The developer is asking Asheville City Council to approve plans that include the drive-thrus. Council must change the zoning on two small lots that are included in the project in order for the developer, Charlotte-based Merrifield Patrick Vermillion, to build as proposed. The property is the 4.19-acre tract located at the corner of Merrimon Avenue and Chestnut Street, with borders along Holland and Eloise Streets. It was previously home to a furniture store and before that, home to the Deal Buick car dealership.
A representative of MPV said the property would need two drive-thrus to attract tenants. He hoped a bank and a coffee shop would set up there. “We think it's very important to stick with two,” he said. “Those coffee shops are no question; they're big draws.”
Residents and representatives of MPV gathered at a Dec. 5 meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission to discuss the building proposal. Eleven residents spoke out against the plans, raising concerns about traffic, smells and fumes that could result from the drive-thrus and from the development as a whole.
“You don't want Merrimon looking like Tunnel Road,” said Megan Kirby, who lives on Eloise Street. “This is too close in and too valuable of property to, I think, waste on a Chick-fil-A drive through.”
But Nick King, another nearby resident, said he is against the drive-thrus but thought efforts to protest them would be futile. “Isn't it true that a fast food restaurant can be put there no matter what you guys decide tonight?” he asked the commission.
“Correct,” the commission replied in unison.
But the laws surrounding the land aren't as simple as this exchange suggests. In order for MPV to use all the land their plans include, Council can strike a bargain.
However, the committee was unable to reach a consensus on the terms of the negotiations between the city and MPV, even after several hours of discussion. The commissioners split their vote: Three members voted to grant the developer's terms and allow two drive-thrus on the property, one of which could be a fast food restaurant, and three members voted against the proposal.
Council will determine how to move forward with MPV's plans at their Tuesday, Jan. 22, meeting. City staff will present the commission's vote and relay a recommendation of their own: to allow only one drive through in the development. Council will hear public comment at that meeting as well.
To decide what will ultimately be built, the city will have to engage in a series of negotiations with the developer. The task is delicate because the land in question carries a patchwork of zoning statuses: A small portion is zoned residential; some is zoned commercial business, and the majority is zoned highway business.
In one sense, King was right: On tracts designated highway business, the developer has a lot of flexibility about what to build. The list of allowable uses includes gas stations and drive-thrus, according to city staff.
Typically, major suburban corridors are zoned highway business, according to Julie Fields, assistant planning director for the city. It's unusual to see such a flexible designation near a dense, urban area like downtown Asheville, she told Xpress. “Highway business is a suburban-style zoning district, and when you get that close to the urban core, you're looking for more urban-based zoning districts,” she said. “We consider that portion of Merrimon a gateway into the downtown, so we would expect a more urban style of development.”
Because the land in question — known as Harris Teeter Phase 2 — is not zoned entirely as highway business, the developer has to negotiate with the city: They'll consent to certain city amendments to the project as a whole if the city agrees to bring the lots together into a unified zoning (highway business conditional zoning).
For HB CZ, Council can request whatever amendments it deems appropriate, but these requests don't become law unless MPV agrees with them. And if the developers don't want to negotiate with the city, they can abandon their request for conditional zoning. They won't be allowed to develop the additional lots as planned (the ones zoned residential and commercial business), but they can continue to develop the land zoned highway business with all the flexibility it affords them.
“The conditional zoning gives [the city] an opportunity to get something that is less suburban and more urban,” Fields said.
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