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Council disses staff’s recommendation against affordable housing

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The problem was, the land was zoned for industrial use, and the city, conflicting with its strategic goal of pouring it on to increase its affordable housing stock, has another policy encouraging the preservation of large industrial tracts. It serves to compensate for the exodus of large job creators over the last two decades. Besides being large, the tract was three miles from I-26, six miles from the airport, proximate to the Norfolk Southern train tracks, and not in the floodplain.

Even so, the parcel was surrounded by a number of new apartment complexes, now offering 800 new units within two miles, causing former Planning Director Judy Daniel to suggest to developer Rusty Pulliam that the property’s zoning was no longer applicable. What’s more, Ben Teague, senior vice president and executive director of the Economic Development Coalition, provided the developer’s counsel, Lou Bissette, a letter saying the land was not best suited for national, global clients. It was the former site of Plasticorp, and other than being used as a temporary storage facility, the property had remained vacant nine years.

Pulliam’s original plans had undergone significant changes after being opened for community design. Councilwoman Julie Mayfield said in her perfect world, the project would have been a super-high-density, mixed-use, multimodal node. But, engaging pragmatism, she expressed her appreciation that the city now requires developers of large projects to meet with the prospective community before getting too deep in the design review process. She thanked Pulliam for listening, in two meetings; and said, “There’s nothing like a good crisis to pull people together.”

To appease neighbors, the developer’s team had agreed to ditch plans for a few buildings on the periphery of the property that could be put to neighborhood commercial use. The residences were consolidated into two buildings from four, and the team agreed to rent-control fifteen percent of the units for fifteen years. The forty-one units in question would first be offered at rents defined as reasonable to a household earning 80 percent of Area Median Income (AMI) by the city’s Affordable Housing Standards in the year they go online. In each subsequent year, the agreement would forbid the landlord from raising rents more than three percent. This was a compromise from the twenty units for ten years the community had demanded.

Traffic was a tremendous concern. The area’s 800 new apartments, 600 of which have yet to come online, are sure to worsen an already loggerjammed circulation pattern. People supporting the project stressed that legally it was not the developer’s responsibility to get rid of traffic problems, he was only charged with making sure his project would not make things worse.

In an unprecedented move, Pulliam agreed to include a number of improvements to the local transportation infrastructure in the project’s first phase of construction, before building permits would issue. Upgrades included coordinating the developer’s provision of turn lanes and new signals with improvements on Sweeten Creek and Mills Gap roads Bissette has been persuading the Department of Transportation (DOT) to expedite. Also thrown in were pedestrian amenities, including 450 feet of off-site sidewalk, which included negotiating rights of way with the railroad. The development team reminded council that if, on an odd chance a large industry were to locate on the property, no council hearing would be required, and traffic could be severely terrible.

Councilman Brian Haynes asked about the value of the property. He was told the developer purchased it in 2012 for $1,330,000 when the list price was $2 million. It had been offered a long time by an Australian company, which was happy to close quickly at a lower price. Haynes asked what it might sell for when the project was completed, and that number was estimated between $2.2 and $2.7 million. Haynes was concerned council might be setting a precedent for developers to buy up industrial land, rezone it, and then flip it.

Speaking in public comment, Carr Swicegood said the development would rid his neighborhood of an eyesore. Bissette said developed it would garner an annual $650,000 in ad valorem taxes for the city’s coffers. Councilman Cecil Bothwell, like the fifth angel in the Book of Revelation, urged the developer to “hurt not the trees;” Mayor Esther Manheimer stressed the importance of neighbors and property owners engaging in “give and take” with development; and then council actually approved the project 7-0.

In Other Matters –

Council unanimously approved a couple of other major developments. One was a six-story, 88-unit housing unit to be appended to Asheville Buncombe County Christian Ministries’ (ABCCM) Veterans’ Restoration Quarters. The style is neomodern and reflects a south Tel Aviv neighborhood feel. For this project, council seemed more excited about the cross-laminated timber (CLT) that would be used in construction, than the low-income housing to be created. A typical CLT board consists of about seven layers of crisscrossed, kiln-dried, mini-boards. The material is advertised as being light-weight but strong, a good insulator, resistant to fire and earthquakes, and capable of practically eliminating on-site waste.

The developers of another project requested an amendment to their site plan. The original proposal came before council last September as a repurposing the United Methodist Church in Haw Creek as maker space for more secular community support. A special selling point for a city desperate for affordable housing was a school that would teach people how to build tiny houses, ten of which would remain on-site for student housing. Well, the neighbors didn’t like the idea of the noise and traffic, and the developer couldn’t work the tiny homes into the budget, so the tiny houses were scrapped, a move council deemed not even worthy of mention.

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