Asheville City Council

“The way our area has been gerrymandered is very unique and very unrealistic.”

— Council member Brownie Newman

On the eve of a deadline to submit priority requests for federal funding, the Asheville City Council approved its entire shopping list at its Feb. 28 formal session. On the majority of those items, Council member Carl Mumpower was the lone holdout as city leaders voted to submit requests for: converting the Reid Center into a performing-arts facility ($3 million); buying two hybrid buses ($980,000); building a new shooting and driving simulator ($463,000); tying together the city’s radios with Buncombe County’s, as well as local military and federal systems ($2.3 million); “green” building enhancements for a fire station in West Asheville ($1 million); a system enabling emergency-response vehicles to override traffic signals ($495,000); and asking that the city be reclassified to change its status with respect to federal transit funds.

Mumpower declined to support any of the agenda items, declaring, “This is an exercise in political excess.” The only other discussion concerned the estimated $350,000 to $500,000 needed to restore the Thomas Wolfe cabin in Azalea Park. At the request of Council member Brownie Newman, that funding was voted on separately.

“I just don’t find the historical arguments that strong,” said Newman, pointing out that Wolfe’s famous stay in the cabin had lasted all of one summer.

But Council member Jan Davis, who had argued for the restoration during Council’s Feb. 21 work session, said the city has an obligation to the property. The cabin, he noted, appears in photos of Wolfe late in his life, when the author had become famous. Besides, said Davis, the cabin is now a ward of the city, having been sold to Asheville in 2001 in connection with the creation of Azalea Park.

“We have made quite an investment in it,” said Davis. “We have acquired it, and we accepted some of the responsibility to maintain it.”

That request, too, was tacked onto the legislative agenda, with dissenting votes from Newman and Mumpower.

The bus fuss

The 2000 U.S. census resulted in big changes in Asheville’s eligibility for federal transit funds. Through the magic of statistics, which lumped the city together with assorted surrounding towns and counties, Asheville was designated an urbanized area with a population of more than 200,000. That magic number cost the city $950,000 in federal Transit Administration funding that, in the past, has helped pay for Asheville’s bus system, city Transit Director Bruce Black reported. In order to wean the city off the funds, the feds will half the money next year, and then half them again the next. And the year after that: nothing.

In an effort to correct what they see as an unfair designation (and thereby reclaim those moneys), some on Council want to bring back hired guns Ball Janik, a Washington, D.C.-based legal firm that the city hired to help secure federal funds in 2003 but let go last year. Charging only half its previous fee ($5,000 per month), the firm would narrow its focus to obtaining transit funding, Economic Development Director Sam Powers told Council.

The city’s fleet of 19 buses runs 17 routes. The annual transit budget comes to $3.6 million, made up of city, state and federal funds, as well as money from fares and partnerships with other institutions like UNCA. The federal funds, which tend to rise year to year, were locked at $950,000 in 2002, when the 2000 census numbers — and Asheville’s new designation — came into play. Asheville Transit Services will still receive federal dollars, but that money cannot be used for operational costs.

Black told Xpress that the city, which already spends about $813,000 on transit annually, will have to find extra dough just to keep the buses running at their current level of operation. As the dollars peter out, that means the city will budget an extra $137,000 next year and an extra $537,000 by 2010.

“The way our area has been gerrymandered is very unique and very unrealistic,” said Newman. “We are in a good position to state our case for an exemption from those rules.”

But not everyone on Council seemed eager to secure the firm’s help. Mumpower said Rep. Charles Taylor‘s office had told him that Ball Janik had done little or nothing to sway members of Congress. The city, argued Mumpower, should make its own case without relying on outside legal assistance.

“Taylor’s office has assured me that Ball Janik had no effect at all,” said Mumpower. He did offer, however, to team up with Newman on a trip to Washington in an attempt to straighten out the appropriations situation.

Davis and Mayor Terry Bellamy also argued against rehiring the firm. But Newman, while agreeing to Mumpower’s invitation, stuck to his guns about Ball Janik, saying, “I think we need to hire these folks to help us in this issue.”

In the end, however, the proposal failed, with Council member Bryan Freeborn joining Davis, Mumpower and Bellamy in voting against rehiring the law firm.

Can you take me higher?

When City Council adopted the “urban village district” zoning designation in 2001, two developers were already in line to take advantage of the higher-density development the new district would allow. One of them was Biltmore Farms. And indeed, the staff report to Council at the time indicated that the urban-village designation was expected to be used primarily when requested by developers.

So having developers waiting in the wings while City Council is considering a major change in the definition of a zoning classification is nothing new. But a developer whose project relies on that very change has to be pretty confident — or else a gambler with nerves of steel — to be prepared to stand up and pitch his proposal to Council immediately after the vote on the zoning change.

The urban-village concept is supposed to promote walkable communities where people can live, work and shop all in the same area. Since the adoption of the zoning district, three such projects have sprung up in Asheville: one above the East Asheville Wal-Mart on the former Sayles-Biltmore Bleacheries site, one at the former Gerber Plant site in South Asheville, and Biltmore Park Town Square, a cluster of mixed-use buildings begun in 1999 and part of the commercial/residential component that would make Biltmore Park an urban village. The large development planned by Biltmore Farms, located off Long Shoals Road adjacent to Interstate 26 in Skyland, has gone up in stages since the opening of One Town Square in 2000, and annexed into the city without challenge by the developers.

On Feb. 28, Biltmore Farms came before Council with an expanded master plan that included a 20-acre rezoning to allow for the construction of the next phase: 155 residential units, 50,000 square feet of office space, and 200,000 square feet of commercial space. With a multiplex movie theater, shopping, residential units and work space, the project appears to be in keeping with Biltmore Park’s intended function as a multiuse development. And when the entire project is completed, it will contain twice those amounts of residential and commercial space, according to the master plan.

But a major sticking point appeared to be a hotel planned for the west side of the development. According to the developers, the hotel would not be economically feasible if bound by the 80-foot height limit for buildings in urban villages. To address the problem, city staff was recommending almost doubling the permissible height to 150 feet. Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford reassured Council members that they needn’t worry about suddenly seeing high-rises pop up all over town. Council, he noted, would still be reviewing proposed urban-village districts on a case-by-case basis and could choose to impose further height restrictions on individual projects as it saw fit.

“If Council feels the height is not appropriate [in a given instance], it can certainly vote against it,” said Shuford. That prompted City Attorney Bob Oast to jump in with a clarification: “You could require it to be lower than that, but you could not allow it to be higher.”

At first, some Council members (including Newman and Robin Cape) appeared to have doubts about drastically increasing the height limit. But Freeborn insisted that the added latitude gives Council the ability to achieve higher density — a goal touted in the 2025 plan as a way to fight suburban sprawl.

“Do we want to see increased density? I think we do,” said Freeborn, adding, “This gives us the ability to do it.” Duly convinced of their oversight ability, Council members voted unanimously to change the height restriction.

And with that in the bag, Biltmore Farms’ Paul Szurek proceeded to outline the master plan for the latest phase of Biltmore Park — including a proposed 12-story hotel. That component, he told Council, is critical to making the urban village financially feasible. But Szurek also indicated that the height was negotiable, and he quickly agreed to a nine-story limit, saying, “We feel that’s a compromise we can live with to make everybody as happy as possible.” Architect Larry Zinser also supported the nine-story cap, which he said gives him more flexibility in his design.

That’s because the designated number of stories does not translate into an actual specified height, Urban Planner Alan Glines told Xpress later. A nine-story building with a restaurant on the lower floors, for example, could still end up being 120 feet high. And in theory, that building could reach the 150-foot limit, though Glines said this was unlikely.

Both the rezoning and the revised master plan passed unanimously.

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