Angry, anxious, adamant, antagonistic — myriad words could describe the hundreds of citizens who descended on City Hall for the public hearing on the proposed Riverbend Marketplace/Wal-Mart Supercenter development at the old Sayles Bleachery site. But one word should be forever stricken from the list of Asheville adjectives: apathetic.
The June 25 City Council meeting was epic; in fact, even after 14 hours of testimony that spanned two days, the issue of whether or not the development could proceed remained unresolved. As the clock approached midnight on June 26, Council voted unanimously to continue the debate on July 23.
The only conclusion a neutral observer could glean from the proceedings is that Wal-Mart is both loved and detested in this community, and that a Wal-Mart Supercenter built at the Sayles Bleachery site (which is situated in East Asheville and includes a section of the Swanannoa River and its flood plain within its borders) complicates the matter exponentially.
But the complexity of the issue didn’t deter the public. Let’s face it, Wal-Mart is a corporation that draws a level of scrutiny commensurate with its colossal size. For many, it’s the embodiment of free-market capitalism and consumer choice — a shopping Mecca for those trying to stretch a dollar. For others, Wal-Mart represents the downside of our consumer culture; critics have long alleged that the mega-corporation exploits its workers, damages the environment and crushes small businesses — all in the name of bargain-basement prices.
But none of those arguments are relevant, according to Mayor Charles Worley. And speakers who attempted to broach those subjects were quickly gaveled down by Worley, who repeatedly admonished the audience that, due to the quasi-judicial nature of the hearing, the debate must be limited to the seven standards of approval established in the city’s Unified Development Ordinance. But Worley’s gavel was only effective in the main Council chamber; outside in the hall, and in annex rooms where the overflow crowd watched the proceedings on TV, opinions flew freely.
At 2:30 p.m., two and one-half hours before the hearing was scheduled to begin, eight people were jockeying for a place in line outside Council chambers. Twenty minutes later — and 10 minutes before the doors opened — the number had swelled to more than 20. The positions of those milling about and chatting in groups were easily defined by the red buttons worn by those against the proposal and the yellow “Yes to Wal-Mart” stickers adorning supporters of the project. Outside, opponents to the project gathered in front of a banner that simply proclaimed, “Human need, not corporate greed.”
By 3 p.m., bags were searched and room began to fill, with the aisle mostly dividing the two opposing groups to the left and right. At 3:20 p.m., the chamber was at capacity, and others were diverted to three other viewing rooms, on the first and sixth floor of City Hall and at the nearby police station, where the hearing would be broadcast on small TV screens. It was still two hours before the hearing would begin.
Jan Jaynes, sitting quietly in Council chambers with her longtime friend Dottie Queen, said she supported the development. “This committee that says they represent Oakley,” she said, nodding toward a group across the aisle that opposed the development. “I don’t know who they are. They are not representing me, and I’ve lived in Oakley 27 years.”
Jaynes cites jobs and revenue as the main reason she’d like to see the Wal-Mart Supercenter, but she notes she’d also simply like to see something done with the Sayles site: “In a time that’s [financially] really hard right now, if they want to do something with that eyesore, I want to help them.”
“You’ve got a waste site, pollution in the ground. What other company on Earth is going to clean that up? Nobody,” alleged Marty Ledford, wearing not only the big yellow “Yes” sticker, but his Wal-Mart shirt and employee name badge. Ledford has worked at the Tunnel Road Wal-Mart for the past year, but said he has been through this procedure before in Forest City, where a Wal-Mart Supercenter was built. “It’s better for everybody,” he reasoned. “There’s 300 jobs immediately.”
Ledford was part of a delegation of Wal-Mart employees that attended the meeting, a group that brought plastic bins full of signed letters and petitions supporting the Superstore.
Art Hutson, another Wal-Mart employee, carried some of the bins into the chamber; he said they had been signed by Wal-Mart customers at the Tunnel Road location. “They want selection, they want convenience,” he declared. “It’s a response to the customer.” Once the meeting commenced, formal representatives for the development team — Riverbend Business Partners and Wal-Mart — and the opposition slogged through lengthy technical presentations designed to sway Council. From the outset, it was apparent that traffic considerations would loom large in the discussion.
City Planner Gerald Greene explained that, while city staff recommended approval for the proposal, they did so with numerous caveats. First and foremost among them was that the developer would have to take steps to mitigate the traffic impact the development would bring on Swannanoa River Road and other nearby streets. Greene noted that the development would bring an estimated 17,000 automobile trips to the already-congested Swannanoa River Road, bringing the street to its capacity. He explained that as a condition of approval, the developer should be required to implement one of four options for traffic mitigation:
(1) A non-city-funded public-transportation system that would create a “shopper’s loop” to circulate among the major retailers in the development and the immediate vicinity.
(2) Developer-funded construction of an extension of Wood Avenue that would parallel I-240 and intersect a proposed extension of Stevens Street.
(3) Developer-funded construction of a “half-diamond” interchange on I-240 between the Tunnel Road and Fairview Road interchanges.
(4) Developer-funded widening of Swannanoa River Road. The testimony on the proposal’s traffic impacted confirmed Haw Creek resident Viola Williams‘s frustrations about Swannanoa River Road. She said she felt none of the solutions proposed solved the problems, and some would just make the situation worse. Exasperated, Williams rolled her eyes imagining an exit from I-240 onto Swannanoa River Road at rush hour. “You’ve got hell down there,” she declared. “Swannanoa is dangerous enough.”
Williams had planned to speak during the public comment portion of the hearing, but said what she heard from the presentations gave her confidence that the project would be delayed, and she would not have to speak for a long time. But, she said, she has a deep purpose in continuing to protest the use of the road as a Wal-Mart access: Her son died in a traffic accident on Swannanoa River Road. “One life isn’t worth a Wal-Mart,” she said. “And that exit is going to kill somebody.”
Debbie Applewhite took a break after the traffic testimony. Smoking a cigarette on the front steps of the courthouse, she scoffed at the idea of a transit system for the shopping development (“It’s wacky”) or, for that matter, any other solution that was proposed. Though she said she is not against Wal-Mart generally, she is horrified by the proposed site. “It’s a horrible location for a traffic generator,” she noted. “It’s so damaging to the neighborhoods.”
Recalling her confusion trying to get out of the Asheville Mall and finding the access to Sam’s Club, Applewhite doubted the ability of developers to create a smooth and simple route onto the proposed site.
But traffic was only one argument against the proposal; attorneys and engineers for the opposition also expressed concern over environmental impact, further elaborating on such potential problems as stormwater runoff and a toxic plume of groundwater contamination.
Nearly five hours after it had begun, the presentations were finished, and many took an opportunity to stretch their legs outside of the Chamber and in front of City Hall.
Shannon Adell, who supports the Riverbend Marketplace proposal, leaned against the wall, tired and frustrated. “I’m disgusted with City Council,” Adell groused. “They should have had [the hearing] at the civic center on Saturday, when everyone could be here.” Adell was planning to speak, but doubted that she would get a chance. Having already gone home to eat dinner and returned to City Hall, she was amazed at how long the proceedings ran. “It’s a waste of time and my energy,” she said.
Nevertheless, Adell said she planned to return the next day, feeling that a show of support for the supercenter was necessary. “If the site is not appropriate, and they want the revenue they need desperately, they should bring [an alternative site],” she reasoned.
David Roat said that, while the formal presentations on both sides were long, it appeared to be well-researched. “They were long out of necessity,” he noted. “It’s a huge project. … It’s controversial for a reason. The City Council shouldn’t rush this through.”
As the public began to speak, Roat observed that the arguments against the Wal-Mart made use of issues and research, while the position for the development often descended into “rhetoric and name-calling.”
After studying Wal-Mart’s economic impact on communities, Roat said he fears that the Supercenter would draw money away from the local economy and small businesses. But, he pointed out, that topic was not one allowed in the hearing.
“All drivers aren’t created equal,” said Don Baker, who, anticipating that the meeting would run long and he would be out of town after Tuesday, did not sign up to speak. Baker’s concern is that, despite any new road design, neighborhoods will be put in peril by fast drivers. “The people who wait in traffic at Tunnel Road are the law-abiding drivers,” he said. “The people who can’t wait and have to get there now are the people who cut through neighborhoods, the very aggressive drivers.”
While the tone in Council chambers remained relatively sedate throughout the six-hour meeting (one burst of applause was quickly quieted by Mayor Worley), the mood in the viewing rooms changed more drastically as the night wore on.
For the first few hours, those in the viewing rooms sat and quietly watched the proceedings on the television screens provided. Occasional murmurs of agreement or dissent could be heard, and quiet conversations started in whispers. The only loud noise was occasional bursts of laughter or exasperated sighs.
As the hours wore on, though, and members of the public began to take the podium, the responses in the remote rooms ranged from applause to hissing or booing at the television. Near the end of the night, observers were openly guffawing. “Sit down and shut up,” one woman commanded the TV screen, as a speaker urged Council to hurry up and pass the Wal-Mart proposal.
With a 4 p.m. start time on Wednesday, the crowd was noticeably thinned. With some 80 people still signed up to speak, Mayor Worley began calling out names in groups of 10. But many called to speak were absent. Those who did come back for round two peppered the Council with opinions as to why they should or shouldn’t vote in favor of the proposal.
After the last speaker made her pitch, the attorneys for both sides offered closing arguments. Betty Lawrence, representing three organizations opposed to the project — Beverly Hills Homeowners Association, Oakley Homeonwers Association and Community Supported Development — stunned the audience when she called for Council to continue the matter to a later date. She explained that, in her opinion, the developers had violated the UDO by not submitting a revised site plan after the Planning and Zoning Board placed conditions on the project when they voted to approve it. Citing a legal precedent, she further warned Council that they were venturing into dangerous waters by allowing city staffers or the developer to select one of the four traffic mitigation options — a delegation of authority that Lawrence explained was not supported by case law in North Carolina.
The attorneys for the development team, Robert Deutsch and David Matney, seemed amenable to exploring traffic-mitigation options, but argued that delegating how it’s done was a defendable position for the city. The requirement, they noted, is to lower the traffic volume; how that goal is reached, the attorneys argued, was a secondary consideration. Deutsh and Matney urged Council to movie forward with the deliberations. They countered Lawrence’s claim that the UDO was violated by simply stating that they had submitted updated plans.
But before the updated-plan conundrum could be resolved, the traffic mitigation options dilemma grew even more complicated when Asheville Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford announced that he and his staff, after having listened to the two days of testimony, had concluded that the only feasible traffic-mitigation option was option four: the widening of Swannanoa River Road, which was the most expensive option of all. The developers appeared dumbstruck by Shuford’s revelation, and it appeared as if the tide was turning in favor of the opposition.
Shuford explained that his department’s overriding concern was to keep traffic on the road at a level 10 percent below its capacity. After a lengthy discussion among the Council members, attorneys and staffers, Council voted unanimously to table the issue until July 23 in order to give the developers time to draft a plan that would meet the requirement.
As the bleary-eyed public filed out into the warm summer night, Harley Dunn one of the owners of the Bleachery and a member of the development team, was asked by Xpress about the sudden twist in the plot when Shuford recommended narrowing the traffic mitigation options to the most difficult and costly of the four presented only 24 hours earlier. “Obviously there were discussions that we weren’t privy to,” responded Dunn.