Anyone entering Asheville’s City Hall on the afternoon of Oct. 22 would have encountered a busy, bustling scene. A Boy Scout troop, a parcel of UNCA staff (including Chancellor Anne Ponder), developers, architects bearing rolls of plans, and activists wanting the city to stand with them on clean energy and civil liberties. Fire marshals, police officers and city staff managed the crowd.
They were all there for different reasons: the Scouts to lead the Pledge of Allegiance; UNCA staff to formally renew a memo of understanding with city government. Both unfolded fairly early in the meeting.
The others on hand faced a bit more of a wait, and sparked more discussion and even debate about the various things they wanted approved, whether those were concrete plans for new buildings or a more general commitment by the city to certain principles that would help shape future plans.
Despite some concerns about the lack of affordable housing, City Council unanimously approved conditional zoning for the 209-unit RAD Lofts, which will also include retail and office space. The approval was needed for the proposed Clingman Avenue complex to proceed. Rents are projected to start at around $1,000 a month for a one-bedroom apartment.
The feeling that the project (which will occupy the former Dave Steel site) is “transformative,” as Council member Marc Hunt put it, prompted Council to support it.
Tim Schaller of the River Arts District Business Association praised some aspects of the project but voiced concern about the disappearance of affordable space for artists. “If we don't have affordable studio space, we won't have a River Arts District anymore,” he noted.
Developer Harry Pilos replied that other proposed projects should address that need, whereas his would include gallery space. As for the lack of affordable housing, he said, it all boiled down to the numbers. The money lost by incorporating affordable units, said Pilos, created “a big gap: We can't do it.” But he added that he’ll let the city know what figure he would need to make some of the units affordable when he sits down with them to talk about a possible subsidy for the project.
Questions of principle
The activists, meanwhile, also got what they wanted. Council unanimously approved a civil-liberties resolution reaffirming the city's commitment to upholding constitutional rights. A longtime goal of Council member Cecil Bothwell, who said he's worked on it since he was elected nearly four years ago, the measure instructs the police to treat all groups fairly, refrain from gathering information on any group solely because of its beliefs, and play no part in enforcing federal immigration law.
Bothwell, who’s up for re-election this year, called it “a basket of promises” by the city to protect the civil rights of all its residents.
But during the public comment period, City Council candidate Mike Lanning, a former APD officer, said the resolution “is not worth the paper it's printed on,” because the police already treat Ashevilleans fairly. South French Broad resident Marion Patton disagreed, saying she knows many “good families” that live in fear of police stops because of their immigration status or race.
A clean-energy resolution received an equally enthusiastic endorsement by Council. Supported by an array of local environmental groups (including the WNC Alliance, the Asheville Beyond Coal Coalition and the local Sierra Club chapter), it affirms the city's commitment to clean energy and reducing carbon emissions, while calling for a partnership with Duke Energy and local businesses and other stakeholders to discuss ways to achieve those goals.
While some of the measure's supporters criticized the utility, particularly the amount of pollution produced by the coal-fired Lake Julian power plant, they also maintained that such a partnership is needed to make progress on reducing local air emissions.
Duke representative Jason Walls said the company is looking to find “the sweet spot” in transitioning to multiple energy sources, wants to rely less on coal, and looks forward to working with the city.
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.