Asheville City Council

The Asheville City Council’s unanimous approval of a proposed mixed-use development in Asheville’s River District paves the way for further revitalization in the historic area, neighboring merchants say.

“Please vote for the zoning that will allow for this improvement,” urged Susan Kendel, owner of Carolina Cornerstone Construction on Depot Street, one of several local businesspeople who spoke during a public hearing at Council’s April 12 formal session.

Mountain Housing Opportunities plans to spend up to $20 million on the development, which will provide 110 one- to three-bedroom apartments at rents ranging from $300 to $675 per month. The local nonprofit specializes in developing housing for low-income families.

Federal and state tax credits, which could amount to as much as $10 million (half the projected cost), will play a crucial role in making the project feasible, said MHO Community Rental Investments Manager Cindy Weeks. The credits, she explained, will offset the cost by “[bringing] in huge sources of equity, so our bank loans will be much smaller.”

Three types of credits are available, Weeks told Xpress: for historic renovation, affordable housing and investing in a nonresidential project in a blighted area. Investors buy the credits, providing money for construction; they can then take advantage of the tax credits themselves. And the reduced debt load enables the project to be viable while keeping rents low.

The project also includes renovating the neighboring 115-year-old Glen Rock Hotel, creating 20 to 25 modestly priced condominiums. The nonprofit is buying both properties from Ralph and Clarence Cannon.

The approval by City Council marked the first use of a new zoning classification. The Urban Place District, created in February, allows much-higher-density residential development (as much as 64 units per acre, compared to 16 units per acre under the property’s prior zoning), as well as mixed-use retail, office and community space. When Council approved the new zoning category, Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford noted that it would be perfect for upcoming projects in the long-neglected River District. Around the same time, Mountain Housing Opportunities’ proposed development went before the city’s Technical Review Committee, where it won unanimous support. Council also approved a conditional-use permit for the project.

The 2.11-acre site sits between Depot and Ralph streets, surrounded by dilapidated commercial and industrial structures. Apart from the hotel, only two small, abandoned buildings remain on the property; they are slated for demolition. But a historic photo of the site displayed by Weeks showed Asheville’s train depot, along with many other buildings. The area, noted Weeks, “was really like a small town — a real hub of activity.” Mayor Charles Worley, an Asheville native, said he thought the depot had been torn down in the 1960s.

The photo, taken during the great flood of 1916, showed the site partially under water, due to spillover from a temporary dam created by debris swept down the French Broad during the deluge that lodged against the old bridge. During last year’s flooding, water never reached the site (which is not in the floodplain), she noted.

The new building will contain 110 apartments, as well as three floors of mixed-use space. The Urban Place designation, noted Shuford, prohibits certain “undesirable” uses, such as bars and nightclubs.

According to the plans shown to Council, the complex will offer courtyards and other pedestrian amenities as well as a possible rooftop green space. Additional landscaping is planned along Town Branch, a creek that runs through the property (affectionately dubbed “Nasty Branch” by the locals). Most of the parking, noted Weeks, will be contained inside the lower levels of the building.

No objections were raised during the public hearing, and every one of the handful of people who spoke enthusiastically endorsed the new development.

Kevin Green, whose family owns Green’s Mini-Mart on Depot Street, said he’s watched Asheville revitalize every corner of the city except the River District. “It has pretty much been the redheaded stepchild of the city,” he said.

Besides providing affordable housing, the development will also help maintain momentum on the overall plan for the riverfront, the city staff report points out.

Council member Terry Bellamy, who is marketing-and-development manager for Mountain Housing Opportunities, was excused from the discussion and vote.

Next annexation

Council members also took the first step in extending the city limits into five new areas south of town: the Ridgefield Business Park, Ascot Point Village, a section of Long Shoals Road, Airport Road and Town Square. The move will bring several residential and business complexes and two public schools into the city (the schools will remain in the county system).

The city’s policy is to annex bordering areas that exhibit urban character and meet state requirements, according to the staff report. The whole process is expected to take about eight months, barring legal challenges by residents. The next step, said Shuford, is to determine the project’s economic impact on the city (including both expenses and tax revenues) and report back to Council on April 26.

Council member Brownie Newman likened annexation to another perennial source of controversy: water. “Asheville pays twice the level of taxes as people outside the city,” noted Newman. Those taxes, he said, pay for city services. “When [an area] becomes urban in nature, it should pay for those things,” he asserted.

But not everyone was ready to get on board the annexation express. Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower had a philosophical objection, saying the “harm outweighs the benefits.”

And Council member Joe Dunn had a problem with the way the new tax revenues would be used. “The money is not going back into core city services,” he said. “Until I see that, this councilman will never vote for annexation.”

At Shuford’s suggestion, Council voted on each area separately, so if one annexation is challenged, it won’t hold up all the others. Newman made all the motions to approve, with Council member Holly Jones seconding. All six motions (there are two parcels in Town Square) were approved on 5-2 votes, with Mumpower and Dunn opposed. Several steps remain in the process, however: a May 31 public-information meeting, a June 14 public hearing, and a June 28 vote on the annexation. If approved, the annexations would take effect Sept. 30 (for Ridgefield and Town Square) and Dec. 31 (for Ascot Point, Long Shoals Road and Airport Road).

[Brian Postelle is a regular contributor to Xpress.]

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