At last Tuesday’s meeting, the city’s new Planning & Urban Design Director Todd Okolichany presented a well-organized report on “Development Review and Preserving Downtown Character.” Newly-elected Councilwoman Julie Mayfield was quick to point out council was looking at two issues. The first was development, and she didn’t know if council was alarmed about the pace, kind, or size of construction. The second was an interest in preserving the local, small-business nature of downtown. She said she couldn’t recommend what strategies would work best until she knew which problem the city was trying to tackle.
Okolichany had given council a number of suggestions on how to check change. But first of all, he provided some data that indicated the perception may be worse than the facts. Since the DTMP was adopted, city council has reviewed only four projects, and three of them were for county government buildings. Construction heights were coming in considerably under threshold as well. In the central business district (CBD) core, a maximum height of 145 ft is allowed. The highest new residential construction was only 62 ft, and the highest hotel was 115 ft. Outside the core, where heights up to 265 ft are allowed, the highest residential structure was 71 ft; the highest hotel, 75 ft.
If council desired more control over construction, Okolichany recommended a number of strategies. First, the body could go back to using the conditional use permit. The advantage to council is they would be empowered with restricting uses of structures. A drawback would be, due to the quasi-judicial nature of the hearings, council would not be allowed to discuss projects with developers and thus negotiate. From developers’ perspectives, the city would earn back its reputation for pulling fast ones on developers who had in good faith complied with all the lower-level review boards had requested.
During public comment at the end of the meeting, Byron Greiner, who has experience serving on both the Asheville Downtown Association and Downtown Commission, assured council a lot of negotiation goes on in the lower review levels. Developers, he said, are anxious to learn the process and often meet with the boards twice. The boards, in turn, want developers to present council with better projects. But developers need to know the rules and processes. He reminded council of Tony Fraga, who honored all the suggestions of the lower boards, and sunk hundreds of thousands of dollars into designing and redesigning, only to have his project shot down by city council. “I don’t want to see a developer go through that again,” said Greiner.
A second tool council could use would be to expand conditional zoning hearings to the entire CBD. Currently, council uses this process only on development in the core of the CBD. Council would gain more power through this process by being able to negotiate prior to public hearings, and it could impose conditions subject to developer consent. The developer, however, would again be open to the whims of council, which could prove costly. Okolichany stressed council could use zoning to control a project’s type of use (retail vs. industrial), footprint, or height; but not who owns the property. That is, the General Assembly is not going to allow a No Chain district.
A third suggestion would be to create an overlay district, like a historic or conservation district. Through UDO amendments, council could introduce new design guidelines. The Downtown Commission has a list of guidelines, but their oversight is constrained as mandatory review/voluntary compliance. Since the city has already sent out an RFP for a consultant to revise its Comprehensive Plan, it was suggested the list might be incorporated into the revision. Not necessarily advocating it, Mayfield threw out the idea of possibly creating an architectural review board.
Other tools suggested for preserving the downtown character, which is code for banning big boxes and chains, would be to work through the newly-created downtown coordinator position. The coordinator is to be the point person for all things downtown. Mom and pop shops might also be able to gain advantage through partnerships and incubators, terms and conditions written into a historical preservation master plan, historic tax credits, incentives as grants or waivers for small businesses, or recommendations from a small business study. Another means of giving local entrepreneurs an edge would be the Startup in a Day program launched with a $50,000 grant from the US Small Business Administration. This program is intended to streamline the application process.
Smith feared hoteliers had been “exploitative.” He advocated strategies stated in the staff report that included: (1) Support for businesses that contribute to sustainable, inclusive economic development, (2) Incentives for property owners who prioritize reasonable rent increases or property owners who enter into deed restrictions or trusts, (3) Partnership with organizations that can offer support in negotiating leases and protecting tenant rights, (4) Incubation of small, creative startups to foster and elevate the small business entrepreneur, and (5) Community investment and partnership with a nonprofit land trust.
Summing up comments from council members, Mayor Esther Manheimer directed staff to draft proposals, which would have to work their way through all applicable processes, to bring Level II projects back under city council review, expand reviews reserved for CBD core projects to the entire CBD, lower maximum building heights, adopt architectural guidelines with mandatory compliance, and bringing hotels under special council review. Much of the work would be unloaded on council’s Planning and Economic Development Committee, headed by Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler.
On a bright note, Councilman Cecil Bothwell expressed concerns shared by conservative think-tankers about the causative relationship between centralized planning and economic sluggishness. Speaking of plans for the land across from the St. Lawrence Basilica later in the meeting, he said, “I would really love to see this go forward with a lot of citizen input and a lot of ideas advanced instead of coming up with a [motioning with monster hands] plan. Eugh.”