Old controversies never die -- they just keep cropping up in progress reports. Asheville City Council Members heard updates on a number of long-running disputes at their Nov. 14 formal session.
Several involved apparently conspicuous violations of the Unified Development Ordinance by local businesses, often with outright city approval or at least an apparent willingness to look the other way until unhappy residents forced the issue. One such report was positive: the Prudential Lifestyle Realty building (31 College Place) is now in compliance after the owner removed the offending sign and replaced it with one on another side of the structure.
But there's been no tangible shift on two other hot issues since Council received a report by David Owens of the UNC School of Government in June that outlined the various offenses. Some of these disputes have dragged on for years, and residents and Council members alike voiced their frustration at the meeting. Accordingly, the conversation turned toward enforcement and accountability issues. (See "Overlooked Violations?" July 12 Xpress.)
Chris Pelly of the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods maintained that the language used in the city's correspondence with Staples hasn't been strong enough to induce the company to change the sign on its Merrimon Avenue store.
"Why should they, when it is less than clear what we ask of them?" queried Pelly. "It is time for the city of Asheville to issue a notice of violation -- Staples is currently thumbing their nose at the city."
According to a staff report, the city's last contact with Staples was a Sept. 19 conference call, when company executives asked for time to discuss the matter among themselves. Since then, there's been no further word from the company.
Meanwhile, John Swan -- co-owner of the nearby Greenlife Grocery -- came before Council with a handful of design options intended to address neighborhood concerns about the store's loading dock. For two years, Maxwell Street residents have complained about delivery trucks backing onto the street -- in itself a violation of the UDO. Swan proposed expanding the parking area onto property adjoining the loading dock, which would enable trucks to turn around without pulling out into Maxwell Street. This would require removing at least one big tree and possibly a house. Swan said his company is willing to purchase the property.
But that would be only a partial solution at best, noted Swan, because it wouldn't significantly address the noise problem, another key concern. Greenlife may eventually expand both the store and the parking area, he said, and at that point, it might be possible to construct an underground loading dock on the other side of the building. But that would be expensive, and the company isn't ready to take that step, he said, until after its new Chattanooga store is finished. That means groundbreaking on any such Asheville project is at least a year off.
"The long-term option is a multimillion-dollar project," said Swan, and he asked the city to consider shouldering part of the cost, because the Planning Department had approved the faulty design.
"The city has inadvertently gotten us into this," said Swan. "We would appreciate anything the city could do to help us."
Council members responded to Swan's presentation with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
"We do accept some accountability here," said Council member Brownie Newman. "I'm open to figure out which is the best way."
Council member Jan Davis sounded a less-supportive note. While conceding that the city had contributed to the problem, he added: "I am not happy about the idea of the city spending tax dollars. I'm pretty disappointed tonight."
Council member Robin Cape, meanwhile, said the options Swan presented seemed more like a brainstorming exercise for the company than a firm proposal for the city to consider.
But Council member Carl Mumpower seemed satisfied with Swan's presentation. "We asked you to come to us, and you are responding to Council's request," he noted, adding that if the city shares blame for the problem, "We need to own it and hold people accountable for it."
Council member Bryan Freeborn, however, took a harder stance. "The reality is that keeping the loading dock on Maxwell Street will never address all of the issues that the residents have," he said.
Planning Director Scott Shuford asked for more Council involvement in attempting to identify an acceptable alternative, and both Freeborn and Newman agreed to pitch in. "There's a lot of this conversation that needs to be fleshed out," noted Freeborn.
Meanwhile, city Traffic Engineer Anthony Butzek said he's looking at traffic-calming measures that would make it impossible for big trucks to use Maxwell Street.
But for disgruntled residents, the prospect of further delay was unacceptable. "I have been coming here for two-and-a-half years," said Greenlife neighbor Reid Thompson, declaring, "It's time to enforce our laws."
In related news, Council members said they will vote at their Nov. 28 formal session to impose a time line for traffic improvements at the Tunnel Road Target store. The certificate of occupancy issued by the city in 2003 required the company to install traffic signals and add another turning lane. Installation of the signal poles began in September but is not yet complete, and the turn-lane project has been postponed at the request of the state Department of Transportation, according to a staff report.
Meanwhile, Council members and staff said they may also review the city's enforcement policy. Currently, companies are required to post a bond to ensure compliance with such commitments; Target posted a $350,000 bond, the report notes. Council may consider whether stronger methods are needed, said Mayor Terry Bellamy.
The Block on hold -- again
Despite the prospect of losing unused grant funds and continuing to pay interest on an $800,000 federal loan, Council nonetheless decided to hold off allocating funding to redevelop two structures in the historically black South Pack Square area known as The Block.
The nonprofit Eagle/Market Streets Development Corp. bought the Del Cardo Building (38 S. Market St.) and the Collette Building (17-23 Eagle St.) using federal funds funneled through the city. Both are hot targets for rehabilitation, but various plans for revitalizing the area have fallen victim to community infighting involving the development corporation, the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church and other property owners. At least two attempts to move forward with redevelopment plans have been derailed by parties with differing visions for The Block.
Rather than renovating the two properties piecemeal, however, Council members favor incorporating them in a larger, as-yet-undefined redevelopment project. Asheville will begin shopping adjacent, city-owned property to developers later this month, and the two buildings could easily be included in such a project, Davis told Xpress.
In the interim, however, the city risks losing a $340,000 grant that must be spent by September 2007, and it continues to pay interest on an $800,000 Section 108 loan. To date, the city has paid $156,000 in interest and principal on the loan.
"That's money that's just gone," said Newman. "At some point we have to stop the bleeding."
"It's very regrettable we've had this delay," agreed Shuford. "Staff certainly has concerns that those funds are not being used very wisely."
Council intends to set a time line for the project at a future meeting and will seek an extension of the grant deadline. Meanwhile, there are signs that at least some of the warring parties may have resolved their differences.
"We had some issues in the past," said EMSDC Chairman Darryl Hart. "I think we have moved forward."
And former Council member Eugene Ellison, who co-owns the Ritz Building on South Market Street, said: "We fought real hard to preserve that historic district. I think our patience will pay off."
But Bellamy warned that Mt. Zion, another major property owner, may not be on board, and it remains to be seen what level of involvement the church is willing to have in a larger redevelopment plan.
After months of work, five revisions and some tense discussions, the new Richmond Hill disc-golf course is a go.
When City Council approved a 2004 deal allowing the National Guard to build a new armory on a portion of the mostly wooded Richmond Hill Park property in West Asheville, it also agreed to partner with the WNC Disc Golf Club to replace the disc-golf course that would make way for the armory. Work on the new course was under way when, in September, environmental concerns caused Council to scratch two baseball fields planned for the park and increase City Council oversight of the project. Several public meetings were held in which concerns about the course's impact on the property were discussed -- especially in relation to an adjacent wetland.
James Nichols, who designed both the old and new courses, told Council he'd included a 600-foot buffer around the wetland, as demanded by environmentalists. A key player in the controversy has been UNCA environmental-studies major James Wood, who feared that foot traffic on the new course would damage the park's biodiversity. In past discussions, WNC Disc Golf Club members had argued for a 200-foot buffer, but Wood stood firm, citing reports by ecologists and wetland engineers.
Clearly frustrated and worn down by the extended negotiations and multiple design changes, Nichols said he conceded on the buffer "mainly to keep the peace. We want disc golf back in this town. We need closure tonight."
Although disc golfers -- many bearing the compact flying discs used in the game -- made a strong showing at the meeting, only a handful spoke after a straw poll called by Mumpower indicated unanimous Council support for the course design.
"We're pretty well sold here," said Mumpower.
But some members of the public took advantage of the opportunity to weigh in on the project.
"James [Nichols'] work has been broken by this," lamented former club board member John Thelen. "I just want everyone to know that." Thelen, who owns a local landscaping company, assured Council that the necessary steps would be taken to address concerns about erosion. "We know what to do, and we know how to do it," he said.
Wood, too, spoke briefly, thanking the club for what had turned into a drawn-out, contentious process. "I think the new course looks great; I'm very happy with it," he said. But the UNCA senior also asked Council to consider legal measures to protect the park's ecosystem.
The unraveling last year of long-running plans for a new downtown parking deck made the city take a hard look at the bigger picture. On Nov. 14, Council members heard an update on plans to address the growing need for more parking in the central business district. The multifaceted plan calls for: considering siting more parking on city-owned property on Haywood Street, adding both on-street and surface parking on Cherry Street and Lexington Avenue, a possible new surface lot on Rankin Avenue, and looking at several outlying city-owned parcels that could be served by shuttles bringing people downtown.
But the uneasy politics of parking were evident both on Council and among members of the public.
"We have to look at this the same way a shopping mall examines its needs," said downtown-business owner Barry Olen. He wants to survey merchants to determine the extent of customer traffic and, thus, how much additional parking is needed. Olen also said that some people may be willing to park in cheaper or free lots outside the city center.
Freeborn agreed that such information is crucial to any decision on how to shoehorn more parking into an already crowded downtown. "The reality is, we don't really know what our parking needs are," said Freeborn.
But old wounds heal slowly, and Mumpower was still mourning the loss of the Battery Park site last year. After eight years and $4 million, the city abandoned that project in October 2005 when the owner of a critical piece of property adjacent to the Basilica of St. Lawrence backed out of negotiations. Further delay, Mumpower maintained, also breaks city promises to downtown-business owners.
"We chose to move away from that unwisely," he said, adding that he thinks special-interest groups play too large a part in Council's decisions generally. "I'm disappointed with this Council's political position on parking," said Mumpower.
Mayor Bellamy, however, said the city's hands were tied, because the property owners broke off negotiations. "We don't own it; we don't have it; it's not there," she said. "To say we turned our back on it is not accurate."
The revised parking action plan passed on a 6-1 vote with Mumpower opposed.
In other news
Council members designated two Asheville properties -- the National Bank of Commerce on Church Street and the Rankin/Bearden House on Woodlawn Avenue in Montford -- as local historic landmarks. Both were approved on 6-1 votes; Mumpower said he no longer sees the need for property-tax breaks as incentives to restore historic structures.
Quality Forward presented a plaque thanking Asheville Transit Director Bruce Black for the success of the city's three-month free-fare program, which increased ridership on city buses by 60 percent. The program ended Nov. 10.