By Tim Peck
February 8, 2006
The City Council of Asheville, City Staff, and the Planning and Zoning Commission have responded to the pressures of certain neighborhood alliances and concerned citizens and intend to overhaul development ordinances for the Merrimon Avenue business corridor to be more closely aligned with their wishes for its future. Merrimon Avenue is a burgeoning, 4-mile commercial strip running through North Asheville connecting it to the communities of Beaver Dam, Woodfin and Weaverville.
One method they will employ as an input into these code revisions will be the results of an 8-question survey to ascertain the general mood of business owners and residents. Ostensibly, the objective of the re-zoning of this major corridor and gateway to the city is to encourage development that is viewed as popular or desirable and limit or constrain what is unpopular or undesirable.
What is at stake is the ability of property owners to determine the best use of their resources in this thriving sector of the city. Also, considerations of street widening, signal calibration, bike lanes and sidewalks will be taken into account.
Merrimon Avenue is not owned by the city but is maintained by the state. Several years ago, in an effort to alleviate congestion, NC DOT completed a feasibility study on Merrimon Avenue to consider widening the road from its current three-lane configuration to five lanes. The costs involved in the necessary purchasing of rights-of-way by the City make the project financially unrealistic. Another proposal to break up traffic bottlenecks, suggested by some concerned citizens, recommends turning Merrimon Avenue into a two-lane highway with a middle turning lane. However, it is highly unlikely that DOT would approve such a change.
Ultimately, by a 6-1 vote, City Council approved mailing the survey to business owners and residents along the Merrimon Avenue corridor on February 1, 2006, with the expectation that responses could be compiled, documented and analyzed by February 28th in preparation for a draft re-zoning proposal to be assessed, revised and finalized by the end of April or soon after.
In contrast to Carl Mumpower’s lone dissent on the entire question, Mayor Terry Bellamy urged that others outside the immediate neighborhood also be encouraged to respond to the survey. The Mayor stated at the meeting that this is a very important issue and that everyone using Merrimon Avenue has an interest in how this vital corridor is to be developed. Targeted participants can further disseminate the survey to friends and associates. The survey is available online and is even being advertised in rotation on the City’s cable TV station on channel 11. All of this, purportedly, in an effort to gain an adequately wide set of data for input into the rapidly approaching re-zoning deliberations.
The effort to involve a community of interests in determining the future of Merrimon Avenue is laudable. But the method of information gathering exposes the process to certain risks that can have significant if not fatal consequences for the economic health of the commercial district in question. In fact, a large number of Merrimon property owners have recently formed an association of their own to help protect their interests in this process. They have expressed concern that their interests might be minimized or possibly overlooked entirely by zealous activists during the hasty fact-finding process.
A quick read of the questionnaire that promises to inform zoning decisions provokes a number of questions. First among them: Is this survey free from bias? Second: Is there any risk of fraud, error or misinterpretation? If so, to what degree?
One problem that is immediately evident in addressing these questions is the fact that the survey is anonymous. Ideally, the person who was mailed the survey will be the one who submits the survey. But there is no guarantee of this. One person could submit multiple surveys with the same responses and effectively skew the results. In fact, with the anonymous survey available online to anyone with an internet connection, there are no controls at all to ensure that the responding survey population is the same as the targeted survey population. If this survey is to be anonymous, as it is, then ultimately the results can be subject to selection bias and called into question and dismissed as distorted until a ‘bona fide’ survey can be conducted that could trace responses to legitimate individuals within the original targeted population.
Another problem is that the questions in the survey are leading. They tend to lead the respondents to socially acceptable answers prompted by groupthink. This exposes the survey to the risk of social bias. This is the pressure respondents might feel to conform to socially-accepted points of view. Responses could be reflective of a social construction of reality where we compare our views with a favored in-group to gain reassurance that our views are not at variance with consensus; also known as the bandwagon effect.
Then there is the problem of misinterpretation. The brief survey asks only 8 narrowly-defined questions and the multiple choices offered are not exhaustive. This can lead to confirmation bias, which is a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms the surveyor’s preconceptions. That several of the questions are open-ended only increases the risk of misinterpretation. There is also the problem of non-responses that can weight the results in favor of activists. And surveyors may interpret vague or blank responses in ways that might support a preferred result.
The survey is open to information bias. Respondents are likely not economists and may not have the objective means for determining what is in their own economic interest. In fact, they may harbor distinctly anti-business prejudices that could color their responses in subjective ways and leave the impression that the interests of business-people and those of the community are at odds and may be irreconcilable.
Finally, there is the issue of the timing of the survey. We have heard from representatives of the neighborhood associations that “time is of the essence” in developing a satisfactory set of codes. To be sure, Merrimon Avenue is rapidly growing and needs to have the proper rules in place to guide development. But is this really the right moment to take the temperature of the public on the far-reaching question of zoning in this vital sector of town? And must the process turn around in the span of 2 months? This survey rolls out at a time when emotions are running high over recent development mishaps, intentional or not. To name just a few sore points:
The newly constructed Staples office supply store, which has complied with the letter of the law in the Uniform Development Ordinance (UDO) and the Asheville 2025 Plan, is alternately described as a behemoth or an eye-sore by anti-development advocates and some in the media because of its menacing, fortress-like red brick street abutment and gaudy signage.
The uncomfortable proximity of the awkward Greenlife grocery loading dock has exited great anxiety among certain of its neighbors and outright furor in others. The conflict has generated angry protestations at the site, in the media, and in City Hall.
Recently, Walgreen’s drugstore flagrantly ignored binding construction agreements prompting the City to quickly issue a “stop work” order and initiate an investigation into the violations. The developer had applied for a permit to “renovate” the old Ace hardware store on that site; however, without proper approval of a variance, they moved ahead to demolish the building completely and begin construction of an entirely new building with a 112% improvement value estimated at a cost of $1 million. This far exceeds the definition of “renovation” which is limited by code to a 50% improvement cost.
The bottom line here is that this may not be the best time to gain a cool-headed assessment of the long-term zoning constraints that would be placed on future development initiatives. Could we possibly get a different set of survey results, say, a year from now? At the meeting to approve the survey, Carl Mumpower stated that, with the exception of a few new buildings and the refurbishing of some others, the corridor had not changed appreciably in the past 10 years.
Council member Robin Cape has raised the possibility that the Merrimon Avenue Zoning Study could become a model for community development at large in Asheville‘s future I have to hope not. There is too much at stake here and there are too many risks involved in this particular methodology for it to become a standard response to economic development.
With the exception of the self-inflicted Staples debacle, the present zoning of the corridor has served the community very well. Property owners wishing to build or expand outside the constraints of present ordinances must seek approval from the P&Z Commission and then City Council. During this case-by-case review process, neighbors have an opportunity to express their concerns. To now overlay such a large area with a one-size-fits-all straight-jacket is an example of inappropriate and overzealous planning that may not retain its appropriateness over the long-term.
The demand-driven marketplace will determine the future of Merrimon Avenue and the risk of fraud, error, misinterpretation or possibly outright manipulation in this information gathering process lacks the gravitas sufficient to the proposed task of setting guidelines for business owners, property owners and entrepreneurs who are clamoring to invest in our city and stimulate our much needed economic growth.
We should all be encouraged to provide input into what Asheville is to become. And we do so with home sales, rents, and purchasing dollars. We vote with our feet, our cars and our wallets. To hand over our economic future to an elite cadre of activists, interlopers and phantom citizens does us all a disservice. Will activist students in temporary residences at nearby colleges become involved in the Merrimon Avenue study, skew it’s results, and dictate the city‘s future growth for the rest of us? At a large demonstration recently held to oppose a new Wal-Mart Super Center proposed for Smokey Park Highway in West Asheville, over 90% of the 100 demonstrators were students from UNC Asheville and Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa.