Asheville City Council’s May 14 formal session was an eerily sedate affair, considering the subject of one of the scheduled public hearings: a conditional-use permit that would allow developers to plunk down another big-box retailer (Target) in east Asheville. But unlike the divisive Wal-Mart hearings two years ago, this discount giant drew little opposition and was unanimously approved by Council.
Perhaps local opponents of such projects are merely resting up in preparation for a bigger fight to come. Next month, the owners of the former Sayles Bleachery property in east Asheville will once again try to persuade city leaders to approve construction of a Wal-Mart Supercenter on the site. And local activists and neighbors of the site have vowed to fight the developers with the same passion that brought them a victory in round one. In the interim, however, the situation has changed, posing new advantages and challenges for both sides:
• New faces at the table: As candidates, Council members Carl Mumpower and Joe Dunn promised voters to make the way smooth for developers by cutting red tape; at their goal-setting retreat back in January, Council members issued a directive to city staff making that promise a priority of city government.
• Charles Worley, who was in the minority when he voted to allow a Wal-Mart proposed for the former Gerber plant site in south Asheville two years ago, is now Mayor Worley. Before the May 14 public hearing on the Target store, Worley asked members of the public to refrain from raising issues concerning wages, labor practices, manufacturing practices, impact on small businesses and other ethical concerns that had figured in the last Wal-Mart hearing. Such matters, the mayor explained, are outside Council’s purview and, moreover, are legally off-limits under the city ordinance that governs conditional-use-permit hearings. During the last go-round, however, then-Mayor Leni Sitnick declined to gavel down the activists propounding those arguments, although when it came time to vote, Council took care to justify its action solely on the basis of the standards spelled out in the city’s Unified Development Ordinance.
• One key concern that isn’t off-limits is traffic impact (one of seven standards Council must consider before approving a conditional-use permit). But the approval of the Target store has complicated this issue, which played a major role in the initial defeat of the Gerber Wal-Mart. Target will be built in the River Hills Shopping Center, just a few blocks from the Bleachery site. An analysis conducted by the developer at the request of the city Planning and Development Department projects that the new store will generate 6,367 trips per day. Nearby residents, however, are urging Council to consider the cumulative traffic increase if two new developments were built in the area. Accordingly, the Planning Department has asked the developers of the Bleachery-site complex (which would include two other large retail stores and two additional retail complexes, as well as a Wal-Mart) to conduct two traffic-impact analyses: one estimating the traffic that would be generated by their project alone, and another one gauging the combined impact of that project and an additional big-box development in the area. City Engineer Kathy Ball told Xpress that the Target developers had not been required to do the combined study because they’d filed their application first. The Bleachery-site-only study estimates that that complex alone would generate an extra 17,000 trips per day.
• A river runs through it: The Bleachery site is adjacent to the Swannanoa River, and part of the property lies in the floodplain. During the first Wal-Mart debate, the planned storm-water-retention ponds did not allay the fears of environmentalists and downstream neighbors that adding that much pavement and impermeable surface to the area would lead to flooding. This time around, the developers are calling for even more buildings and bigger parking lots. According to a flier circulated by an opposition group called Community Supported Development, the new plans call for covering more than 46 acres of the 60-acre site with buildings, roads and parking lots (although Director of Planning and Development Scott Shuford stated that the overall footprint for this phase will be 32 acres). The flier goes on to state: “The plan for development does not adequately address storm-water waste issues, leaving this crucial infrastructure problem in the lap of city taxpayers. Wal-Mart has a particularly bad record on this issue — they’ve been sued by the EPA in five states on counts relating to their storm-water-runoff ponds.”
• The Bleachery-site developers have packaged their project to give it maximum appeal to city government. Their round-two plan calls for the big-box stores to be part of a larger complex that will also eventually include an “urban village.” The term refers to a mix of retail, office and residential space reflecting “smart growth” principles. The last urban-village project to come before Council was praised by elected leaders and city staffers alike. In this case, however, the question becomes: How big can an urban village be and still be a village?
Taken together, these factors will surely make for a lengthy public hearing. And though only three people spoke against the Target store during its brief public hearing, two of them asked Council to consider the bigger picture. “Why can’t there be holistic planning?” Rebecca Campbell — an active foot soldier in the fight against the original Wal-Mart proposals — asked somberly. She went on to explain that one of the reasons the Council chamber was so empty was that there were “over 200 people jamming the East Asheville Community Center” discussing these same proposals, which could forever alter their neighborhoods. And Campbell concluded her remarks on an ominous note, reminding Council members about the city’s budget crisis and observing that future decisions could lead to “dire consequences — financially or legally.”