A new Asheville City Council met Dec. 10, with Esther Manheimer sworn in as mayor, Marc Hunt chosen as the new vice mayor, three development decisions postponed and neighborhood leaders raising concerns about issues in East Asheville.
By 3:45 p.m., Council chambers were packed for a swearing-in ceremony as residents, supporters and family members gathered to see Manheimer and three Council members sworn in. The newest Council member, Gwen Wisler, joined re-elected members Cecil Bothwell and Gordon Smith.
Council unanimously chose Hunt as vice mayor. Jan Davis, who served as vice mayor from 2009-11, remarked that he felt Hunt was best suited to "hold up the arms of the mayor" and attend to the position's administrative role.
Manheimer praised two-term Mayor Terry Bellamy as bringing a new level of respect to the mayorship. Council presented Bellamy with a gavel plaque and a proclamation in appreciation for 13 years time as an elected official.
In a brief speech, Manheimer said that Asheville is a diverse city, but that its different populations are united by a desire for an improving quality of life. In pursuing that, she said there are many challenges as well as opportunities. "Even after one hurdle is overcome, there will always be more," Manheimer said. "We value fostering and supporting our small businesses, things like locally grown food, we want to stay focused on truly affordable housing. These are the things that build a community." She emphasized the importance of partnerships with Buncombe County and state government in pursuing these goals.
"What your city needs to do for you is invest to bring about positive change in the community," Manheimer said. "I believe that together we can work to grow our quality of life and continue to improve."
Earlier in the month, it looked as if the new Council might have a a trial by fire during its regular Dec. 10 meeting: Three development hearings were on the agenda: a controversial East Chestnut Street project, the 192-housing-unit Avalon in South Asheville and a proposed overhaul of River Arts District zoning and development procedures
But each was delayed.
The Chestnut Street developer, PBCL, requested a delay; that hearing was postponed until Jan. 28.
As for the Avalon project, some Council members voiced concern that it required a rezoning of industrial land and that it didn’t include an affordable housing component. Triangle Real Estate representatives asserted that the city has rezoned other industrial properties when another goal (such as dealing with its housing crunch) was more important and that the rents will be reasonable for the area. Council delayed the project until Feb. 12.
The River Arts District development overhaul was also postponed to Jan. 14 at staff’s request, to give them more time to prepare the exact details of the changes in oversight.
Frustrated in East Asheville
During the public-comment portion of the meeting, Kim Martin-Engle, a leader of the EAST Community group, said that members are frustrated because city staff had stopped working with them on development planning and safety improvements for East Asheville. Martin-Engle asked staff to resume that work, including a corridor study for Tunnel Road similar to the one the city is conducting for the Haywood Road area.
"We believe the city, working with residents and stakeholders, can create a boulevard entrance into and out of downtown," Martin-Engle told Council. "Presently, the perception of many drivers is [that Tunnel Road is] a roadway designed for speed. Tragically, since November 2012 two pedestrians have been fatally injured on this very corridor."
Planning Director Judy Daniel responded that city reorganizations due, in part, to tight budgets have left staff with less time for community and neighborhood groups like EAST. She agreed, however, that development planning in the Tunnel Road area should be a major priority.
Manheimer noted that the ongoing Haywood corridor study required extra funds from the city for both staff time and consultant fees.
Many Council members, especially Chris Pelly, a former East Asheville neighborhood activist, praised Martin-Engel and EAST for bringing the issue to their attention. Council referred the matter to its Planning and Economic Development committee for further discussion. That committee is composed of Manheimer, Hunt and Bothwell. Its next meeting is scheduled for Jan. 21.
Council ended with a closed session to discuss an undisclosed personnel matter, but didn't have a key staff member present (the member wasn't specified, but City manager Gary Jackson was absent that day. Council was to reconvene at 3:30 p.m., Dec. 17, for holding that closed session. Council members reported that they expected no public action at that meeting.