parties together with a focus on a common goal. The hands-on nature of the charrette, the opportunity to interact with differing perspectives and the short feedback loop will allow issues to be identified and resolved early on in the process,” Code Studios continues.
A charrette, in other words, is what used to be called a workshop, and the purpose of the one called for next month is to get the stakeholder-participants used to the FBC harness. Form-based code differs dramatically from the conventional zoning process in that, rather than functioning as a set of guidelines, it becomes statutory upon adoption by a municipality. Thus, the FBC’s highly detailed specifications for everything from windows to signage becomes law, and any deviance from them becomes illegal. It is this aspect of the FBC process that has angered some riverfront property owners whose land stands to be affected.
The proposed FBC parameters have also perplexed another set of stakeholders: the artists and craftspersons – some 180 of them – who do their work, and in some cases live, in studios they have created over the years from spaces that once housed everything from a cotton mill to an icehouse. These sometimes near-derelict spaces attracted artisans to begin with because the rent was cheap, the owners being glad enough to have their properties occupied. Over time the former riverfront commercial district actually became an artists’ colony. It was given a name – the Riverfront Arts District (RAD) and began to be touted by the city as a tourist attraction where visitors could see tame painters, sculptors, carvers, and other creative workers in their natural habitats. This was fine with the artisans, who welcomed the potential walk-in business.
But the prospect of mandated gentrification has RAD colonists concerned, and rightly so: the master plan of the Asheville Area Riverfront Development Commission projects that average rents in the RAD will increase from $13 to anywhere from $28 – $33 per square foot as landlords are forced to bring their properties into line with the all-pervasive regulations of the FBC, so that many of the very tenants who developed and shaped the character of the RAD may no longer be able to afford to work there. “Retaining affordable artist workspace is [a] big item we heard about” in preliminary discussions,” Vrtunski said. Presumably more will be revealed during the charrette.
Another ongoing point of contention in the riverfront mix is the actual role of the AARRC and how much authority that hybrid body actually has. It is an 18-member board which has been meeting since 2009. It is comprised of Asheville and Woodfin council representatives, county commission members and the Asheville city manager, and its bylaws require that at least half its membership consist of riverfront property owners – which include several of the county and municipal members.
At the AARRC’s June meeting, Black community activist and consultant Dee Williams, attending her first AARRC meeting, inquired what, in a nutshell, the AARRC’s actual function was.
“Why don’t I just send you a copy of the creation ordinance and you can see for yourself?” suggested city planner Stephanie Monson Dahl, a city planner who has been made the Commission’s director. That would be fine, Williams said.
“We’re just advisors,” one commissioner said. “We don’t even have a bank account,” said another.
At that point, Commission Pattiy Torno, owner of the Curve Studios building on Riverside Drive, interjected, “We’ve been entirely too defensive in telling the public what we do.” Torno said the Commission needs to be ”more proactive” in getting ouor story out there and making sure people in the media get it right.”
Commissioners agreed, several praising an recent article by Asheville Citizen-Times reporter John Boyle which, they said, offered an accurate summary of the board’s activities.
“John is a good friend,” one commissioner said.