With changes on the horizon for policies that shape Asheville’s downtown — design review guidelines, standards for City Council review in the central business district and planning for the city-owned property on Haywood Street, to name three — it appears that the Downtown Commission’s already-significant influence can only grow.
Perhaps an awareness of the importance of the commission’s role in promoting the sustainability and continued development of downtown was behind the bumper crop of applications City Council received for one open seat on the appointed body. Out of 15 applicants, Council selected four finalists for interviews on Jan. 26, prior to the regular session of Council.
Councilman Brian Haynes commented that he wished all four could be appointed, and Councilwoman Julie Mayfield echoed the remark, saying that the commission needs to be expanded. In the end, Franzi Charen, director of the Asheville Grown Business Alliance and co-owner of downtown retailer Hip Replacements, got the nod.
Andrew Fletcher, a professional jazz musician known for his advocacy on behalf of the Asheville Buskers Collective, received the votes of Councilmen Cecil Bothwell and Keith Young.
Council appointed Barry Bialik and Laura Collins to the Affordable Housing Advisory Committee. Since two of the three candidates for the HUB Economic Development Alliance withdrew from consideration, Council voted to re-advertise for the available seat on that body.
Hearing on Mills Gap apartments delayed
Council approved a request submitted by Rusty Pulliam, developer of a proposed apartment complex at 60 Mills Gap Rd., to delay a public hearing on the project until April 26. Pulliam’s plans for the property, the site of the former Plasticorp industrial facility, include construction of 272 residential units and require a conditional rezoning of the parcel from industrial to highway business zone.
South Asheville resident Vijay Kapoor, who spoke at the end of the Council session during the open public comment period, thanked Council for its interest in working with residents who are concerned about the traffic impact of the project. Kapoor pledged to continue working with Council to bring attention to the concerns of South Asheville residents, which include the proposed apartment complex, potential widening of Sweeten Creek Road by the North Carolina Department of Transportation and a Duke Energy substation in the immediate vicinity of the 60 Mills Gap Rd. site.
Council approved its consent agenda, including a measure that will amend the city employment application to no longer require disclosure of past criminal history during the initial job application process for certain positions. Councilman Young lauded the change, commenting, “Everybody deserves opportunity for gainful employment.”
Local political activist and business owner Dee Williams recognized a number of community partners who have supported the Ban the Box initiative, including Mission Health. Williams said her next stop will be Buncombe County, adding that another initiative will be training the formerly incarcerated to take the lead on advocating for the Ban the Box movement.
HOME funds reallocated
Council approved the reallocation of $928,064 of HOME funds. Some development projects to which the funds had been allocated in the FY 2015-16 budget did not go forward because the projects were not selected to receive state tax credits; thus, the funds require reallocation. City Community Development staff, at the direction of the Asheville Regional Housing Consortium, sought proposals from HOME-eligible sub-recipients and for developments proposed by Community Housing Development Organizations.
The selected recipients and their development projects include:
- Givens Estates, Gerber Village Phase I in South Asheville
- Henderson County Habitat for Humanity, Dodd Meadows Phase III
- Housing Assistance Corporation, Oklawaha Village in Hendersonville
- Madison County, Rural Housing Rehabilitation
- Mountain Housing Opportunities and Farmbound Holdings, LLC, Pinnacle Point in South Asheville
Hyatt Place Hotel at Rockwood Road conditional zoning amendment approved
A proposed hotel on Rockwood Road near the Asheville Regional Airport received a height amendment to the zoning ordinance when it came before Council in 2013. That project, which was to have been a Holiday Inn Express hotel, did not go forward, but it has found a “new flag,” which planner Shannon Tuch explained is a term that means a different brand.
Now to be branded as a Hyatt Place Hotel, the development team asked to increase the total number of rooms (from 100 to 108) and the overall size of the building (from 60,474 to 71,367 square feet). Most of the site and and other characteristics of the previously-approved conditional zoning application are unchanged.
Councilman Smith asked Tuch to comment on what, if any, community benefit the original height amendment offered. “Every project is a little bit different,” Tuch responded, explaining that her research indicated the height amendment was granted because the project was already zoned for highway business, the site is close to the airport and the hotel will serve the regional economic hub. For those reasons, Tuch said, it was deemed appropriate to grant the extra height.
Smith asked Justin Church of Blue Ridge Environmental Consultants, who was representing the project, whether he was authorized to offer community benefits similar to those offered by John McKibbon in connection with the redevelopment of the former BB&T building as a hotel and condominium development at Council’s Jan. 12 meeting. Those benefits included guaranteeing a living wage for full-time employees, contributing to the city’s affordable housing trust fund, advocating for the allocation of a portion of hotel room tax revenues to fund city infrastructure expenses and including public art in the hotel. Church said he was not able to make commitments on behalf of the hotel company in those areas.
Councilman Bothwell said it would be nice to exact other conditions from the developer, but since essentially the same plan had previously been approved,”I feel like it is a done deal.” Bothwell moved to approve the zoning request; the motion passed 6-1, with Smith opposed.
Vicki Meath of Just Economics of Western North Carolina reported on a State of the Transit press conference and rally held earlier in the afternoon of Tuesday, Jan. 26. Meath said that, after expanding Sunday service, the second highest-priority need of transit users in Asheville was increasing evening service hours. Some transit-dependent riders, Meath reported, had lost their jobs when evening service was reduced during the transition to the Asheville Redefines Transit system.
Riders would be willing to pay more to make expanded evening service a reality, she continued. Meath asked Council to prioritize transit planning and funding as it considers its agenda for the upcoming year at the Council retreat on Jan. 29 and 30.
Carmen Ramos-Kennedy, president of the Asheville-Buncombe chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, added her voice to Meath’s in calling for prioritizing funding for the transit system. Ramos-Kennedy clarified that Just Economics was not advocating an increase in fares to support expanded evening service, but was simply pointing out how important evening service is to transit users.
Councilwoman Mayfield said that roughly 15% of the operating funds for the transit system come from fares. Asheville resident Timothy Sadler said more funds are needed.
Councilman Bothwell responded that he will be urging an examination of the possibility of increasing fees in city parking decks to provide additional funding for the transit system.
Priscilla Ndiaye started a petition to save the Walton Street Park and Pool last year, and she asked Council to consider funding for the park during the Council retreat. Ndiaye also said that a meeting is scheduled on Mon., Feb. 1 with Asheville Parks and Recreation director Roderick Simmons and the community to discuss the status of the park. City Manager Gary Jackson reported that the city is working on assessing the condition of the pool and putting together a plan for its rehabilitation. Councilman Young commented that he will attend the Monday meeting, and he will be thinking of the Walton Street recreation facilities during the Council retreat.
“That helps get the facts straight,” responded Ndiaye, remarking that many rumors had circulated about the possible closure of the pool or park.
Dee Williams commented that businesses have an obligation to provide community benefits when they are in the position to do so. She urged Council to consider seeking funding from Mission Health and other area businesses for the Walton Street Pool rehabilitation and other projects.
At the end of the public comment period, Council went into closed session. The next regular meeting of City Council will take place on Feb. 9 at 5 p.m. in Council chambers on the second floor of City Hall.