Shock waves

If you stroll down South Lexington Avenue, you might overlook the blockish white building that’s generating a storm of controversy over Asheville’s growth.

The building squats on part of a pie-shaped chunk of land bounded by South Lexington, Hilliard and Church streets, just around the corner from lively Biltmore Avenue’s downtown scene. The structure is owned by Union Transfer & Storage Co., the local agent for United Van Lines — which explains the tractor-trailers parked on the street and behind the property’s chain-link fence.

But the building’s current use isn’t what has downtown developers up in arms. It’s the plans Buncombe County officials recently set into motion to buy the 1.7 acres the building sits on and turn the space into a minimum-security jail for non-violent prisoners — such as drunk drivers — on work release.

“It’s going to stop development dead in its tracks,” predicted developer Harry Pilos early last week.

That’s a fear echoed by many in the downtown development community, who say the largely commercial neighborhood on the slope between downtown and the medical district anchored by Mission St. Joseph’s is the only logical direction for downtown to grow. Putting a jail in its midst, they feel, will throw cold water on growth — particularly nascent residential development.

But the Buncombe County commissioners had a different perspective, citing the county’s need for additional jail space. The board voted unanimously at their Jan. 16 formal meeting to authorize the purchase of the property for $1.45 million, despite pleas (including one unanimously backed by City Council) that commissioners delay action. Others have asked them to scrap the plan entirely. The deal will close on Jan. 31.

However, commissioners indicated that they’d be willing to meet with city leaders and downtown representatives to discuss plans for the site and possible alternatives. A public meeting will be held at 2 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 26, in the county commissioners chambers at the Buncombe County Courthouse.

At least a couple of commissioners doubt that the proposed satellite jail will torpedo downtown development.

“We’re taking — nothing against Union Transfer — a really ugly building and putting six-and-a-half million dollars into it and making it better,” Commissioner David Young declared in the commissioners’ administrative “pre-meeting” last week. “We’re basically taking the lead in developing the south part of downtown.”

Jail needs

A growing jail population means that Buncombe County will face chronic overcrowding problems within the next two years, County Planner Cynthia Barcklow told the commissioners on Jan. 16.

Currently, the county’s Detention Center and Jail Annex collectively contain 356 beds for inmates. Opened in 1996, the Detention Center (better known simply as the jail) stands beside the Buncombe County Courthouse and has 276 beds. The Jail Annex is housed on the ground floor of a county office building on Valley Street; part of the annex is contained in a boxy addition to the building on the side that faces South Charlotte Street. The annex has 80 beds and is used mostly for low-level offenders, according to Barcklow.

The combined average daily population in the two facilities for the first 10 months of 2000 was 292, Barcklow reported. The growth rate has slowed over the past three years from 6 percent (and higher) to 3.5 percent a year, thanks to the increasing use of alternatives to incarceration (such as probation), as well as efforts to better manage the jail population (including a designated officer to make sure sentenced inmates are quickly transferred to the Department of Corrections). However, she noted that the county will still face an increasing space crunch in the future. If growth trends continue, the average daily population will be 347 in 2005 and 412 in 2010.

Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton told the board that converting the building on South Lexington Avenue to a minimum-security jail would add 120 beds to the county’s system — 80 for men and 40 for women. Even with the added beds, projections show the county will face periods of overcrowding by 2009 and chronic problems by 2012, county officials say. A jail study prepared by GSA Ltd. includes a “peaking factor” formula that dictates that the number of beds needed is 20 percent more than the projected average daily population.

The county also plans to relocate its Mountain Mobility headquarters to the South Lexington property. (The van transportation system currently operates out of leased space on Coxe Avenue.)

Creighton noted that county officials had looked at a number of sites, including one on Patton Avenue, next to the Malvern Hills neighborhood, which they rejected as inappropriate.

“In putting the building downtown, we’re trying to be sensitive,” Creighton emphasized, referring to the South Lexington site’s nonresidential status.

Since the proposed satellite jail wouldn’t have a kitchen, it would need to be within a 10-minute drive of the Detention Center to keep food delivered to inmates warm, County Manager Wanda Greene noted. Barcklow noted later that the satellite jail also needs to be close to the Detention Center so additional jail officers can get there quickly if a problem arises.

Creighton tried to reassure concerned neighbors by noting that the county would endeavor to improve the property by adding a layer of stucco or brick to the building’s exterior, paving the parking lot and planting trees. In addition, the added security in the neighborhood may help with the area’s drug and prostitution problems, Creighton posited.

The new use of the property would eliminate the tractor-trailer traffic at the site, as well. The building would house people on work release, who would spend their days at their jobs and return to the center at night. That means that most of the traffic generated by the satellite jail would occur during early morning and evening.

Creighton urged the board to move ahead to purchase the site, noting that the county can apply for a $1 million grant from the U.S. Marshal’s Service, awarded on a first-come first-served basis. The county has made an offer on the building (which expires on Jan. 31) contingent on structural and environmental checks, Creighton said.

Neighborhood reaction

The public reaction to the proposal was less than enthusiastic. Neighbors of the proposed project expressed reactions ranging from opposition to cautious optimism, while people interested in downtown revitalization largely spoke out vehemently against it.

The varying reactions by neighbors are even contained within one family.

Bill Edwards and his family own five buildings in the neighborhood, including the one housing the family business, Edwards Equipment, at the point where South Lexington Avenue and Church Street meet.

Edwards says the neighborhood — which has been plagued with vandalism and prostitution — is slowly on the way up, as more buildings are renovated.

“The town has progressively been moving south, and the hospitals have been moving north, and we’re right in the center,” Edwards said. “It’s an up-and-coming area that has been up-and-coming for years and years and years, and I’m just floored at how the county can even look at this.”

But his son, Ron, wasn’t so sure the proposed facility would bring down the neighborhood.

“Until I can find out what exactly they’re proposing, tentatively I’m going to say it doesn’t really bother me,” said Ron Edwards, president of the family-owned business, which deals in cash registers and security systems.

However, if the jail increases problems he’s had with what he calls “low life” and prostitutes in the neighborhood, the younger Edwards said he would oppose the plan.

On the day before the commissioners meeting, however, he said he didn’t think his opinion would matter to officials.

“They’ve already made up their minds,” he declared. “This is what they’re going to do. It doesn’t matter what we say. You got to have a jail. So where you going to put it?”

Other commercial neighbors, such as John Eller, one of the partners in Abbott Construction across Hilliard Street, seemed less than thrilled — yet not strongly opposed.

“I guess the facility needs to be somewhere,” Eller reflected. “It wouldn’t be my first choice.”

Gerry Shaw, who leases nearby space on Church Street for his business, Western Carolina Optical, offered a stronger opinion, worrying the neighborhood’s chance for improvement (with the aid of development dollars) would be compromised.

Shaw, who has an option to buy the property his business sits on, says the proposal gives him doubts.

“I am concerned about the property value and whether I want to invest in this area or not,” Shaw revealed. “I’m just concerned that it’s not going to help us any around here.”

However, Larry Monday, who owns Whole Armor Uniforms (located across Church Street from the proposed site, in a building owned by the Edwards family) said he thought a satellite jail might actually help his business, which sells uniforms to public-safety officers.

“Is there going to be a traffic issue?” asked Monday. “That’s our only concern.”

The future of downtown development

Folks interested in downtown development, however, expressed stronger opinions than neighborhood business owners. Almost all of the 13 speakers at the commissioners’ Jan. 16 meeting either spoke against the jail proposal or urged caution — that is, until commissioners Chairman Nathan Ramsey cut off public comment (even though some people hadn’t had the chance to address the board). The issue drew most of the standing-room only crowd of around 75 audience members.

Carol L. King, chair of the city’s Downtown Commission (whose mission is to maintain downtown’s viability), told the board that 35 new projects are planned or under development in and near downtown.

“All the development is moving right toward your jail location,” King noted.

She added that the Downtown Commission recognizes the need for such a facility in the central-business district, but members felt the proposal needed a more comprehensive analysis. The commission voted unanimously to request a 30-day delay before a decision was made on the fate of the South Lexington property, she told the Board.

She and other speakers acknowledged that the county’s plans caught them off guard. The county’s representatives on the Downtown Commission didn’t even know about the proposal, King revealed later. Even King herself (who served as board Vice-Chair David Gantt’s re-election campaign treasurer) said after the meeting that she didn’t have the inside track.

The item appeared on the commissioners’ agenda for the first time on Jan. 16. Commissioners said later, however, that they had been looking for a site on which to house a satellite jail for a couple of years.

The matter was discussed in closed session on Nov. 7 (Election Day), Dec. 5 and Dec. 19, Clerk to the Board Kathy Hughes said later. The offer to purchase the property was made Dec. 19, and accepted Dec. 21 (contingent on the board’s approval), according to the purchase document.

Ramsey acknowledged the concerns of those who felt out of the loop regarding the county’s intentions.

“I think we need to do a better job of communicating with the community,” he declared.

Developer Harry Pilos — whose Delphi Development company is renovating the Sawyer Motor Co. building on Coxe Avenue — told the Board he considered the proposal a “blow to the development of downtown,” arguing, “We feel very strongly that this is a very bad location for this project.”

Ramsey said he appreciated developers’ investments.

“I’ll send you my mortgage,” Pilos said under his breath, as he strode from the lectern.

Harry Weiss, urban-projects director for Public Interest Projects Inc. (which has invested more than $10 million in downtown redevelopment) also warned that the project will discourage residential development, as well as cripple the tax base.

“This neighborhood is already in dynamic transition,” Weiss told the Board.

Public Interest Projects is renovating a house at 123 Biltmore Ave. to be used for professional offices. The rear of that property lies directly across South Lexington Avenue from the proposed jail site. And within the past five years, Public Interest Projects also pumped money into renovating eight units of housing across Biltmore Avenue from the professional offices project, Weiss noted later.

“We just don’t think you should sacrifice the future tax base of downtown,” Weiss told the commissioners. “Lest you think this is a NIMBY [“not in my backyard”] reaction … this is not a backyard. This is our community’s front yard.”

Developer George Morosani, who is renovating a building on Coxe Avenue, also stated his opposition to the project. But if the county does go ahead with its plans, he urged the Board to put money into making the facility look good.

The Asheville Downtown Association (a group of downtown merchants, property owners and residents) also sought a delay. In an e-mail to the commissioners, Association Chair Peter Alberice, an architect, cited many of the concerns expressed by those in the development community.

“We understand the need for this type of facility; however, we believe that the project should be located adjacent to the present correctional-facilities complex,” Alberice wrote. “The 1.4 million dollars allocated for the purchase of the Union Transfer and Storage complex would be better spent on developing a project adjacent to the present dormitory building.”

That suggestion was rebutted by John E. Cort, president of Cort Architectural Group, who presented a cost comparison between the South Lexington site and constructing a new facility next to the Jail Annex in the county’s parking lot on Valley Street. In a Jan. 11 letter to Mike Bradley in the county planning office, Cort estimated that renovating the South Lexington site would cost $138,000 to $920,000 less than constructing a new building and relocating parking.

Attorney David Matney, representing the Union Transfer property owner (Wayne Campbell) told the Board the project made good economic sense for the county.

“We’ve had lots of discussion about gloom and doom,” Matney said, adding that he didn’t think the proposal would halt the 35 projects underway.

“It will stop mine,” called out Pilos.

With little additional discussion, the Board voted unanimously to pay the Union Transfer and Storage Co. $1.45 million for the property.

After the meeting, Gantt — whose own law office sits a short jaunt up Church Street from the proposed jail site — characterized concerns about the project driving out residential growth as “hysteria.” Such reactions, he said, reflected a mindset similar to people who don’t want group homes in their neighborhood.

“I think we’re going to make it nice, and we’re going to work with people and make it the best facility we can,” Gantt said.

What’s next?

Reaction to the commissioners’ decision ranged from disbelief to hope.


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