Asheville City Council

You can’t always get what you want, whether you’re a member of the public or the Asheville City Council. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make your point — or even take a stand.

And at the March 22 formal session, Council member Holly Jones wondered whether two resolutions supporting recommendations made by the Downtown Social Issues Task Force last September weren’t more fluff than substance. The controversial proposals were first presented to Council last summer, with some receiving a less-than-cordial reception.

And while she eventually came around at this meeting to supporting (albeit hesitantly) the Asheville Mural Project, Jones drew the line at endorsing a “more vigorous enforcement” of the city ordinances banning panhandling, public drunkenness and graffiti.

Jones joined her Council colleagues in voting for the first measure, though she complained that it lacked teeth. “I would like it to have a little more flesh on its bones,” she said.

But Jones balked at supporting the second resolution — not because she doesn’t think enforcement is needed, she explained, but because she doesn’t think it should take priority over other measures also suggested by the task force. Jones has long championed holistic measures combining social services and enforcement to address social issues such as drug abuse and homelessness.

“I have a problem passing a resolution saying we are going to do something we’re supposed to be doing anyway, when we’re not doing some other things we could be doing,” Jones declared.

Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford told Council that these particular resolutions were developed first not because they are more important than other measures but because they are “low-hanging fruit” — steps requiring the least effort by staff and no legal or budgetary action. Implementing other task-force suggestions, he noted, will involve funding and/or legal obstacles.

But without seeing what the big picture will look like, Jones wouldn’t budge. “I can come back to this after we make the harder choices down the road,” she said. Even without Jones’ support, however, the measure passed 6-1.

Won’t get fooled again

The proposed renovation and expansion of an apartment complex in Kenilworth, near Biltmore Village, seems poised to gain approval, but the memory of a recent stink over tree-cutting in conjunction with another project had some Council members on their guard.

Power Development LLC bought the Biltmore Gardens complex at the southern end of Biltmore Avenue in January. But the proposed $18 million-plus project, which would include adding office and retail space and a restaurant, has neighbors up in arms. And city staff, in their recommendation to Council, had already outlined a 10-point list of proposed conditions to be placed on the permit, including restrictions on outdoor lighting and building design.

“This project is literally at our front door,” said Mary Evers. She and others expressed fears about increased traffic on Kenilwood Place and the loss of trees on the property, begging Council members to place significant conditions on the development before approving it.

The neighbors had raised many of the same concerns in a prior meeting with Charles Tessier, representing the developers. He told Council members how the plans had been retooled to address these issues.

At the Council meeting, Tessier and landscape engineer Matt Sprouse displayed sketches of altered designs showing buildings moved to avoid stands of trees and a new entrance to the property created on a side street. The developers also agreed to pay for a traffic light at the intersection of Biltmore Avenue and Caledonia Road (if the Department of Transportation determines that one is necessary) and to provide a shelter for a nearby city bus stop.

The plan, he explained, is to convert the apartments to condos, with prices ranging from $139,900 to $399,000.

But neighborhood residents also voiced concern that short-term rental of the condos could lower the value of adjacent property. Tessier confirmed that the developers do plan to market the condos to the medical community affiliated with Mission Hospitals, which sometimes brings in personnel for short stays.

City Attorney Bob Oast assured Council members that they could require the condos to be owner-occupied (as Council did when it approved a 168-unit condo complex in Shiloh in 2002). And Council member Terry Bellamy suggested allowing no more than 25 percent of the units to be used for short-term rental.

But others on Council resisted that move, preferring not to stand in the way of a market-driven complex. “We’re on slippery ground when we start talking about percentages,” argued Council member Joe Dunn.

Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower agreed, wondering, “Do we really have the ability to say you can’t rent your property?”

Tessier, meanwhile, assured Council that, like other such developments, these condos would be managed by a homeowners’ association that would look after its own best interests. “The [restrictions] people think up are so far beyond what Council can think up,” he said.

Council member Brownie Newman said that since the property is currently rental units, he doesn’t see the short-term rentals as a significant threat. But Newman had other fish to fry — particularly the question of how many trees would be cut down to make room for the new construction (a point about which the plans displayed by Tessier remained vague).

Still stinging from the brouhaha surrounding the Campus Crest apartments in Montford, where developers felled a stand of trees after promising to preserve them (see “Nothing But the Truth,” Jan. 19 Xpress), Newman wanted some way to hold the Biltmore Gardens developers to a firm commitment. Tessier did present Council with a survey showing which trees would be cut and which ones would stay, but it hadn’t been adjusted to reflect the changes in the plans. And their assurances that they would cut as few trees as possible did little to appease Newman.

“We pretty much have to nail this as much as we can,” he insisted. To that end, staff is drafting new language designed to hold developers to their word when it comes to tree removal. Council will consider that language at a future meeting (perhaps as soon as the April 12 formal session, said Shuford). In the meantime, however, the conditional-use permit — containing the restrictions recommended by staff plus a few added by Council — was unanimously approved. If Council members do approve language concerning tree preservation, it will be added to the permit.

Council members also unanimously approved a zoning change to allow for the nonresidential aspects of the project and for short-term rental of the renovated residential units.

Stacking the deck

Newman proved less successful in promoting another project, however.

A 650-space, five-level downtown parking deck to be built adjacent to the Civic Center and the Basilica of St. Lawrence has already been in the works for more than five years. During that time, the projected cost has jumped from $15.2 million to just over $20 million, making some Council members uneasy.

But seeing a deck in Greenville that had apartments built into one side gave Newman the idea of using the Asheville deck to add affordable housing downtown. From the start, however, he faced an uphill battle — and almost didn’t get to discuss the matter at all.

Carl Mumpower objected to revisiting the issue, reminding Council members that they’d already voted to go ahead with the deck. “It is backtracking on a vote,” he said. “I don’t think I would have voted for a $20 million plan without a plan.”

“We didn’t lock them into a particular design, nor did we instruct them to change it,” countered Newman.

And Mayor Charles Worley wielded his authority, declaring, “I have made that ruling: It is on the agenda.” After some squabbling among council members, Worley took off the gloves, challenging Council to overrule him with a vote.

Joe Dunn took the mayor at his word, making a motion to kill the discussion. It was seconded by Mumpower but failed on a 2-5 vote.

City Engineer Cathy Ball said that while staff wouldn’t rule out the idea of residences attached to the structure, neither would they recommend it. Making room for the apartments, she explained, would eliminate 109 parking spaces. Another 19 spaces would have to be allocated for the residents’ use. And Ball reminded Council members that 150 spaces had already been lopped off the original design.

Ball also cited other considerations, such as $250,000 in redesign costs, an additional four- to six-month construction delay, and a $150,000 reduction in annual revenues due to the lost parking spaces.

Newman, however, defended his proposal, arguing that although it would be a “financial wash,” the city’s continual need for more affordable housing downtown outweighs the losses.

But Mumpower expressed doubt that such apartments would qualify as “affordable.” And Shuford said the only way it could work would be if the city subsidized the units.

In the end, Newman’s proposal to change the design went down on a 2-5 vote, with only Jones joining Newman in support of it. But on a 6-1 vote (with Mumpower opposed), Council members did agree to commission a $25,000 market study to assess the feasibility of including affordable housing in a second, privately owned building on the site that is earmarked for a mix of residential, retail and office space.

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