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.
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.
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.