• A larger, denser downtown with taller buildings
• Outlying urban "clusters" in Woodfin, Biltmore Park, Waynesville and other areas
• Viable mass transit -- or huge traffic problems
It's hard to live in Asheville without confronting development. In one form or another, it seems to be a concern to folks across the political spectrum as both the city and surrounding areas continue growing dramatically, with little sign of any slowdown.
But how about further down the road? What will Asheville's streets and skyline look like in 2027?
"There are a lot of changes coming. You'll see a huge difference in areas like Broadway, Merrimon, Haywood Road -- they'll all be a lot more urban," predicts former Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford, who helped craft the city's 2025 Plan. "The social community will change with that; there will be more urban living and more of a community downtown."
Development consultant Gerald Green, a former city planner, also foresees a more urban Asheville in 20 years. "Much as I like icons like the Hot Dog King, you'll see a lot of those old places being redeveloped in the future," says Green. "Downtown will be denser, taller: more people and a lot less surface parking. How affordable the housing is remains to be seen. Some of the city's rules on slopes and storm water are going to make it very difficult to build affordable housing."
Denser development and more people seems to be the consensus concerning Asheville's future, but how this will affect residents depends on who you ask. Elaine Lite, a founding member of the Mountain Voices Alliance who is seeking a seat on City Council, sees this kind of future as bleak.
"If development continues at this pace, this will be a very unpleasant place to live in 10 years, let alone 20," she observes. "We're on the cusp right now; we're having too much growth too fast. There's more building permits being issued now than anytime since the 1920s."
To avoid that fate, Lite believes Asheville needs a temporary moratorium on major development and subdivisions, height restrictions on downtown buildings, more affordable housing, and more rigorous -- and strictly enforced -- zoning.
"If we tackle this now, this could still be a pretty nice place to live in the future," says Lite.
Joe Minicozzi, an urban planner who is president of the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods, agrees, saying unchecked growth could lead to Asheville becoming nothing more than "a bumpy Charlotte" by 2027.
Looking into his own crystal ball, Minicozzi emphasizes the need to consider the bigger picture. "We have to start talking about everything around Asheville," he maintains. "If all the development outside the city is ugly and unfocused, we'll be in trouble -- whatever happens in the city. If you drop a glass of fine wine into sewage, you'll still have sewage. Asheville can be spectacular, but that won't matter if it's surrounded by junk."
The whole area, he says, "will have to keep its values. People want buildings with feel; they want communities. That will make or break where we are in 20 years."
Chuck Tessier, a former Buncombe County planning director who's been involved with many downtown redevelopment projects, envisions development in the county coalescing into a series of urban clusters.
"There will be a cluster for Biltmore Park, a cluster for Woodfin and the downtown they're building, clusters even in Waynesville and Haywood County," he says. "The traffic will be in between these areas and a much more urban downtown [Asheville]. At the same time, I think we'll do a fairly good job of protecting the slopes -- both the city and the county seem to be going after that."
Like Shuford and Green, Tessier sees downtown Asheville becoming bigger, denser and livelier. "Expect 10- to 15-story buildings, about 5,000 people living downtown, and a much more vibrant street life," he predicts. "You'll see downtown extending into areas around Market Street and out towards Mission Hospital."
But there's a catch, notes Tessier. To make all this work "and not have traffic that's unbearable, we're going to have to develop better transit. I'd want to see nonstop bus service between Asheville and the clusters around it; we'll need connectors to Woodfin and certain segments of the county, at least. We want people to be able to work, shop and play here without getting in their cars."
Without enhanced mass transit, he warns, the traffic will overwhelm the city. "Whatever happens with I-26, we've got a city growing by 20,000 to 30,000 people" over the next 20 years. "You can't build enough roads to accommodate them all if everyone's driving their own car. We need transit -- and that's not going to happen by itself."
Green makes the same point, saying that the much more urban downtown he foresees "will only work if we really take the initiative on getting good mass transit -- otherwise, the traffic will just be too much."
Lite, however, takes a more pessimistic view. "You can't force people to live in certain places," she asserts. "Ten years ago, it might have been viable to go for density over sprawl. If we try that now, we'll have Any City, U.S.A., here, and they'll still end up raping the mountains."
But whatever the future holds for Asheville, Shuford believes the city will continue to grow.
"We're within a day's drive of two-thirds of the country, and there's 350,000 people turning 50 every year," he notes. "Between that and our quality of life, we're fairly well immune from the housing market troubles you've seen elsewhere. Unless there's a drastic turn in policy here, I don't see that changing."