On June 25, the Asheville City Council will decide whether to permit developers to construct a massive retail complex on the site of the old Sayles Bleachery in East Asheville. The proposed development would be anchored by a Wal-Mart Supercenter and include two additional big-box retailers; assorted other stores and restaurants; and an “urban village” of residences, shops, offices and parking lots. All told, the planned development –to be called the Riverbend Marketplace, developed by Riverbend Business Park, LLC and Wal-Mart — will cover more than 60 acres of the 100-acre site, including land that is currently in the floodplain of the Swannanoa River, which borders the site.
The proposal has met with stiff opposition from a broad spectrum of citizens. Moreover, it has acted as a catalyst for self-reflection, bringing to the surface a litany of issues that have dominated recent local headlines: environmental degradation, smart growth, affordable housing, traffic congestion, economic development — you name it. Regarding topical issues, this proposal has a little bit of everything — much like Wal-Mart itself.
Asheville continually struggles to define itself — pondering its fluid selfhood, seeking some foothold on identity and forever asking: Who are we and what do we want to be?
One can always use history as an indicator: It has been said that the past is prologue. But a prologue is but a mere introduction and a city is a never-ending novel– a work that knows no final chapter and whose plot unfolds through the lives of its characters. So as the Riverbend Marketplace proposal wends its way through the city’s approval process, it would seem apropos to examine some of those characters and hear their stories.
The original “urban village”
Nestled on a slope in East Asheville’s Oakley neighborhood lies a collection of 79 tidy cottages. The mostly two-bedroom abodes are simple structures, but each is unique — which is unusual, considering they were once part of a collective. The homes date back to the late 1920s, and were constructed to house Sayles Bleachery workers.
The Bleachery itself has long since closed its doors. The hulking buildings lie vacant, harboring the ghosts of Asheville’s industrial past. In its day, though, the Bleachery was a cornerstone of Asheville’s economy. Strategically located among the textile mills that once dotted the South, the plant provided a much-needed service: As its name indicates, the workers at Sayles bleached fabric. The work was steady for several decades, but as the textile industry collapsed, so did the Bleachery.
It was not uncommon during the heyday of the industrial age to house workers in mill villages, but unlike the dilapidated, utilitarian housing depicted in such bleak tales as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the Sayles Bleachery Village was a noteworthy exception. Seemingly years ahead of its time, the Bleachery Village was even lauded in 1929 in the Asheville Times: “The residential village for employees at the local plant has been declared to be, by those who have seen it, one of the most attractive subdivisions of its kind to be found anywhere. It is situated on rolling, thickly wooded hills, a comfortable distance back of the establishment. Many wide paved streets wind over the hills with fine landscape effect, which gives each one of the homes a distinctive setting. The residences vary in design and color, getting away from the ordinary industrial community.”
Today, the neighborhood remains proudly working class. The cottages were sold during a transition of ownership of the Bleachery in the 1960s; in resale, they remain some of the most affordable housing purchases in Asheville. Workers who once rented could now partake in the American dream of home ownership. One such owner was Emory Earwood Jr., a career Bleachery employee, who purchased a cottage on Sayles Road.
Junior, as he was known, lived in the neatly appointed home until his death last year. His widow, Frances Earwood, still resides there. In an interview with Xpress, she reflected on the past and shared photos of the Bleachery in its prime.
“I remember how simple it was,” she said. “We all knew each other.”
Hanging on her wall was a long, panoramic photo of Bleachery workers assembled in front of the plant. The grainy image showed men and women in workers garb, their faces displaying looks that fell somewhere between weariness and pride. “Some people have said that this should hang in a museum somewhere,” she explained of the photo. “I think it should, too.”
Earwood pointed to trees that were mere saplings when Junior first moved in 47 years ago — their canopies now looming high above the rooftops. “Junior always loved this neighborhood,” she mused.
As we talked, a neighbor approached Earwood and told her that earlier in the day, one of the developers had stopped by to determine the feasibility of placing an access road at the end of their quiet, dead-end street. The developer, according to neighbor Melanie Patterson, was Harley Dunn, one of the current owners of the Bleachery site. Looking puzzled, Frances replied, “Really? … Oh, no.” (Dunn acknowledged to Xpress that he visited the neighborhood, explaining that he was trying to determine the practicality of creating an I-240 exit for South Tunnel Road.)
Patterson was soon joined by fellow neighbors, Corinne Kurzmann and Roland and Jennifer Sayers. The Sayers were spackled with paint; the young couple are the newest residents of the village, and were busily putting the final touches on their new home. Both of the Sayers commented that the cottage was the only house in the city limits that they could afford to buy.
The four neighbors spared no words in their condemnation of the proposed Riverbend Marketplace. Chief among their concerns is the potential traffic congestion. The project’s development team acknowledge that a traffic-impact analysis has indicated that an estimated 17,000 automobile trips per day will be generated on surrounding roads by the development — a figure that would bring the roads to their maximum capacity, according to DOT guidelines. The neighbors noted that the number doesn’t take into account the traffic that will be produced by the addition of the new Pier 1 and Target stores that have already been approved by the city and will be constructed near the Bleachery. “They need to consider the cumulative effect,” noted Patterson.
The neighbors also expressed fear that developers will attempt to squeeze them out over the course of the next few years, lamenting that if a few houses are sold to the developer, there could be a domino affect. Jennifer Sayers pointed out the irony if the city approves a development that will contain an “urban village,” while ignoring the desires of the residents of the neighboring Bleachery Village.
“This is because we’re not rich,” Sayers asserted. “Good lord, if they tried to put this thing in Montford, they’d get ripped into. Cottages in Montford get designated historical, but aren’t we historical?”
Other opponents to the project have also chafed at the idea of including an urban village as part of a large retail development. During the recent Planning and Zoning Committee hearing on the proposal, Asheville resident Sharon Martin argued, “Currently, the homeowners living near this proposed development clearly oppose living near a big-box development. … If the phases of this project were reversed, with the urban village being constructed first, would the people purchasing homes in the urban village oppose living next to a 24-hour Wal-Mart Supercenter? Urban village zoning intends to encourage small, locally owned shops to create the village atmosphere. How will [these] businesses be able to compete with a Wal-Mart Supercenter? What kind of shops could realistically survive with such a retail giant only a few hundred yards away?”
Local activist Rebecca Campbell went even further: “This isn’t a real urban village; it’s a Trojan horse to get the Wal-Mart in,” she declared, implying that the developers included the ubran village plan as a cursory nod to smart growth.
Groundwater concerns and more
Oakley resident Mike Moody promises that he and his neighbors are going to make the final step of the approval process an all-out battle. “In order for this to be granted a conditional-use permit, the developer will have to prove that the project meets all seven of the city’s [conditional-use permit] requirements. We can prove that it doesn’t meet any,” he noted.
Moody is also angered by a change in the city’s Unified Development Ordinance that he feels favors big-box developments such as the Wal-Mart Supercenter. In November of last year, Asheville City Council voted to approve a change to the Unified Development Ordinance that would allow developers of Level III projects (the largest type of development) to go through the entire approval process after only submitting “conceptual” plans. City staffers explained that the change would save developers money and streamline the development process.
Prior to the change, more detailed plans were required. And for Moody, the devil is in the details. He asserts that at both the technical review stage and the planning and zoning stage, the Riverbend Marketplace plans violate the city’s floodplain ordinance by allowing the land in the River Resource Yard (adjacent to the banks of the Swannanoa) to be disturbed. He asserts that when he tried to address these issues at Technical Review Committee and Planning and Zoning Committee meetings, his concerns have been dismissed by city staffers, who state that the issue will be resolved at a later date, presumably after the project has been approved and detailed plans submitted. “Very technical questions have been brought up and they nod and yet don’t answer,” notes Moody. “We need technical plans up front, not after Council approves it. I guess they think the public isn’t smart enough to understand these things.”
The Swannanoa River seems to be the linchpin to any development at the site. A 1959 article from the Asheville Times sheds light on the working relationship the Bleachery had with the river even then: “Water for the plant’s operation is pumped from the river through a filtration system. In the process of its operations, it pipes more than a billion gallons of water annually out of the Swannanoa River. The water is subsequently returned to the river.”
Opponents to development argue that the river would be damaged by the construction, and that rainwater runoff from the impermeable surfaces could pose a flood hazard in the event of a storm. The development team insists that its plans for a stormwater retention system will more than satisfy the flow capacity, even in the heaviest of storms. But that assurance has done little to alleviate the fears of residents downstream.
Some opponents assert that, even without any new construction, the river and surrounding area are dangerously contaminated by toxic remnants of the Bleachery’s former life. Hope Taylor Guevara, the executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina, testified at the recent Planning and Zoning Committee hearing on the project that “the Superfund Section of the N.C. Division of Waste Management has been tracking the groundwater investigation being conducted at this site for a number of years. … Based on the type, concentration and mobility of the groundwater contamination found, Superfund officials have ranked this site among the top five in the state for remediation priority. The high toxicity of the di-, tri- and tetrachloroethene and their concentrations well in excess of groundwater standards for North Carolina should raise considerable concerns for this type of development under consideration and its proximity to the Swannanoa River.”
On the issue of stormwater, Guevara noted, “Given the proposed major anchor store retailer, and the Wal-Mart corporation’s well-documented failure to control stormwater impacts on numerous sites throughout the U.S., we believe that the Board must question the wisdom of this particular development proposal adjacent to an already highly impacted urban river.”
Most significantly though, Guevara contends that North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources Toxicologist Hannah Assefa has indicated that the Bleachery site will not be granted a “no further action” status (meaning that the state agrees no further remediation is needed and construction can move forward) until the groundwater meets state standards. In August of 2000, during the first time the Sayles site was under consideration for the Riverbend Shopping Center, Assefa told Xpress that well-water samples at the site had revealed tetrachloroethene pollution at hazardous levels. “Nobody should be drinking that water,” she told Xpress reporter Matthew Dickens.
Just after Guevara made her assertions at the Planning and Zoning meeting, she left. Soon after, her remarks were challenged by a representative from Holton Environmental (part of the development team), who asserted that the state is going to grant the “no further action” status, and that it was just a matter of time.
But the cleanup of the site is a costly proposition — a fact that could work in the developers’ favor. With the state $1 billion in the red, the chances of securing funding for the cleanup are slim, according to Guevara. Harley Dunn relates that the Sayles site owners won’t foot the bill, either. “It wouldn’t be economically feasible,” he declared.
Subsequently, the owners have sought out a corporation that is willing and able to pay for the cleanup: Wal-Mart. With the health of the groundwater a point of contention, it seems likely that the developers will attempt to mitigate environmental concerns with financial clout. Dunn noted Wal-Mart’s willingness to take on the challenge: “The fight is costly — period — and it takes deep pockets to fund such a project. Wal-Mart is willing to step up to the plate as far as expenses goes.” As for the overall issue of water concerns, Dunn insists, “The groundwater meets federal standards for drinking water.”
Asheville Economic Development Director Mac Williams put it this way: “The site has — in its current state– challenges. …The accessibility, floodplain and environmental issues are expensive to deal with, … [but] it appears that the proposed use can overcome those challenges.”
In return, Williams noted, the city would get a boost to its tax base — a step in the direction of relieving residential taxpayers from shouldering the bulk of the tax burden. As the city’s chief corporate recruiter, Williams isn’t overly concerned about losing more than 100 acres of industrial-zoned land to a retail development, despite the fact that maintaining the supply of industrial-zoned acreage in the city was a goal discussed at the Asheville City Council’s retreat back in January.
“It is an industrial zoned area, but it’s not vacant land,” he pointed out. “There’s dilapidated buildings and the river concerns. … It takes a lot of things to make it suitable and marketable for industry, and Sayles doesn’t meet those challenges.”
In a decision that has rankled many, Mayor Charles Worley has opted to hold the June 25 public hearing on the project in the Council’s chambers in City Hall. With hundreds of citizens expected to attend, some opponents view the move as an attempt to stifle debate on the proposal. Worley, though, reasons that any overflow crowd can be accommodated in the Council’s first-floor meeting room (which will have a live audio or video feed). The mayor cited the expense of moving the meeting to a larger public venue as a consideration in his decision.
Frances Earwood won’t be attending the June 25 public hearing. She seems to feel more comfortable telling a reporter about the village’s past than telling Council about the city’s future. Her late husband, however, she noted, would have opposed the Wal-Mart Supercenter project: “He was against them when they tried to put a Wal-Mart at the Bleachery two years ago. We used to drive by the buildings and he’d tell me about the work he had done there. He was a pipe fitter– he was so proud. It was what he did. It was what he was.”