“The intrusion stops here,” declared Asheville Vice Mayor Ed Hay, at the end of a four-hour-long July 27 public hearing about the proposed expansion of the Asheville Mall.
At issue were what requirements City Council would impose on the property owners — CBL and Associates of Chattanooga, Tenn. — to buffer Kenilworth Forest from noise, light, security and privacy problems created by the planned expansion. “We seem to have consensus for approving the project,” said Council member Chuck Cloninger. But not, he observed, before Council resolved several key issues, which he listed:
• how to reduce parking-lot light glare and other ambient light reaching nearby Kenilworth homes;
• what sort of noise-reduction wall should be required at the rear of the property, after the Twin Cinema is torn down to make room for the project. By getting rid of the theater, there will be space to add 154,500 square feet of retail space (primarily for a new food court) and a 456,640-square foot parking deck;
• how high a wall must be installed on one end of the new parking deck, to prevent vehicle headlights from sweeping across residential properties; and
• should Brackettown Road — which links White Pine Drive to mall parking-lots — be made one-way or closed entirely?
Kenilworth residents pleaded with Council to set strict conditions on the project, particularly those on Cloninger’s list. But CBL representatives countered, saying they were already accommodating several city staff suggestions, and that additional restrictions would add substantially to the cost of the project.
Life by the mall
“White Pine is our driveway [access],” argued long-time resident Harold Payne. Traffic that routinely uses White Pine to get to Brackettown Road is “drool — that’s what it is, and it needs to be wiped off,” he said.
“It is like daytime at 2 a.m.,” said White Pine resident Janice Willard, who described how parking-lot lights shine into her backyard at all hours. Urging Council to make CBL reduce that light, she also called for Council to set conditions that would address residents’ privacy and security concerns: The six-foot-high wooden fence initially proposed by CBL would do little to prevent “criminal intent” — that is, robbers who could easily climb over the fence and gain access to Kenilworth, Willard figured. She also complained about air pollution from the cars at the mall, noise from dumpsters located adjacent to the residential properties, noise from late-night drivers doing “doughnuts” in the parking lot, and the potential for users of the new parking deck to stare straight into her backyard.
“I feel like I’m hanging out there in the middle of the city,” Willard complained, urging Council to address what she called quality-of-life issues. She asked Council, “Is there anything more valuable than life?”
As for Brackettown Road — “It should be closed,” Willard declared. “Traffic there is sometimes impossible.”
“We do not oppose the development,” emphasized Kenilworth representative Phil Noblitt, taking a more conciliatory approach. “We recognize [CBL] has a right to improve their property. But we, as homeowners, also have our property to protect.” He also voiced concern about noise, light and security issues. “What we’re asking for is entirely reasonable,” Noblitt said.
“I have just one request,” said fellow resident Bob Allen. Noting that the expansion proposal was a $15 million project — and that the hearing had already lasted more than two hours — Allen asked Council to make CBL construct the noise wall farther away from the row of white pines that now buffers the neighborhood from the parking lot. By shifting the wall 10 feet from its current planned location, the trees would be better preserved, and noise reduction would be greater, he argued. “A wooden fence — that’s not a buffer,” said Allen. His request would cost the development only about nine parking spaces, which — in light of the overall cost of the project — isn’t much, he argued.
“We talk about urban sprawl,” noted White Pine resident James Geter, whose home abuts the mall. “This [type of intrusion] is one of the reasons people move out of the city,” he said. “We want to find ways to work with business,” added Geter, who chairs the board of the Eagle/Market Street Development Corporation. “But we also must protect our property.”
Growing a mall
“We’re concerned about safety, and [the parking lot] should be well lit,” said CBL representative Tom Carter, spelling out one of the developer’s key philosophical differences with neighborhood advocates.
CBL wants to remove two of its three existing 100-foot parking-light towers located at the rear of the mall, and install a number of shorter lamp poles, and in so doing, raise ambient-light levels in the parking lot to a consistent three-candles brightness, Carter explained. (In less technical terms, Council member Barbara Field noted, “That’s about 10 times less light than in [Council chambers].”)
But CBL is willing to work with staff to reduce the amount of light reaching Kenilworth properties, Carter continued. CBL will perform a photometric study, to determine current light conditions. Even without the results of that study, CBL is planning to shield its new lights, so that little if any light will shine directly into residents’ backyards, he explained.
This, Carter said, is an example of how CBL is cooperating with staff and attempting to address neighborhood concerns. Another example is the fence: CBL initially planned for a six-foot fence at the rear of the mall property, but it has since offered to install one that is eight feet high. And, he added, CBL is cooperating with the city’s new Transit Department, to reinstate direct bus service to the mall (in years past, previous mall owners prohibited buses from bringing riders directly to the curb at the mall; currently, riders to and from the mall must use the bus at a bus stop located on Tunnel Road, across the parking lot).
CBL is also planning to build a sidewalk along the mall’s entire Tunnel Road frontage, as is required by the city’s Unified Development Ordinance (such a requirement didn’t exist when the original mall structure was built), Carter added. And the four-foot-high wall that CBL has suggested adding at one end of the new parking deck — to prevent vehicle lights from shining into the neighborhood — is six inches higher than required by the building code, he noted.
Also, dumpsters currently located in a far corner of the rear parking lot (and next to some Kenilworth homes) will be moved permanently closer to the new food-court service area, to reduce noise.
But other conditions requested by Cloninger will add to CBL’s expansion cost, noted Michael Lebovitz, CBL’s vice president for development. Lebovitz reported that reducing the number of parking spaces by nine, in an effort to accommodate Allen’s request, would increase expenses by $70,000, because the lost spaces would have to be made up by creating additional spaces in the parking deck (a costlier option than the surface-lot spaces). And, he noted, sound walls can cost up to four times as much as CBL’s proposed wooden fence. He also reiterated Carter’s point that consistent lighting in the parking lots is crucial for both employee and customer safety.
City Council members were careful in their responses to both neighborhood advocates and CBL representatives.
Mayor Leni Sitnick commented that neither Council nor residents could blame the “initial” intrusion of the mall on the new expansion or the new owners. She said she appreciated CBL’s willingness to cooperate on the bus-stop issue. Just the same, she supported residents’ request for a noise wall and less light intrusion.
However, determining what do to do about Brackettown Road warrants further study, Cloninger insisted.
Council member Earl Cobb supported making the road one way — preferably, one way going into the mall, which wouldn’t negatively impact mall business, he argued. “If [shoppers] can get in to buy, they’ll get out,” he quipped.
Vice Mayor Ed Hay urged Council to require CBL to install a noise wall. Hay said he had, initially, been satisfied with CBL’s offer to build an eight-foot-high wooden fence. “Then I sat out there the other day,” he said, reporting on car and radio noise he’d heard while visiting a White Pine home. While the mall has a major impact on Asheville’s economic vitality, and CBL’s expansion represents a “major investment” in the city, Council has to protect the neighborhood, Hay argued. “There has to be a significant reduction in the noise.”
As for traffic, City Traffic Engineer Michael Moule reported that he’ll be asking the N.C. Department of Transportation to reduce the signal cycle at the White Pine Drive/Tunnel Road intersection, along with others on Tunnel Road. That should reduce the amount of time vehicles have to wait, thus reducing traffic back-ups. But he added: “There’ll be more traffic, obviously. … The development will increase traffic on White Pine.” On the other hand, it was his opinion that conditions wouldn’t significantly worsen, and the reduced traffic-light cycle times — currently set at well over two minutes — would help.
As for closing Brackettown Road or making it one way — Moule noted that staff hadn’t studied these options. However, he observed that the UDO gives the city the right to limit the number of driveway accesses into and out of a development.
Other staff recommendations included limiting construction work from 7 a.m.-7 p.m. on weekdays, and 9 a.m.-6 p.m on weekends. Lebovitz consented to those hours for the cinema demolition, but complained that other work couldn’t be limited to those hours. Parking-deck construction would be taking place nearly 300 feet from the property line abutting the neighborhood, he pointed out. Sitnick offered not to restrict construction hours, after the cinema is demolished and the sound wall is erected.
Sitnick also joked with Lebovitz, “You’re not going to blow [the cinema] up, are you?”
Lebovitz said no.
City Engineer Cathy Ball pointed out that a study of the Brackettown Road issue would cost $3,000-5,000. She asked Council to direct CBL to share in that cost. When Sitnick agreed, Lebovitz motioned to speak, but apparently wasn’t noticed.
On a motion by Cloninger, seconded by Cobb, Council voted unanimously to approve the permit with the conditions set by staff, plus other conditions — such as the sound-wall requirement — to be worked out in detail within the next 30 days. Council will take a second vote on the project on Aug. 24.