The character of Asheville's many distinct neighborhoods is changing quickly. Impacts of poorly-planned development are meaning more traffic, more parking shortages, more gentrification and higher prices squeezing out longtime residents. The things that make Asheville, "Asheville" to most residents -- ease of getting around, diverse and vibrant neighborhoods for working, shopping, and relaxing -- are in peril.
Four Principles for Strengthening Neighborhoods:
1. Neighborhoods should decide for themselves.
What does this mean? Many Asheville neighborhoods have recently taken the steps to examine their own character, write it down, and plan for their own futures. The rest should be helped in doing so. Once written, these self-generated visions should be drawn into Asheville's zoning and upcoming Comprehensive Plan. Decisions about where to place businesses, what style and size of houses and apartments can be built where, and many others, can be codified neighborhood-by-neighborhood using Form-based code and zoning overlays that draw from the knowledge and priorities of neighbors themselves. Oakley may want backyard apartments. West Asheville may want tiny homes. Southside may want inclusionary zoning. Instead of a set of rules that apply citywide, city planners can draw the boundaries of a neighborhood and overlay specific rules, RS-8-Kenilworth, instead of just RS-8 citywide.
2. Build and nuture neighborhood "centers" outside downtown and the River Arts.
What does this mean? Downtown is great and Haywood Road has its vibrant walking district, but most Asheville neighborhoods border big generic thoroughfares like Tunnel and Hendersonville Road. The city will begin by re-planning Patton Avenue around K-Mart and Tunnel Road around Innsbruck Mall, partnering with the DOT and property owners to create neighborhood-centered "nodes" where people can work, dine, and recreate without going downtown.
3. Let infrastructure catch up with population growth in the hardest-hit areas.
What does this mean? Big new developments like on Sweeten Creek and Mills Gap produce traffic studies that are supposed to show their effect on traffic will be minimal. Even a fairly large development on a busy road can easily claim to make a negligible difference in the background traffic over 20 years. What happens when four or five of these are approved on the same stretch or road in a short timespan? A rapid increase of congestion that no developer is accountable for. Requiring that developers measure the cumulative effect of projects approved around the same time, as many cities and states do, gives a clearer picture of what your traffic will look like in 1, 3, and 10 years. If a new development adds to an already-beleaguered road, it doesn't get approved until the infrastructure catches up.
4. Increase neighborhood representation with city-council districts.
What does this mean? Rich envisions a blended election system with three council districts (West, North and East/South) similar to the county election system. Districts would have similar numbers of voters and wouldn't be designed to punish or disenfranchise any constituency. According to UNC School of Government, council districts can increase racial diversity on council and, as a consequence, among staff. They can result in councils that pay more attention to the needs of their districts. There are potential pitfalls, and the districts proposed by the legislature last year would certainly have led to a fractious council of "ward bosses" only elected by a few hundred supporters, but those problems should be addressed rather than ignored. If the choice is districts imposed by Raleigh or a system designed by city residents themselves, the correct decision is obvious.