“It’s always tough to see neighborhoods changing like this. But we all have to make room in a growing community.”
— Council member Brownie Newman on condos proposed for the East End/Valley Street Neighborhood
Whether a neighborhood is upscale or working-class, residents seem to be of one mind when it comes to new development in their area: Don’t tread on me.
But at the Asheville City Council’s June 27 formal session, city leaders gave opposite responses to two very different development proposals for two very different parts of town. One was a historic, plush, predominantly white neighborhood anchored by a manicured, high-end resort. The other was an equally historic, mostly African-American enclave whose fortunes have risen and fallen sharply over the years.
And the resulting lengthy discussion and public comment on both proposals stole the thunder from the city’s new budget, which Council members were slated to approve in their last meeting before the new fiscal year began.
Armed for Battle
The controversy-ridden Battle House is gone, but it was nonetheless in Council’s cross hairs once again as the Grove Park Inn, which bought the building in 2000, sought permission to significantly expand a condominium complex planned for the site. The inn is owned by the Dallas-based Sammons Enterprises, which “ranks among the largest privately owned companies in the world,” according to its Web site.
The issue has haunted the property’s Macon Avenue neighbors at least since 2003, when an abortive attempt to designate the 1928 vintage, gray stone mansion as a local historic landmark sparked rumors that the inn intended to tear down the building. Those fears were realized in May, when demolition work began to make way for a 30-unit condo development.
Neighborhood resistance has been strong and persistent. In 2004, they countered the GPI’s original proposal (which was part of a 10-year, multiphase master plan) with a protest petition. That raised the stakes by requiring a supermajority, but Council eventually approved the plan on a 6-1 vote. Among the conditions imposed was that the inn fund $375,000 worth of traffic-calming measures to mitigate the project’s impact.
But on June 27, hotel representatives were back, and once again the neighborhood was hot on their heels.
“Here we are a mere one-and-a-half years after that conditional-use permit — without a block in place — and already the Grove Park Inn comes to you with a request for a staggering increase in the size of phase one,” railed Jake Quinn.
Urban Planner Shannon Tuch told Council that the proposed new dimensions would bump up the building’s height from three stories to four and increase the interior space by 50-60 percent, to 87,000 square feet.
But GPI representative (and former city planning staffer) Gerald Green explained that the original plans had intentionally been left vague. With a protest petition on the table and the development’s whole future on the line, the inn didn’t want to fund a marketing study before Council had made its decision.
“The conceptual plan was just that: conceptual,” said Green. But once a market study was done, he added, the GPI realized it would have to make the individual condos bigger without reducing the total number of units in order to make the project profitable.
There was even some disagreement about what the original master plan had stipulated. Green maintained that the building’s height wasn’t set in stone. But Tuch pointed out that the initial sketches submitted with the plan showed a mostly three-story building.
No more concessions
Because the issue at hand involved changing an already-approved master plan, however, a protest petition would not have been allowed even if one had been submitted. Still, neighborhood residents took full advantage of the spotlight at the public hearing, and a few called on Council members to take a more active role in regulating development.
“Several of you ran your campaigns on the protection of neighborhoods,” noted Jane Northway.
Other speakers assured Council that they would continue riding herd on the unwanted development to keep it in check.
“We gave it away a year-and-a-half ago,” Sue Hunter declared, adding, “We’re not giving any more.”
Mary Lois Kirby charged that the GPI and other developers use time and repeated requests for changes to wear down the opposition.
“There is a technique common to many, many developers,” said Kirby. “If you can’t get what you want, wait a few years and go back and ask again.”
Glenda Burgin, meanwhile, said she’s tired of having to make concessions. It’s up to Council, she asserted, to send a clear message to developers who might try to sidestep public outcry concerning future projects.
“The neighborhood has already been asked to adjust to the original master plan,” noted Burgin. “Developers should expect our City Council to be faithful to its community and its neighborhood.”
Only one of the more than 10 speakers defended the GPI. “No developer has ever gone to the extent that the Grove Park has gone [to meet with neighbors],” asserted Jerry Sternberg. “And still they’re the neighborhood pinata.”
One key point — traffic calming — raised hackles both on Council and in the audience. Although the GPI did pay the city the required amount, work hasn’t started on the traffic-calming measures, which were supposed to be under way before demolition began, city Traffic Engineer Anthony Butzek told Council. But a call for bids has gone out, he said, and work should begin early next year on what Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford called “the most significant traffic-calming project in the city’s history.”
The delay was a concern for Council member Carl Mumpower, who felt that Council’s original approval hadn’t been contingent on design details. But the obvious differences in the building’s footprint, height and overall design were enough to quickly turn most on Council against the changes.
“I personally tried to stretch, initially; I was open to a change today,” said Vice Mayor Holly Jones, adding, “This is too much.”
And Council member Robin Cape, noting the elimination of a winding floor plan that would have been more faithful to the design of the Battle House, said, “This turned into a great, big block.”
If the proposed changes had been minor or had included even a small increase in the project’s size, they would have been handled at the staff level and would never have come before City Council, Shuford pointed out. And in any case, staff recommended approving the plan.
“We think it meets the standards of the conditional-use permit,” said Shuford.
After nearly two hours, Mayor Terry Bellamy called a halt to the deliberations, reminding the project’s neighbors that with any long-term master plan, it’s normal for the developer to request changes as a project evolves. She also emphasized that the GPI’s mission is, first and foremost, to make money. But though she encouraged the inn to continue holding dialogue with its neighbors, Bellamy said the current proposal “got too big too fast.”
The change was denied on a 6-1 vote, with Mumpower opposed.
Green told Xpress afterward that the inn had no backup plan prepared. He said the GPI development team would have to find a way to reduce the number of units, or else build smaller and target a different market.
In the 1950s, mostly African-American families bought homes in the East End/Valley Street neighborhood off Martin Luther King Drive, just east of downtown. Many of their descendants still live there today. In the ’70s, the city razed some dilapidated and abandoned homes in the name of urban renewal, leaving lots that remain vacant today.
Fledgling developer Mike Farmer bought those lots recently. And on June 27, he proposed constructing eight buildings containing 69 condos. The units, he said, would meet “green” building standards, and though the prices would range from $180,000 to $375,000, Farmer (who’s also represented by Green) promised to allocate seven of them — or 10 percent — for affordable housing.
Farmer took pains to note that this is his first major development. “One of the nice things about being a naive developer is that a lot of things are possible,” he told Council wryly.
In his proposal, Farmer offers to build sidewalks and a bus shelter and help restore a broken storm drain.
But the prospect of increased density, higher prices and their likely impact on adjacent property appraisals proved to be a red flag for some neighbors of the proposed project, who voiced fears about gentrification.
Lifelong Asheville resident Mary Young said she would like her children to be able to continue to live in the city she grew up in. “I have family members — kids, children — who would like to stay there,” said Young.
And Glenda McDowell, reading from a written statement by the Rev. James Abbott, proclaimed, “Asheville’s affordable-housing crisis is legendary.” McDowell, who is president of the East End/Valley Street Neighborhood Association, urged Council to consider the effects of rising property values on those already living in the neighborhood, “namely longtime working-class homeowners who now face the prospect of losing their previously affordable home because of escalating property taxes.”
Others worried about the impact of high-density condos on a neighborhood of single-family homes.
But another area resident applauded the development, arguing that besides providing seven new affordable-housing units, it would encourage the kind of diversity — both economic and racial — that Asheville should aspire to.
“I have a real fear … of not allowing people of different regions and time periods and races to share in our history and heritage,” said neighborhood resident Jonathan Glover.
The project was also endorsed by representatives of the Affordable Housing Coalition and the WNC Green Building Council.
The proposal got a sympathetic hearing from Council, perhaps because it touched on three issues dear to Council members’ hearts: affordable housing, “green” building and infill development.
“The issue of increasing property value is a major concern. New development can increase property values and … gentrification,” conceded Council member Brownie Newman. But an expanded tax base, he noted, enables the city to bring in more money without raising taxes.
“It’s always tough to see neighborhoods changing like this,” added Newman. “But we all have to make room in a growing community.”
Bellamy, who lived in the neighborhood growing up, tried to emphasize the project’s benefits. “Does it please everyone? No. But I think it is a step in the right direction for our community,” she said.
The proposal was unanimously approved.
Closing the gap
After a last-minute discussion of business-license fees, City Council passed its budget for fiscal year 2006-07, which begins July 1. The amount individual businesses pay will still be determined by their gross income, but the maximum fee has been dramatically increased.
Council member Bryan Freeborn made a motion to approve the recommendations of the Revenue and Finance Committee, which included eliminating the maximum fee (previously $1,000 to $1,500, depending on the type of business). In the end, however, Council settled on a $10,000 cap. The change will affect 84 local businesses, 12 of which will pay the maximum amount, reported Chief Financial Officer Ben Durant.
The $117 million budget comes after a year of financial setbacks, including the $2.4 million shortfall created by Sullivan Acts II and III, which blocked the city’s plans to charge customers outside of Asheville more for water.
Meanwhile, Buncombe County’s new tax rate threatened to cost the city $1.5 million in sales-tax reimbursements, which are tied to the percentage of property taxes each municipality brings in.
In response, Asheville adjusted its own tax rate to 42.4 cents per $100 of assessed value — the precise amount needed to avoid a drop in sales-tax revenue.
Mumpower, however, took a dim view of the city’s new budget, citing a list of items he would need to see totally eliminated in order to support it: funding for outside agencies ($200,000), renovations to the Reid Center ($455,000), a temporary free-fare program for people riding city buses, this year’s contribution to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund ($600,000), business-license fees, and a new staff position for a neighborhood coordinator.
“I can’t support a budget with this kind of misassignment of money,” Mumpower declared.
But Jones leaped to the budget’s defense, praising the city for having set a “revenue-neutral” property-tax rate.
“I feel like we have accomplished a great thing,” she said. “Where you are dealing with these kinds of dollars, no one is 100 percent [in agreement].”
The budget passed 6-1, with Mumpower opposed.