The vacant lot at 191 East Chestnut Street, site of the proposed 12-unit main apartment complex. The historic Patton-Parker house is visible in the background, across its back yard.
By Roger McCredie-The Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County, together with several neighborhood property owners, is preparing a protest petition in hopes of blocking development of an upscale 16-unit apartment complex on East Chestnut Street, in the historic district known as Chestnut Hill.
The City’s planning and zoning commission has given conditional zoning approval, including a total of six variances, to the architectural/development firm of Pearce, Brinkley, Cease and Lee (PBCL), using a new “density bonus” clause that allows a project to exceed the normal number of units allowed if the project is designed to bring “affordable development” to major city traffic corridors (in this case Charlotte Street). PBCL qualified for the density bonus by promising to convert an existing 1920’s-era four-unit apartment building on the acquired property to affordable housing units.
The existing 1920’s apartment building at 187 east Chestnut Street. PBCL plans to convert this fourplex to meet affordable housing requirements.
The project involves three contiguous lots designated 187, 189 and 191 East Chestnut Street. Running east to west towards Charlotte Street, 187 is the four-unit complex earmarked for renovation as affordable housing; 189 is The Ansonia, another 1920’s apartment building which is separately owned and not affected by the deal; and a vacant lot, once the site of another house, which backs up to the historic Patton-Parker House on the corner of Chestnut and Charlotte Streets.
Connecting the apartments at Number187 and the vacant lot at Number 191 is a strip of land at the rear of the Ansonia, also acquired by PBCL, on which the developer intends to build a strip of four single story rental units facing south towards downtown. On the vacant lot itself PBCL will construct the biggest part of the project, a four-story, twelve-unit building whose west wall will directly abut the Patton-Parker house property. Plans call for that wall, comprising all four floors of the building and therefore about 40 feet high, to square with the property line, leaving no buffer between the construction and the Patton-Parker back yard.
The project is scheduled for review and a vote by city council on December 10. By that time the preservation society and neighborhood residents hope to have enough support for their protest petition at least to force a supermajority council vote, in which approval of the PBCL project could be defeated by a single “nay.” Forcing a supermajority vote would be key to forestalling the project, since a conditional zoning contract can’t be tweaked; it must be accepted or rejected as is. “It’s a contract,” local preservation architect Jane Mathews said. “When you do a CZ it can’t be changed by council; it goes with the property.” Mathews is a member of the planning and zoning commission and cast one of two dissenting votes against the PBCL plans.
Jack Thompson, President of the Preservation Society, said the petition is being prepared “on behalf of the Parker family,” the present-day collateral descendants of Thomas Patton, Confederate officer and Asheville mayor, who built the house in 1869. Seven generations of Pattons and Parkers lived in the house until the last direct descendant died in 2011.
Objections to the PBCL project have centered around three points: its suitability, in terms of both proportion and design, for its setting; the possible domino effect such “spot zoning” could have on adjacent historic North Asheville neighborhoods; and the manner in which the deal was packaged and sold to the planning and zoning commission and presumably will be presented to city council.
PBCL, which recently merged with Clark Nexsen, another regional architectural powerhouse, is noted for large-scale commercial and institutional work such as airports, hospitals and corporate headquarters. It has won numerous architectural awards for innovative design and its creative mindset is dramatically postmodern. Its design for the main Chestnut Street units includes industrial-style siding and railings, street-level drive-in parking (the first floor, facing the street, presents a front of garage bays flanked by staircases), a top-level clerestory of storefront glass panels and, above that, a roof garden – all of which, critics say, is joltingly out of keeping with a tree-shaded neighborhood of Victorian, mission and arts-and-crafts style homes, built mostly between 1880 and 1920.
The contemplated main structure runs counter to the city’s “compatible infill” mandate for vacant lots, which requires that a structure be aesthetically harmonious with its surroundings, according to Mathews. For instance, “those storefront windows on the top floor are not residential in nature.
“Our [P&Z’s] job is to protect, preserve and enhance neighborhoods” and to insure that new construction accomplishes its purpose “without changing the character of the area,” Mathews said.
“The trouble with conditional zoning, which is what this project has been given, is that it’s very difficult to enforce. It’s not registered with the Register of Deeds. There’s very little tracking that can be done once the project has started,” Thompson said.
“Amen to that,” said a source close to the zoning process who spoke on condition of anonymity. “This project steps all over the ground rules. For instance that roof garden on top is habitable space and under code guidelines that makes it a fifth story, whereas the code only allows four stories [for this type of construction]. Making the first floor an indoor parking area isn’t compatible either – what you’ve got here is a front door that opens into a parking garage. This whole thing was designed by people who ought to know better, without any consideration of the surroundings it’s supposed to fit into.”
“We want to insure that this area, which is the Gateway to the historic north Asheville neighborhoods, is not left subject by precedents set through spot zoning exceptions, to gradual dissolution of the character and history that is so attractive to tourism and residential interests from Chestnut, to Albemarle Park, The Manor Grounds and Grove Park. The time is now to protect that Gateway,” said Kieta Osteen-Cochrane, a preservation society member who has lived all her life in the house her family built a few blocks away.
Word that opposition to the apartment complex was becoming solidified set off a local social media buzz. Objections to the project were called “thinly veiled racism” and “obstructionist,” and neighborhood residents were dismissed as “rich white nimbys [Not In My Back Yard]”. That thread, according to the anonymous source, “is just a kneejerk reaction from people who have their own agendas or are just plain misinformed. They obviously aren’t aware that this isn’t an affordable housing issue. The only ‘affordable housing’ being created here is the four units in that old apartment building that [PBCL] fixed up as a sop to planning and zoning so it could technically qualify for the [density bonus] loophole. If [PBCL] had been content with six units instead of pushing for twelve, they’d have come in according to code and not had to pull their little end run.”
North Asheville resident Mark DeVerges told city council members in an e-mail that as an “ordinary man on the street” he was “frustrated and disappointed with “how [council’s] fellow citizens are treated in the planning and development process.” DeVerges said he has tried unsuccessfully to engage city officials for several weeks on specific points relating to the granting of conditional zoning to PBCL, particularly after a requested meeting between residents and the P&Z appeals board that P&Z ultimately called on such short notice that only three residents were able to attend.
DeVerges said city manager Gary Jackson said he had referred DeVerge’s concerns to public works director Cathy Ball, but that Ball has so far not replied.
“I personally find it upsetting that this experience seems to be the status quo for Asheville’s citizens… particularly people that have grown up here and volunteer in the community,” DeVerges told council members.
“Please [note] that while our neighborhood has concerns about the underlying components of this proposed development – these additional affronts to the process have made this all the more confounding and vexing,” DeVerges added.