WHEN IT COMES TO GROWTH IN AND AROUND ASHEVILLE, MEMORIES ARE SHORT.
When it comes to growth in and around Asheville, memories are short.
Many newer residents have no recollection of Asheville being anything other than a thriving, perhaps even overcrowded hub of quirky fun, restaurants and art galleries.
“I think Asheville had about 10 minutes where we were in that sweet spot between boarded up windows downtown and too many people,” Mayor Esther Manheimer said.
She said she speaks with mayors in Rust Belt cities who have the opposite problem.
“The mayors I talk to who are experiencing atrophy are suffering at all levels — education, schools, jobs, basic services, handling the debt of the city, not enough revenue to cover the needs,” Manheimer said. “We’re not having that, but nobody is touting what we’re not experiencing, which are all those problems that go with that kind of atrophy.”
So yes, some cities would like to have Asheville’s growth problems. But they are still problems, and Manheimer said she and other elected officials — and the community at large — have to address them.
The Citizen-Times’ seven-part series on growth explored many of these concerns and offered some ideas on how to cope, how the area should grow and what it will take from the community. Here’s a look at some takeaways:
The Asheville metro area’s population has grown in each year since the federal government began to track that statistic in 1969.
Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson and Madison counties — which make up the metro area — reached a population of 442,316 in 2014, the most recent year from which data is available, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, which released the new figures last week.
That number stood at 244,960 in 1969.
“Growth is going to happen,” said Mai Thi Nguyen, an associate professor in the Department of City & Regional Planning at the UNC Chapel Hill.
Attempts to limit growth by cities with popularity similar to Asheville’s have proved unsuccessful, Nguyen said in a Thursday interview.
Instead, area leaders should focus on “smarter growth,” she said.
Nguyen defined that as pursuing policies that preserve Asheville’s character as the number of residents swell, while being mindful of maintaining the amenities people expect.
Examples Nguyen identified included density bonuses for developers and mandating inclusionary affordable-housing.
But Jack Cecil, president of Asheville-based Biltmore Farms, a real estate development company, expressed caution about implementing a mandatory inclusionary affordable-housing policy during a Citizen-Times forum on growth earlier this month.
“If you put affordable housing in developments without the (financial) support from the city” and other entities, banks often won’t offer loans for the projects, Cecil said.
Nguyen, however, who was a panelist with Cecil at the same forum, said in Thursday’s interview that developers are going to make money. “How much is the question.”
Asheville city officials and developers must collaborate so the two groups “can make the numbers work,” Nguyen said.
That is a point Cecil also agreed with, emphasizing during the forum the need for more public-private partnerships in financing affordable-housing projects.
Buncombe County’s population will continue to grow but its growth rate will gradually decline, the State Demographics branch of the Office of State Budget and Management says.
Median age – the point at which half are younger, half older – will increase faster than the state as a whole, according to the agency.
Projected population/Five-year growth rate
2015 254,344 6.5%
2020 269,687 6%
2025 285,030 5.7%
2030 300,372 5.4%
2035 315,714 5.1%
Projected median age
A lack of affordable housing is a central problem with the growth we’re having, and more money will help, but it won’t solve the problem. It’s a complex issue that will require cooperation from governments, the private sector, social services agencies, and developers.
From 2007-13, Asheville and Buncombe County sunk a combined $17.4 million into affordable housing developments, with funding coming from federal, city and county funding, according to a report commissioned by the city and called the Affordable Housing Scorecard.
During that time, the Asheville Housing Trust Fund accounted for $1.7 million in spending, while $3.6 million came through Buncombe. Those efforts resulted in 461 rental units and 223 homes on the market between 2007-13.
The report, which Mai Thi Nguyen of UNC Chapel Hill, authored, found that direct government efforts to create affordable housing here produced more than double the totals of comparable cities in North and South Carolina.
Still, the local apartment occupancy rate hovers around 1 percent, and locals say it’s tough to make enough money to afford rents.
At the Citizen-Times forum on growth earlier this month, Nguyen suggested Asheville consider passing a one-cent property tax dedicated to affordable housing, as the city of Durham has done.
In a telephone interview, Durham Mayor Bill Bell said the council voted unanimously to impose the tax in 2014 and it has created an annual stream of $2.4 million for affordable housing. They have dedicated some of the money but also have hired a consultant to study where the funds would be spent best.
“Nobody has complained,” Bell said of the tax, adding that one benefit is that the revenues increase as more properties are built.
Like Asheville, Durham’s downtown has enjoyed a renaissance, with a half-dozen market rate apartments going up in recent years.
“One proposal I’ve proposed to the county is we might want to consider rental assistance for apartments in the downtown for (low-income residents),” Bell said. “We want it to be affordable, not just for persons at the market rate, but also for those who are below the market rate.”
Manheimer said that while that one-cent tax may sound like a major revenue source, the city has simply chosen to fund affordable housing through other channels, namely through the general fund and from a designation through the city’s long-term capital fund.
A one-cent boost on the city’s property tax rate would generate about $1.1 million annually.
The city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund has a current balance of $1.1 million, with $820,000 of that committed.
For the 2016 fiscal year, the city has dedicated $750,000, with $250,000 of that going to move the parks maintenance operation away from its quarters on Hilliard Avenue so the section can be repurposed for affordable housing. The city plans to dedicate $2 million to the fund in fiscal year 2018 and again in fiscal year 2020.
But it won’t be enough to solve the problem.
“It is pretty difficult to bootstrap yourself out of an affordable housing crisis just with tax dollars,” Manheimer said. “Given the needs — the thousands of units needed — and given the difference even an aggressive city Asheville can make, we’re talking hundreds of units.”
Scott Dedman, executive director of Mountain Housing Opportunities, a nonprofit that builds affordable housing, said he’s just hoping to galvanize the community to “significantly reduce the annual increase in need” for affordable units.
The number of households in Buncombe that are “rent burdened” — paying more than 30 percent of their household income toward rent —stood at 15,930 for the five-year period running from 2009-13, a 23 percent increase over the previous five-year span, according to Syneva Economics, based in Western North Carolina.
Dedman says the county is seeing an increase of more than 500 households a year in severe levels of need, meaning they’re paying more than 40-50 percent of their income for rent.
“I’m not asking that we meet all of the need right away, just that we stop falling behind so fast,” Dedman said.
His projections suggest that “$5.6 million of local public and private investment could add 240 new affordable and workforce units — an average below $25,000 per unit,” Dedman said.
“This is more than $4 million increase over what we as a local community are investing now, I believe. In some years, 200-300 new units of affordable/workforce housing supply would dramatically slow the local increase in the most severe housing cost burden, and in all years it would significantly improve our situation.”
But, as Manheimer points out, public funding, or even public and private funding together, likely won’t be enough.
“The biggest thing that can happen is nationally we start to see wage growth again,” Manheimer said. “Nationally, we have wage stagnation.”
Despite boasting of North Carolina’s lowest unemployment rate in September at 4.3 percent, Asheville and its residents have not questioned whether the city has enough jobs, but whether the city has enough of the right types of jobs.
At the Citizen-Times growth forum earlier this month, Dr. Mai Thi Nguyen said some jobs, like health care and education, prove somewhat immune to economic downturns. Successful cities are ones that have diversified their economies, she said.
“You can’t just have tourism,” she said. “You have to have businesses and industries that are somewhat recession-proof.”
One area where Asheville can improve is its technology sector.
While regular events for the startup community, such as 1 Million Cups Asheville and Pitch for Pitchers, bring members of this sector together, it won’t mean anything if Asheville cannot find, recruit and retain the talent needed to fill these jobs.
Venture Asheville, an initiative spearheaded by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, is trying to do three major things to help create the high-wage jobs that often accompany the tech sector.
Josh Dorfman, who serves as Venture Asheville’s executive director, can distill the to-do list to three priorities: Connect startups with the talent they need. Foster mentorship and networking opportunities that keep high-growth ventures from moving away. Third, find the capital that startups need to take their business to the next level without having to take their business out of town.
“When you have the mechanisms in place for folks who are moving here to be able to plug into the startup scene, then it’s a solution. That’s what we’re striving very hard to continue to build,” Dorfman said.
The pace of construction has picked up, but it is still below what Buncombe County saw during the middle of the last decade, which was an unusually busy period for the construction industry.
Within the city of Asheville, the total value of construction permits issued for new commercial and residential construction and renovation last year was still well below 2008’s total, according to city figures.
The number of new residential units, single-family or multifamily, permitted in all of Buncombe County last year was less than half the figure for 2006.
Housing starts bottomed out in 2011 and have been rising since, according to numbers compiled by Knoxville, Tennessee-based research firm The Market Edge. They were up 11.1 percent for the first three quarters of 2015 over the same period in 2014.
New housing units, Buncombe County
Just last week, the owner of 51 Grill, a restaurant in an Exxon station on Merrimon Avenue, announced he is selling the .7-acre parcel to a hotel chain, CN Hotels of Greensboro.
That company withdrew a rezoning request two weeks ago just before an Asheville City Council meeting. Plans called for a five-story, 104-room hotel with 94 parking spaces, located on land next to I-240 and just east of the Exxon station.
But the land sale likely means the project will come back. In all, 17 hotels are in the pipeline for 2016, 2017 or beyond in Buncombe County — a total of 1,659 new hotel rooms.
Six are in the works downtown, including a major transformation of the BB&T Building into a luxury hotel, a project that comes before City Council next month.
Scheduled for completion in 2017, the renovated building will comprise the 133-room hotel, 41 condominiums, a hotel restaurant, a 2,500-square-foot separate leased restaurant with access to North Pack Square and 1,650 square feet of retail space that will face College Street.
Buncombe County has about 70 hotels and motels, but from the end of 2009 until last month, only two new ones had opened, said John McKibbon, CEO of the McKibbon Hotel Group, which is behind the BB&T project.
“From 2009 through 2015, the supply of new hotels grew by 3 percent, while the demand for hotels grew by 37 percent,” McKibbon said, adding that two new hotels opening now, four more in 2016, and three more in 2017.
“Some of the others you have heard about are replacing older hotels,” he said.
The Howard Johnson and the Sleep Inn near Biltmore Village have or will be demolished, McKibbon said, and several older hotels will be phased out.
Hotel building tends to be cyclical, and many cities nationwide are going through booms similar to Asheville’s, said Marla Tambellini, vice president of marketing and deputy director at the Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“Generally, as more supply comes to market that will level out the occupancies,” she said, adding that the construction boom likely will ebb once all the new rooms come online. “That’s traditionally what has happened. It’s a matter of simple supply and demand economics.”
“Growth” was the main word on the lips of voters interviewed Nov. 3, City Council election day.
That election will now usher in two new council members who as candidates pushed back against fast-paced hotel and other development and promoted the idea of a park on a $2.6 million city-owned downtown lot — the “Pit of Despair” — across from the U.S. Cellular Center.
That pair, Brian Haynes and Keith Young, and those aligned with them may in fact make concrete changes shortly after taking office Dec. 1.
But the new elected officials and those supporting them may find some frustrating limits to what they can do in the face of market forces as well as local, state and federal law, say those such as outgoing Vice Mayor Marc Hunt, who believes he lost the race in part because of fears about growth.
Those concerns included Duke Energy’s proposal to build a substation near a school, the proliferation of large hotels that critics said did little to help locals and a booming tourism trade that hasn’t meant prosperity for most residents.
“The park capitalized on the fears and concerns of people about growth or not enough green space or a power plant substation or not being able to ‘Make my way in this economy,’” Hunt said.
Some changes the new council might make include taking over the power to turn down midsized “Level II” projects.
All downtown hotels now under construction fall in that category. Currently council only reviews the biggest “Level III” projects, such as the proposed renovation of the BB&T building into an “upper-upscale” hotel which will soon face a vote. The council may also allow property owners to rent out accessory dwelling units, such as basement apartments and “granny cottages” on a short-term basis to tourists. That practice is now forbidden in most of the city.
Larger changes though, such as stopping new hotel construction or other large projects may be difficult because of many layers of law. Under state law, moratoriums in general are very difficult — or simply impossible, some say.
And zoning must not be so restrictive that it precludes an owner from developing a piece of land, according to the U.S. Supreme Court.
City rules, meanwhile, require the council to make decisions based on Asheville’s land-use plan. That means when dealing with developers council members often have to negotiate to get changes they want, such as the inclusion of affordable housing. And that means the process often looks less like a battle and more like a dance.
Areas east of the French Broad River and west of downtown will see infrastructure improvements during the second half of this decade, then even bigger road projects are set to begin in southern Buncombe County around 2020.
City government recently began acquiring right-of-way for a project to rework a 2.2-mile section of Riverside Drive and Lyman Street to include a greenway path, landscaping and parking. Work from the Lyman Street/Amboy Road intersection north to a point near Riverside Cemetery is scheduled to begin in 2017 and be completed in 2019 or 2020.
A $174 million project to widen Interstate 26 from four lanes to eight in southern Buncombe County is to begin in 2020. The project will stretch from Interstate 40 to the Henderson County line.
Future projects will be even larger. Work to reconfigure the I-26/I-40/I-240 interchange on the west side of town and widen a short section of I-40 is to begin in 2021 and the state Department of Transportation’s tentative start date for a new crossing of the French Broad River north of Bowen Bridge is 2023.
Construction of a wider I-240 in West Asheville is at least a decade away under DOT’s long-range plan.
The agency also plans to widen U.S. 19-23 from Broadway north through Woodfin, beginning in 2022.
City government is studying whether it should build additional parking downtown and there is still interest in increasing use of its bus system. Ridership has increased slowly, rising by 1.9 percent in 2014-15.
“Interestingly, if you talk to any urban designer, the focus is public transportation, not parking,” Manheimer said. “I don’t know if Asheville is ready for that. I hear a lot of pushback on that, and that there’s just a desire for additional parking.”
Smaller household sizes and renewed interest in urban living mean developers will find multifamily residential projects within the city limits will be in demand in coming years, says Blake Esselstyn, a former Asheville city planner who is now an independent urban planning consultant.
“As of 2010, at least 30 percent of Buncombe County households were single-person households and I expect that to increase,” he said.
Many people living by themselves won’t want or can’t afford a single-family home and will rent an apartment or buy a condominium instead, Esselstyn said.
Sites along major commercial corridors in the city are prime candidates for that type of construction, he said.
Examples of properties that would lend themselves to redevelopment for apartment or condo complexes are Innsbruck Mall on Tunnel Road in East Asheville and the site of a former Ingles supermarket at the corner of Haywood Road and Patton Avenue, he said.
The River Arts District could see significant changes as city government invests in infrastructure in the area and New Belgium Brewing brings more visitors.
But, surely a good share of the area’s growth will continue occur in suburban areas where property costs are lower.
“Once you get outside the city limits … there is land available” for single-family subdivisions, Esselstyn said.
Staff writers Joel Burgess, Caitlin Byrd and Mike Cronin contributed to this report.