“A lot of things got continued without looking ahead—that’s why we’re here tonight,” Mayor Terry Bellamy observed during the Asheville City Council’s April 22 formal session. And though her comment came late in a long meeting as part of a request that Council not let agendas get so jammed up in the future, it certainly summed up the list of updates and revisits Council had on its plate.
Nearly two years into the process of identifying possible private development projects for city-owned property, the discussion seemed to indicate that the current slate of proposals is far from a sure thing. As two projects begin to take shape more clearly—and with more developers still coming to the table with ideas—rifts are emerging where there was once unanimous approval on Council.
The two projects in question are a 10-story, 46-unit residential-and-retail development targeting a site between Eagle and South Market streets and a nine-story hotel on Haywood Street with a parking deck that would be turned over to the city. Both proposals are part of a broader city initiative exploring potential uses for assorted city-owned property downtown. Staff has been working with developers who made it through the “request for qualifications” process to ensure that the projects fit the priorities laid out by Council.
Both Council and community members appear to be squarely behind the first project. Darryl Hart, of the Eagle/Market Streets Development Corp., gave the proposal his full-throated support, noting that his group has been working closely with Eagle Market Renaissance LLC, a potential developer. The project, he said, would fulfill a long-standing desire to re-establish Asheville’s historic African-American business district, which predates this particular city effort.
“It is the commitment you gave us that allowed us to get to this point,” noted Hart. “It is the commitment you are going to give us that allows us to move forward.”
The prospects for the Haywood Street development, however, seem less certain. Adjacent to the Basilica of St. Lawrence, the site had been earmarked for a controversial parking deck that was eventually jettisoned. Several business owners said the perceived lack of downtown parking is a constant irritant to potential customers—a situation that could be relieved by a new deck.
“Eighty percent of the people who come in our store are from out of town,” noted Bill Lehnert of the Alexander & Lehnert jewelry store in the Grove Arcade. “The second question people ask me is, ‘Where should we go for dinner?’ The first question is, ‘Where can we park?’”
Other arcade merchants backed up Lehnert, saying the city had long ago promised a new deck for the area.
But a basilica spokesperson said the new structure would block the view of the historic landmark, and public opposition to a large deck there has already begun. (Xpress has received several letters calling for a park at Haywood Street, and the activist group People Advocating Real Conservancy is circulating a petition to that effect.) The spokesperson echoed that view.
Meanwhile, with these developments starting to look more and more like reality, Council member Robin Cape asked that the city hold off on the development discussions until the downtown master plan is finished. That process, she said, starts next month.
“[Let’s] just take a breath [with] our property and make sure this is in line with what our citizens want,” she urged.
Council member Carl Mumpower, however, said that factoring an as-yet-undeveloped master plan into this development discussion is tantamount to changing the rules in the middle of the game.
Council member Holly Jones, meanwhile, asked city staff if it’s realistic to move forward on the Haywood Street proposal, given the amount of public outcry it’s bound to generate. (Over the course of several years, the city spent $2.8 million to acquire the site for a parking deck, plus $1.2 milliion on design and other expenses, but the plan was killed in the face of negative public reaction and the Diocese of Charlotte’s refusal to give up a key parcel adjacent to the Basilica.)
After more than an hour of wrangling, the mayor—visibly frustrated with Cape’s request to delay the whole process—ticked off every appearance the initiative has made before Council as well as various boards and commissions, arguing that the discussion has played out in the public arena. But Bellamy said her main concern is that the money from the sale of the Haywood Street property—if it goes through—be used to support affordable housing in the city (one of the priorities Council spelled out at the start of the RFQ process).
In the meantime, City Attorney Bob Oast reminded Council that staff was merely seeking guidance on whether to continue a conversation with developers, and that this would not legally bind the city to any agreement.
Further conversation, added Jones, could bring concerned parties to the table and perhaps smooth out rough spots before a project came before Council for approval. “There’s no promises of ‘kumbaya,’ but there’s a conversation that could unfold,” she said.
City staff got its authorization to proceed on a 5-2 vote, with Cape and Mumpower voting no. Another motion, to open communication with representatives of the Basilica and to emphasize affordable housing and open space in future discussions, passed 6-1 with Mumpower dissenting.
Now playing at Pritchard
The city is getting behind the Pritchard Park Committee’s proposal for a cultural-arts program, helping fund performances at the park by waiving $9,000 in fees and chipping in $10,000 in matching funds. The program is designed to bring more people into an area that’s been noted for its concentration of homeless people. The park, said Cape, “is known as an extreme detriment and stressor in our community. We’re going to try what other cities have done and see if it alleviates that stress.”
A nonprofit group called the Friends of Pritchard Park will oversee the programs, which will include lunchtime, evening and weekend performances.
Council member Brownie Newman voiced support for the idea but emphasized that the city’s participation should not be considered an annual commitment, due to budgetary uncertainty. The co-sponsorship was approved 6-1, with Mumpower opposed.
Between the lines
Back in February, a bevy of helmeted bicyclers came to Council in support of the Comprehensive Bicycle Plan, applauding when it was adopted. This time, however, a lone biker—helmet in hand—encouraged Council to support the first small steps of implementation.
Staff was recommending 20 new bike racks in downtown parking garages, bike lanes on uphill stretches of Lexington Avenue, and shared lanes on South French Broad Avenue. The measure passed 6-1 with Mumpower voting no.
Among the most frequent issues to visit itself upon City Council in recent years has been the long-running friction between truck traffic serving Greenlife Grocery and its Maxwell Street neighbors. This time, Traffic Engineer Ken Putnam laid out several traffic-calming options. And though his presentation included things like building concrete islands, Council chose to go with replacing a single parallel-parking space—the cheapest and easiest way to prevent truck access to the grocery’s parking lot via Maxwell Street, said Putnam.
Neighbors, however, called the move inadequate.
“I’m afraid we’re looking at the symptom here,” said Maxwell Street resident Brandy Boggs. “The symptom is crazy traffic on a residential street; the root of the problem is Greenlife.” Maxwell Street property owner Reid Thompson, no stranger to Council himself, said the city needs to issue a notice of violation. “How about following the laws that are on our books? The ones that say if you have other access, you can’t use my residential street.”
Council members unanimously voted to reinstate a strategically located parallel-parking space that blocks truck access to Greenlife when in use. The city had previously removed parking from the street because it interfered with trash pickup.
But that was not the end of the conversation. Bellamy noted that she’s asked for a list of vendors who deliver to the store by truck, so they can be notified individually to stay off Maxwell Street. City Manager Gary Jackson, meanwhile, said he’s still waiting for a report from Greenlife on the grocery’s mitigation efforts. Greenlife has proposed creating a truck turnaround in their parking lot, but Jackson said he hasn’t been getting the requested updates on the project.
Condos make good
When the Ravenscroft hotel/condominium project was first proposed, it drew the ire not only of neighbors but also of the Downtown Commission because of its size and potential impact on a nearby stand of trees (see “Saving Which Environment?” Dec. 6, 2006 Xpress). But now that the developer has addressed those concerns, the picture has shifted dramatically. Power Development LLC has scaled back the project to six- and seven-story buildings, promised to preserve the trees on downtown’s South Slope, and is continuing to pursue LEED certification (a national standard for green building and energy conservation) for the project. Accordingly, Council unanimously approved a conditional-use permit.