Local priorities

 Five Questions Answered about Local Issues.

1. Yes, Rich supports the hotel review.

What does this mean? Prior to this year, city council has only reviewed new developments downtown, including hotels, if they are above a certain size or height. New ordinances to approved in February lowered the threshold for review to any hotel over 20 rooms. Rich supports this action. To be clear, denying hotel applicants at city council won't create more affordable housing or stop the rush of gentrification in Asheville. That said, it's the clear wish of thousands of Asheville voters that hotels receive greater scrutiny. The city doesn't need more low-wage jobs or infrastructure-intensive uses that offer little to locals, not without clear local benefits in return. The nearly-a-dozen recent downtown hotels in Asheville have been allowed to start construction with serious deficiencies in parking and other design considerations. The hotel market, which produces nearly $20 million a year in room taxes for its own use, unaccountable to citizens, is arguably getting full and shouldering out other land uses. For all these reasons, among others, this move is an imperfect-but-necessary first step to tackling a persistent community concern.

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2. Yes, Rich would allow some vacation rentals, regulated and capped.

What does this mean? The arguments on both sides of the "Airbnb" rental debate are valid: Left unchecked, vacation rentals do have the potential to drive up home prices and leave threatened neighborhoods hollowed-out, mini-versions of vacation towns like Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head with few local residents and no racial or economic diversity. We can also admit that renting to tourists is an economic necessity for some and that Asheville has a long tradition of "boarding houses" and live-and-let-live attitude. A reasonable compromise by reasonable people can happen, but it is not the current city policy, which pairs draconian bans and fines with an unlimited number of so-called "homestay"-type rentals and unregulated downtown and River Arts STRs. The compromise should come from caring and committed people on both sides, something like the Option 2 presented to council in 2016. Rich's preference will be for Conditional Use Permits approved by Planning and Zoning Commission for vacation rentals, that takes into account each applicant's particular circumstances (parking, neighborhood attitudes, number of other rentals on the block) with a hard cap at 3% of the housing in any defined neighborhood, maximum one unit per landlord, and preference for locally-based landlords over out-of-area speculative investors. Where the legality of any rule is in question, as in most of the above proposals, Rich would allow it to be resolved in court. It's time to move on, bring a black market out of hiding, and give some reassurance and peace to neighborhoods forced onto opposite sides of this.

3. Yes, Rich still supports the Basilica Park.

What does this mean? The Downtown Master Plan calls for two more downtown parks, including one on the corner near the Civic Center. A public process is leading toward the lot being partially developed, mostly for complex city-planning reasons, i.e., "activation": the lot is surrounded by a 20-foot retaining wall that needs a building in front of it, if it's going to be useful and appealing to locals, or the intersection of Page and Flint Streets straightened out to make more space for both a local, mixed-use building and a public park.

While understanding that point, Rich continues to insist that the maximum amount of space remain under city control as a true public park and plaza, not a hostile, unusable "private plaza" controlled by a private property owner. In response to downtown residents' concerns that a new park would attract more homeless loiterers and "undesirables," Rich believes loitering can never be a reason not to have parks. It's the city's responsibility, not the residents', to maintain good design, policing and programming, to keep any park in the city a desirable place for everybody.

4. Yes, Rich opposes the Duke Energy substations.

What does this mean? Citing increased demand for electricity downtown, Duke is proposing bringing three sets of high-voltage lines up from the river, one to a proposed substation next to Isaac Dickson Elementary in Montford, one to the corner of Asheland Avenue and Hillard (next to Rich's office), and one to the old Ford Dealership on Biltmore Avenue, across from Kenilworth. Duke will admit these are not great locations, but it was driven to snap up land by the tight real-estate market here and the community's rising power use. Rich feels any location adjoining homes or schools should be permanently ruled out. The city should engage with Duke to identify better locations and/or lead a land swap for city-owned land. And zoning should require that substations be screened 100% from streets and homes, the footprint of any substations should be condensed, and they should be enclosed in false-fronts or buildings whenever feasible. Nothing signals blight like 80-foot substation towers behind a chain-link fence. The health aspects of nearby high-voltage lines are up for debate, but the city should be clear: not in anyone's backyard.

5. Yes, Rich believes the city will fill in, but it shouldn't change your experience of living here.

What does this mean? Asheville can't stop people from moving here. Refusing to build more homes or businesses won't stop them from coming: it will just mean a bidding war for what's left, with only the richest and whitest out-of-towners available to afford skyrocketing prices, a completely gentrified community unrecognizable to any of us. There's no wall we can build around town, no check on Asheville's appeal. We can stop advertising so much in out-of-state magazines, but the word is already out. This is a hot location. For more recent arrivals, that may be how you came to discover it. Your house is in someone's backyard, most likely, some formerly empty lot or working family's former home. It goes against Asheville's reputation as a welcoming, liberal place to pull up the ladder behind us. And it won't work, no matter what anyone says.

What we can preserve is our life is Ashevilleans, what we love about this town and the reason we stay. We love our homes, which should be protected from out-of-scale development looming over them from next door. We love our quiet neighborhood streets, our local parks, our ease of getting around (though we love that less as time goes on.) For years we loved a feeling that we've mostly lost, that this is a place you could get ahead without working too hard or abandoning your principles. We hate hotels because we feel left behind by wealth created right in our midst... for somebody else, while we struggle just to pay bills. We hate overdevelopment because it churns up our roads, dumps out traffic, and makes a bundle for someone who won't be around the neighborhood long enough to feel the consequences. We hate our tax bills because local government says we're suddenly worth a lot more, but we don't realize it unless we sell (if we're lucky enough to own) and still the storm drain in front of the house gets clogged and dumps muddy water in the yard. We hate how the block party or free festival we loved got canceled, everyone was too busy working to plan it, and the one that replaced it is priced for tourists. We hate city council, except when they hang rainbow flags and we love them, because they're supposed to be our champions, and their efforts are too few to feel in East Asheville or Long Shoals. Someone's getting ahead in this town, but it's not most of us, and the causes seem to be glaring: the tacky new house on the corner, the long wait to turn left out of the neighborhood, the job listings that are all dead-end service work, except when they're the hospital.

But the fact of the matter is Asheville could double in population and not feel any different. It could have a job that sustains you through a career. It could get ahead on the traffic and make walking and getting around safe in all our neighborhoods. It could have close neighborhood places, our own shopping and dining secrets kept from the tourists, and pocket parks and community gardens to bring beauty and nature into the city. It could bring the wealth of the hotel boom to bear on replacing sidewalks and sustaining locals in their stores and studios -- it could require it, in fact. It could preserve the cores of neighborhoods as they are, and replace the blight of strips like Patton and Tunnel and Hendersonville with stores and services we want to use, that we can afford to use, with homes for young families and professionals above them. It could feel like a place local government is actively championing, that locals are building, and we could feel like we're being lifted by it as it goes.

What this means is called a lot of different things, some less complimentary. "New Urbanism" is one. But mostly it means a lot of diligent hard work driven by the community itself, not being reactive as someone else's big plans come up for approval but making big plans for ourselves as a bright town of daring and committed advocates, new and old, rich and poor, together. If that sounds harder than pulling a big lever in City Hall that's labeled "NO MORE!" that's because it is. Rich has been there for years, doing the work. There is no lever. There's just what we can do for ourselves.