City Council pledged $4.2 million to the redevelopment of Asheville’s oldest public housing neighborhood, a move Mayor Esther Manheimer said will address needs and provide opportunity for a community that has historically been under-served.
The project will demolish 96 existing units on an 11-acre site at the foot of Asheville’s South Slope. New infrastructure and 212 units of deeply affordable and mixed-rate housing with community spaces will replace the antiquated, barracks-style row houses. Residents living at the complex when construction begins will be relocated to other Asheville Housing Authority units and will have an “absolute right of return” to the neighborhood when the first phase of construction is complete, said Housing Authority CFO David Nash.
At its April 26 meeting, Council approved a zoning change for the property, from RM16 to Urban Place Conditional Zoning, to support the higher density of the redeveloped community.
Council also approved a deal with Duke Energy that gives the city an option to purchase the former Matthews Ford property at 319 Biltmore Ave., which is adjacent to Lee Walker Heights. Duke bought the property for $5.3 million several years ago; the new agreement gives the city the option to buy it for the same price at any time over the next eight years. As part of the agreement, Duke Energy will immediately grant the city the right to build an access road into Lee Walker Heights from Biltmore Avenue. In exchange, the city agreed to allow Duke easements to access substations within the city limits. Additionally, Duke can decline to sell the property to the city if the utility provider is not satisfied with substation ordinances in place when the city wishes to exercise the option.
The $4.2 million will mostly be used for infrastructure such as roads, sewer lines, water lines and site work. The city’s commitment is contingent on the project receiving low-income tax credits. A decision on those funds is anticipated in August. If the tax credits are approved, construction on the $33 million project could begin in April 2017, Nash said.
The city’s commitment represents an investment of about $20,000 per unit, which Jeff Staudinger, the city’s assistant director for community and economic development, said was consistent with the level of support provided by other cities for similar redevelopment efforts.
Asheville Housing Authority CEO Gene Bell said the information Council reviewed about the design and financing for the new buildings is important, but the most important part of the project is “changing people’s lives.” Crystal Reid, who has lived at Lee Walker Heights since 2009, called her involvement in planning for the project “a journey.” After months of community meetings, Reid said, “I am very educated at this point.” Resident Joseph Tarrant explained that he is most concerned with providing safe play areas and new opportunities for children living in the neighborhood.
Manheimer noted that the planning and design of the project was driven by the community: “We’ve heard from residents tonight. They have been involved throughout process.” Manheimer seemed elated to see the project coming to a vote. “I’m amazed we’ve made it this far,” she said.
Council member Keith Smith related that his grandparents were the first to move into the community. “There’s a lot of history at Lee Walker Heights,” he said, adding that he would vote for the project “with caution.” Young urged Council to consider the impact of the project funding on other affordable housing needs going forward.
Council member Gordon Smith ruminated about changes since the complex was built. “Truman was president,” Smith said. “Gas was 18 cents a gallon. The world has changed a lot, and we need to change Lee Walker Heights along with it.”
Other articles on the April 26,2016 meeting of City Council: