Hopeful signs?

Staples displayed the proposed design changes for its Merrimon Avenue façade in a Jan. 28 press conference called by company executives and Mayor Terry Bellamy. Both camps aim to settle another festering issue in the long-running and often acrimonious debate about the city’s interpretation and enforcement of the Unified Development Ordinance. Staples and Greenlife Grocery have been high-profile cases in that dispute, along with Prudential Lifestyle Realty (whose sign was brought into compliance in 2006). But with Staples’ proposed signs still bigger than what the ordinance allows—and activists still grumbling—it remains to be seen whether this fight is over.

Signs they are a changin’: Alan Thorpe, Staples vice president of retail design, shows plans for changes to the Merrimon Ave. store. Photo By Jonathan Welch

To soften the building’s stark contours, the proposal envisions columnar rockwork on the corners and vines screening the lower portion. But the big news was the smaller signs on two sides of the building—a sore point with activists, who’ve noted that the city’s approval of the original signs was based on the idea that the UDO’s size limit applied only to the letters, not the background of the signs. On the Merrimon side, the sign, including background, would be 185.5 square feet (a 48 percent reduction). On the side facing Interstate 240, the new sign would be 224 square feet (a 46 percent reduction). The signs facing Orange Street would remain unchanged for now. The UDO limits on-premise signs to a maximum of 125 square feet.

Following a long standoff between the city and Staples, during which the company said it had no intention of making changes, Bellamy visited the company’s Framingham, Mass., headquarters last September. And at the press conference, she described the proposal as “a compromise between the corporate headquarters and the citizens here.”

Andrew Thorpe, Staples’ vice president of retail design, called it “a very exciting proposal [and a] substantial reduction in the signage.” The changes are expected to cost between $75,000 and $100,000, he noted.

But this time, noted Thorpe, Staples will submit a proposed design showing both the lettering and the red background—though he continued to emphasize that the city had counted only the letters last time around. And because even the smaller signs would exceed what the UDO allows, a variance is needed. To that end, the proposal is slated to go to the Board of Adjustment on Feb. 25.

Going green? This computer rendition displays smaller signs, and a “green screen” of vining plants. Image Courtesy Staples

For the activists, however, the disputed UDO interpretation is still an issue. During a Q-and-A session at the press conference, Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods Secretary Tom Rightmyer asked if the company would consider changing the background from the trademark red to green. Although the question drew praise from other activists present, the Staples representatives declined to address it.

And though the meeting was intended to move the issue forward, the chance to confront company executives with complaints about the building’s overall design wasn’t lost on the audience. “While it’s appropriate for a lot of malls across America, it is out of place here,” one person commented. “Most people would look at this building and say it is un-Asheville.”

But Ted Frumpkin, regional vice president of real estate, defended the design, saying, “Everything about this building was created, we thought, to fit into downtown.” And Thorpe deflected questions about further shrinking the sign by reminding those present that the UDO violations were really the city’s fault. “What we tried to do was come to a compromise,” he said. “Staples is not required to do anything.”

Former City Council candidate Elaine Lite, who ran on a platform of putting the brakes on development, said that is something she and Staples could agree on. “I can’t help but still blame [former Planning and Development Director] Scott Shuford and the Planning Department,” she told Xpress after the meeting.

Others, however, took a more skeptical view of the company’s offer. “I’m not saying this is in bad faith,” neighborhood activist Jake Quinn told Xpress. “But let’s keep it in perspective: $75,000 to $100,000 is a small fraction of what they would have had to pay to bring this into compliance with the UDO.”

And though the proposal has yet to clear the Board of Adjustment, Lite predicted smooth sailing for it. After all, the mayor had gone all the way to Massachusetts to get this deal. “You’re going to tell me that the Board of Adjustment is going to say no?” queried Lite.

But while she expressed disappointment that only two sides of the building are being addressed, Lite said she’ll have to wait and see how satisfactory the changes appear once they’re done. “We have to move forward and see what we can live with,” she observed.

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5 thoughts on “Hopeful signs?

  1. Making the signs marginally smaller and hanging some weeds most unnaturally off the sides fixes nothing. Let’s just leave it the way it is. After all — you’re in a city, expect a bunch of ugly buildings. There are HUNDREDS if not thousands of worse-looking structures in Asheville. You want to hang weeks off those, too?

  2. As you know, I agree with Ralph. This whole thing reeks of people with way too much free time and way too much jealousy and animosity toward those trying to earn an honest living in retail. What a turn-off this kind of ridiculous exchange between Staples and city must be to other potential employers here. The only thing more laughable than this debate is the lack of a debate about the perpetually vacant mini-building in front of Walgreens further up Merrimon. Now that is a real sign–a sign of how stupid the enforcement of development codes is in this town.

  3. Typo patrol: I obviously meant ‘weeds’ instead of ‘weeks’

    Thanks, Jason. … Yep, I thank both city planners and many of the vocal opponents of growth have lost track of what a city is and verved off the logical track.

    The Staples deal is done and over with — mistakes were made, yes, but it’s too late to do anything about them now. Besides, they are NOTHING compared to the very real problems Asheville faces. Crime, more jobs, fixing the morrass of traffic (can we stop dickering over mere APPEARANCE and get I-26 FINISHED?), and much more.

    Let’s move on to more important matters.

  4. Typo patrol: ‘veered’ instead of ‘verved’ …

    You know, it would be REALLY nice (o great webmastering gods of MountainX) if we could EDIT our posts. ;-) When fast-flying fingers flash fleetingly forward on the keys, sometimes passion outruns spelling.

  5. Maybe the city planners will let me move into the vacant building in front of Walgreens that they also allowed as a development code loophole. Then, assuming I can afford THAT rent around here (nothing’s a given!) maybe STAPLES can take down their Big Red Sign and spend the 200 grand on a sick STAPLER costume for me! Then, I can stand inside the fake building in front of the Walgreens and dance around as the STAPLES Stapler without either place having to look so ridiculous….and since technically I’ll be inside, the silly people that tried to bring the PICNICS chicken indoors can’t gripe either! Eureka!

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