Image 2. In process: A new Harris Teeter is under way on Merrimon Avenue. Residents say that including a drive-thru business on the site is not a good fit for the neighborhood. Photos by Max Cooper
By midnight, Asheville City Council members might have suffered from déjà vu: Two familiar cases involving strong neighborhood passions, traffic fears and economic development dominated the nearly seven-hour Jan. 22 meeting.
One public hearing focused on the New Belgium Brewing Co. facility planned for the River Arts District. The other centered on a dispute over potential drive-thru businesses on-site at a new Harris Teeter grocery store on Merrimon Avenue.
In both, Council members wrestled with urban-growth issues.
The brewery cometh
About 30 people packed into the front of the chambers, as everyone who wanted to speak on New Belgium's proposal had to be sworn in. More attendees watched from their seats in the packed room, waiting on the outcome. With Mayor Terry Bellamy absent due to illness, Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer led the hearing, noting that some hadn't seen such a turnout since the battles over an east Asheville Wal-Mart in the mid-2000s.
The product of months of economic-development negotiations and slated to open in 2015, New Belgium’s proposed $175 million, 205,737-square-foot facility will create 130 new jobs and bring the major brewer into the heart of Asheville. Jay Richardson, manager for the company's local operations, thanked city officials and said Ashevilleans and local organizations have “welcomed us and challenged us … These groups have proven what can be accomplished with honest dialogue.”
As for the plan details that most concern residents, traffic from the brewery will add an estimated six trucks to Haywood Road's traffic in its first year, but by 2022, when operations are in full force, 52 trucks. The city's study determined that the latter volume would double the area's truck traffic.
Some West Asheville residents say those numbers are too conservative.
“I'm familiar with New Belgium's credentials, so I know they're the real deal,” said Joshua Martin, representing the East West Asheville Neighborhood Association. “But this big factory in our little neighborhood and all it brings with it definitely brings it home. The neighborhood most impacted didn't have a voice [in planning], so we got organized and made clear our main concern: 24/7 truck traffic.”
In their report, city staff mention, "While the traffic study indicates that Haywood Road can handle the additional truck traffic, the additional trucks would create more conflicts for other users of the roadway, including bikes and pedestrians."
To address residents’ concerns, the city has proposed setting aside $220,000 for sidewalk improvements and has committed to studying whether it’s feasible to improve Riverside Drive to create an alternate truck route; New Belgium will Contribute $50,000 of the cost.
Throughout the hourlong hearing, representatives of a slew of other neighborhood and business associations sounded a similar tone to Martin’s: welcoming, but nonetheless concerned about the traffic issue and asking for action. Some noted that a low-clearance train trestle over Riverside would hinder, if not outright prevent, large trucks using that route.
"Small, mom-and-pop businesses … will be threatened by all these trucks," said Jonathan Wainscott, of West Asheville Watch, a community-advocacy group. "I don't want to see the growth and progress that has grown slowly and steadily turned back."
But in the end, Asheville City Council member Cecil Bothwell made a motion approving the brewery plans. He is often critical of development that may negatively impact neighborhoods, but in this case, he said, “I think that the problems that have been presented are definitely solvable.”
Manheimer praised the process as a model of government, business and neighborhoods working together, saying, “I hope this will be an example to other cities.”
Council approved New Belgium's brewery plans 6-0.
Drive out the drive-thrus
The other major development debate posed more acrimony and less comity.
A new Harris Teeter grocery store on Merrimon Avenue is already under construction, but Council still has to sign off on the placement of some buildings included in the overall plan. And the developer, MPV Properties, is requesting that one of those be a business with a drive-thru.
The latter issue has been contentious. The city's Planning and Zoning Commission split 3-3 last year, unable to agree on what conditions the developer must meet. The site is zoned Highway Business, which is more common for major thoroughfares like Tunnel Road. Further, city traffic engineers signed off on the project last year, but that was before Trader Joe's — another grocery — announced in July that it would also build a store between Greenlife and Harris Teeter.
So at the Jan. 22 hearing, Council members heard a litany of complaints from many people from the Five Points neighborhood, located between Merrimon and Broadway.
“Idling cars produce so much carbon. There are air quality issues,” said resident Heather Rayburn. “We feel like you don't have to have a drive-thru to have a prosperous restaurant there. We have a community consensus on the fact we don't want a fast-food drive-thru, and that's nonnegotiable.”
Rayburn also noted concerns that the development, especially with drive-thrus, would produce more cut-through traffic and commercial trucks. She suggested that the developer pay for traffic-calming features on adjacent neighborhood streets. Rayburn also noted that the development company was listening to residents and “had heart.” Some residents wouldn't mind a bank or another business, she said.
But Sue Schweitzhart voiced strong opposition, saying, “I have this vision of people going down the road, eating their chicken sandwich, and some elderly woman walks across the road and they can't stop in time. What if that was your mother?”
Developer Steve Vermillion, a lead partner for MPV Properties, responded that they'd already conceded by requesting just one drive-thru: Under the site’s existing zoning, they could potentially build two and not have to get City Council approval.
Council members seemed lukewarm to the drive-thru proposal, some of them remarking that the zoning rules limited their ability to stop it and that, by law, they can't specify what type of business gets built. Council member Marc Hunt, who moved to delay a vote until Feb. 12, said he hoped for continued dialogue.
Before Council voted on the motion, Bothwell asked Vermillion if he would promise there would not be a fast-food restaurant on the site. He would not, and Bothwell responded that he saw little hope that two weeks would see any agreement reached.
“I don't want to pretend we're going to negotiate to some other result by delaying this,” he said.
Council voted 6-0 to approve Hunt’s motion to delay action until Feb. 12.
David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or firstname.lastname@example.org.