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After considering several options, Asheville City Council members failed to agree on a review process for new construction adjoining Pack Square Park at their Aug. 11 meeting.
The idea that review might be needed grew out of the long-running Parkside condominium controversy and, more specifically, from developer Stewart Coleman's March 10 request for an easement to accommodate a service road between the building and the park for the proposed condo development (see "The Lesser of Two Easements" March 18 Xpress). With the political atmosphere already hot in the wake of Coleman's purchase of a sliver of parkland from Buncombe County and the prospect of a seven-story condominium project next door to City Hall, Council members had asked staff to review options for an ordinance requiring Council approval of development adjacent to the new $20 million park.
City staff returned with two proposals. One would have required Council review for any new construction within 100 feet of the park; a scaled-back version kept the same buffer but would have applied only to projects involving at least 20,000 square feet or more than two stories.
For some Parkside opponents, the restrictions would address a critical need. "The Parkside scandal merely exposed how vulnerable our town square is," activist Steve Rasmussen told Council. "What happens in or around our town square needs to be discussed in open public forum."
But other speakers noted that a section of the Downtown Master Plan being groomed by city staff calls for completely retooling Council's approval process. Asheville attorney Albert Sneed maintained that such a move would conflict with the recommendations of both the Downtown Commission and the Downtown Master Plan Advisory Committee on which he served while adding levels of uncertainty and difficulty for developers.
"Based on my experiences, this is an incredibly bad idea," said Sneed. "This idea of having some sort of discretionary, subjective review at the end of a process where it's expensive to get there — it invites affinity politics."
Tom Israel, meanwhile, noted that the 100-foot buffer would affect privately owned buildings in the vicinity of the park. "We should not be singled out or discriminated against because of our downtown location," he argued. "This amendment is affecting private property, not public property." Israel is partnering with Coleman to develop a new tavern in the Hayes & Hopson Building adjacent to the park. The historic structure had until recently been slated for demolition to make way for Parkside.
But Council member Brownie Newman said that since the master plan has not yet been implemented, it leaves the door open for sudden development in an area that many city residents want to see protected. "We are seeing virtual consensus in our community in opposition to some of the actions that have happened there," he noted.
What's more, said Newman, the master plan development review process is coupled with new building height, scale and character standards that are not yet in place.
"We're raising the bar on the kind of development we want to see," he said. "We're asking for more." But reviewing all new projects, he added, would be "too restrictive."
Accordingly, Newman proposed adopting staff's second option with a sunset provision, meaning it would expire once the master plan review process was adopted. Newman's motion also directed staff to move forward with implementing the plan's recommendations.
Council member Robin Cape agreed with that approach. "We're essentially saying that if you are going to do a big project around the park, you are going to a level III [review]," she observed. Cape also pointed out that the Unified Development Ordinance, which currently governs downtown construction, allows plenty of wiggle room for big buildings without requiring Council review. "The Indigo [hotel now under construction on Haywood Street] didn't come to us; it didn't have to," she said. "We could get an Indigo anywhere."
Vice Mayor Jan Davis, however, felt such a step was unnecessary. According to Planning and Development Director Judy Daniel, the master plan review process is due to come up for Council consideration sometime in November, and any big new construction proposals would take at least that long to clear the various city boards and commissions, noted Davis. "It is onerous on our part to change the game on people who have suffered most during the development of that park," he declared.
But the fact that the Parkside debate was the spoon that stirred this pot was not lost on Council member Bill Russell, who said owners of adjacent properties were being lumped together with a scandal they had no hand in.
"I think to impact this entire area over something that came out of one piece of property is erroneous," said Russell.
And Council member Carl Mumpower cited Coleman's change of plans as proof that the system had worked in this case. "Nothing bad actually happened," he said. "In fact, my colleagues and I may get a pretty good place to have a beer out of this."
(Despite Coleman's recently announced bar-and-restaurant plan, the developer has also said the Parkside proposal "isn't dead." And his appeal of a judge's ruling restricting the use of the Buncombe County property to public use is pending.)
Meanwhile, Mayor Terry Bellamy said that when requesting the staff study, she hadn't envisioned a 100-foot buffer and wanted to consider only property directly adjacent to the park and not separated by roads (meaning only buildings along the east and south sides would be affected). "We've crossed the street, and we've intruded into other areas," said Bellamy, adding that she also wanted a sunset provision on any such measure.
Newman's proposal was already up for consideration, but it failed on a 3-4 vote (Cape and Council member Kelly Miller sided with Newman). Council then turned its attention to Bellamy's idea, which didn't seem to satisfy either side in the debate. Asheville resident Jake Quinn called it "essentially toothless," and Sneed objected to singling out a few properties. Newman swiftly made and withdrew a motion to support the reduced plan, and after a short discussion with staff, the issue was closed.
On a less controversial front, Council members unanimously approved a pair of resolutions: one supporting adoption by the U.S. government of a flag honoring fallen war veterans and another calling for the city to fly that flag above the city's Memorial Stadium. The request was made by members of the Mayor's Committee for Veterans Affairs in July.
Meanwhile, another agenda item prioritizing unfunded improvements at the stadium sparked some discussion over who would be responsible for fundraising. The staff report included a list of high-priority but unfunded needs at the facility, and Council was being asked to endorse the list so staff could take action when money became available.
But Mumpower, who had previously formed and led a fundraising committee to establish a veterans memorial at the stadium, said he wanted to take the lead role in the campaign. "If there's somebody ready to pick this up and run with it, then by gosh it's my pleasure to step aside," he noted. "But if not, at least give me some kind of mandate to move forward." Mumpower added that he wouldn't support the resolution "unless Council supports me to do it."
Bellamy, however, noted that Mumpower's last fundraising task force had eventually fizzled. The mayor also emphasized that she wanted Mumpower to work closely with city staff, report regularly to Council and maintain the same level of transparency expected of staff.
"If we're asking our employees to follow procedure, Council needs to follow procedure," she declared. She also said she wanted either City Attorney Bob Oast or City Manager Gary Jackson to sit in on fundraising meetings.
The motion passed unanimously, with Mumpower given responsibility for heading up the effort. But it was not the only time that Bellamy and Mumpower (both of whom are up for reelection this fall) locked horns. Near the evening's end, Mumpower tried to bring up a non-agenda item concerning illegally noisy vehicles. But Bellamy refused to allow him to do so, saying it would be added to a future agenda. Mumpower, who'd previously sent an e-mail announcing his intention to raise the issue, then said he would speak up during public comment, but Bellamy had already closed that portion of the meeting.
Matters came to a dramatic head as Mumpower tried to read his statement over Bellamy's protests, with each calling the other "out of order," until the Mayor pounded the gavel and declared the meeting adjourned.
Earlier in the evening, Council unanimously approved spending $15,000 already earmarked for implementing a joint city/county nuisance court to deal with low-level crimes such as littering, aggressive panhandling and public drunkenness. Council members also heard an update on state law concerning municipalities' ability to ban smoking on city-owned property.
And on a 6-1 vote with Mumpower opposed, Council allocated $309,760 for bicycle-related improvements on Coxe Avenue and $235,950 for neighboring areas of downtown's south slope.
Brian Postelle can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 153, or at email@example.com.