Asheville City Council

What a difference a couple of years makes.

In 2002, concerns about traffic congestion threatened to derail a massive, highly controversial east Asheville development project. Toward the end of a 14-hour public hearing and Council debate that played out before a standing-room-only crowd that overflowed into three adjacent rooms, however, the developer volunteered to scale back the project, eliminating one restaurant and a planned hotel, and limiting the size of the proposed “urban village” (an on-site mixed-use development containing retail, office and residential units).

Together, these changes would enable the city to approve the project, slated for the former Sayles-Biltmore Bleacheries site, while still preserving 10 percent of Swannanoa River Road’s traffic-handling capacity. But the developers would be prohibited from expanding the project unless they took steps to address the traffic congestion. “No changes shall be made in the level of development intensity that will or may increase traffic on Swannanoa River Road unless further traffic-impact mitigation measures are implemented,” the permit states.

And with those assurances to neighborhood residents concerned about gridlock, the Asheville City Council voted 6-1 to approve plans for a Wal-Mart Supercenter, other retail stores and an urban village.

Fast-forward to the Asheville City Council’s Nov. 9 formal meeting. The Wal-Mart developers were back before Council, seeking to nearly double the size of the urban village without doing anything to address the traffic congestion.

And after a public hearing in which only one of the dozen or so speakers supported the project, City Council approved the developers’ request on a 4-2 vote. Two years earlier, three of those four — Council member Joe Dunn, Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower and Mayor Charles Worley — had voted for the 10-percent condition. But on Nov. 9, Mumpower, speaking for the majority, said: “There’s no question of impact. But this is new development, not big-box development. It’s the epitome of everything we support: an urban village.”

Council member Holly Jones, who joined Brownie Newman in opposing the move, didn’t see it that way. “We made a deal [in 2002] to make this palatable,” she said. “Now, one neighborhood will be taking the brunt. This is about public trust. … It’s just not fair.”

Corporate welfare?

The Nov. 9 public hearing concerned the request by Riverbend Development LLC — the partnership behind the project — for permission to increase the size of the proposed urban village from 54,000 square feet of retail and office space and 120 residential units to 96,858 square feet and 240 units. In arguing for the change, Riverbend Development partner Harley Dunn told Council, “Members of the [city] staff have been urging us to increase the density of this project.”

Dunn (no relation to Council member Joe Dunn) added that the project requires “critical mass, or it doesn’t work.” He also emphasized pedestrian-friendly nature of the urban village, noting that residents would be able to walk to get a haircut, go to the dentist, get a book or a cup of coffee. … It’s possible to live here without owning a car.”

Asheville resident David Day of Day Engineering, one of the project’s contractors, also spoke enthusiastically about the expanded urban village, saying it will be “good for Asheville … it will put it on the map.” With more than three miles of sidewalks, the village, noted Day, will have a “small-town-community type of effect.”

When it was the public’s turn to weigh in, however, the tone of the comments shifted markedly. East Asheville resident Ned Guttman, representing the adjacent Redwood Forest neighborhood, criticized the development team’s recent traffic-impact analysis, noting, “These numbers are all estimates — educated guesses.” Guttman also took issue with the study’s methodology, pointing out that two of the sample days chosen to assess traffic flow on the surrounding streets were during Hurricane Ivan. “The bottom line,” noted Guttman, “is that these numbers are probably on the low side.”

Earlier in the hearing, Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford had informed Council that, indeed, the proposed changes to the urban village “will increase traffic incrementally at every intersection.” Shuford also made it plain that the “applicant wants to add traffic without adding traffic-mitigation efforts.”

In other words, no one disputed the fact that expanding the village would increase the number of vehicle trips per day by 5 percent — taking Swannanoa River Road to 95 percent of its capacity (from its pre-development count of just over 8,500 trips per day to just over 13,500).

Eva Macknowsky told Council members that she owns a rental home in the nearby Sayles Bleachery Village, a collection of bungalows that once housed plant workers. The existing traffic congestion, she explained, has already cost her one tenant. “Your commitment seems to be to turn Asheville into another Charlotte,” she charged. “We already have a cohesive village — we don’t need a massive, fabricated one.”

East Asheville resident Debbie Applewhite, meanwhile, attacked both the proposal and the fact that Council was even considering it, asserting: “If you knowingly create gridlock with inappropriate development [and] then ask the taxpayers from across the state to pay for the widening of [Swannanoa River Road] — then that’s corporate welfare.”

Perhaps the most dramatic presentation, though, came from east Asheville homeowner Mike Moody, who nervously approached the microphone and read a letter he’d received from Horne Development, a Knoxville-based firm that has assumed control of the Wal-Mart portion of the project. The strongly worded missive threatened Moody, who was involved in efforts to defeat the proposal, with a lawsuit if he continued to create difficulties for the development team. After reading the letter, Moody looked up and said satirically, with the board-flat affect of a Stepford wife: “I support this project. … And in the future, when a respectful developer like Horne comes to town, we should let them do their project and write the conditional-use permit after they’re done.”

Official blackmail?

Traffic impacts aside, Planning and Development staff did suggest one condition: requiring the developer to price 17 of the 240 urban village units as affordable housing. But the idea met with considerable resistance from some council members.

Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower kicked off Council’s deliberations by asking Shuford why he’d tacked on the requirement. The development, responded Shuford, “will have characteristics that will facilitate affordable housing,” such as close proximity to public transportation and jobs. Mumpower, however, said the affordable-housing requirement “seems like official blackmail.”

But Shuford stood his ground, saying simply, “We make many recommendations to the Council; some you agree with, some you don’t.” The condos, he noted, were said to be in the $160,000 price range, and when the developer proposed increasing the number of units, “We saw an opportunity.”

Soon after, Council member Brownie Newman made a motion to deny the request. Explaining that he supports the concept of urban villages, Newman added, “We’ve used up almost all the [traffic] capacity on Swannanoa River Road.”

Mumpower, however, maintained that the current project is separate from the one approved by Council two years ago — and thus a justifiable use of the road’s limited remaining capacity.

Newman disagreed, saying, “This is not a new development but the same one from two years ago, modified.” But his motion was defeated on a 2-4 vote, with Mayor Worley and Council members Dunn and Jan Davis joining Mumpower in opposition (Council member Terry Bellamy was absent).

After that, Mumpower made a motion to approve the project — without the affordable-housing requirement. That motion passed on a 4-2 vote, with Newman and Jones opposed.

On the way out the door, one disgruntled city resident called it ironic that Council had vetoed the affordable-housing requirement, given Council members’ often-stated commitment to increasing the supply of affordable homes in the city. “These condos will start at $160,000,” said the woman (who asked to remain anonymous). “Who can work at Wal-Mart — or any of the retail stores or restaurants being built over there — and pay these prices on those wages?”

Then and now

The decision by the Asheville City Council to allow the developers of the Sayles Bleachery site to nearly double the size of its urban-village component marks a significant change from the permit conditions issued in 2002. According to a report prepared by Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford, the expansion of the project “will result in a small increase in traffic on Swannanoa River Road.” Shuford also noted that the developer “wants to add additional traffic … without adding additional traffic-mitigation efforts.”

Shuford’s report reminds Council members that in 2002, their intent was “to allow some traffic-carrying capacity to remain on Swannanoa River Road after phases one and two of the project came on line. The standard approved by the City Council was for the level of service to not be decreased below 90 percent of [the road’s traffic] volume.”

Two years ago, Council went so far as to table its vote on the Wal-Mart project (at Mayor Charles Worley‘s suggestion) to give the developer time to come up with a solution for meeting that goal. After the developer balked at footing the bill for extensive widening of the road (as suggested by city staff) and representatives of the state Department of Transportation explained that it would be at least 10 years before the state could take on the very costly project, the developer proposed dropping one restaurant from the site and scaling back the urban village. According to the meeting minutes from 2002, those changes dropped the number of trips generated by the development below the threshold — by a mere 12 trips per peak traffic period.

According to city Traffic Engineer Anthony Butzak, a traffic-impact analysis conducted by the developer now shows that the number of trips will increase to just over 13,500, up from 8,575 — the figure that so concerned Council members in 2002.

In an interview after the Nov 9 meeting, Shuford explained that his staff had supported and encouraged the expansion because they felt the scaled-back version offered by the developer in 2002 “wasn’t your typical mix found in an urban village.” He added, “We thought they needed a more substantial residential and commercial use.”

Shuford pointed out that Preserving traffic capacity on Swannanoa River Road is still a priority, but “traffic is going to grow on the road and come from multiple sources. Quite frankly, I’d rather see it come from an urban village rather than a big box.”

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