Asheville City Council

“I’ve heard of traffic-calming, but I’ve never heard of student-calming.”

— Montford resident James Revels

“24-7, we will have staff living on site. This will not be an example of the inmates running the asylum.”

That promise, made by a developer’s representative during the Asheville City Council’s Aug. 24 formal session, sounded like something that might have been said two weeks earlier, when Council was considering whether to grant a permit allowing Buncombe County to build a new jail annex downtown.

In fact, it came during a public hearing on whether City Council should grant a conditional-use permit to allow the construction of a private housing complex to be marketed to students.

Both projects sparked concerns about noise, traffic and property values. But while exactly one member of the public showed up for the public hearing on the jail, the hearing on housing for college kids played out before a packed chamber.

Go figure.

The Aug. 24 hearing concerned whether the city should allow Campus Crest at Asheville, a private company, to build a residential complex on 17 acres located off Zillicoa Street (at the end of Montford Avenue), near UNCA. The property’s institutional zoning allows up to 16 units per acre (a total of 269 units, in this case). The developer was proposing just 154 units spread over 11 buildings, with 448 bedrooms all told. But under city law, the size of the project automatically triggers a permit requirement.

In any case, it was not so much the scale as the nature of the targeted clientele that seemed to trouble many of the neighborhood residents who came out en masse to oppose the project. As Montford resident James Revels put it, “I’ve heard of traffic-calming, but I’ve never heard of student-calming.”

The developers had come prepared, however, having assembled a team of engineers and consultants led by Asheville attorney Albert Sneed. First up for the development team was a Campus Crest partner Mike Hartnett, who assured both the public and City Council that the dorms would be operated by full-time employees of Campus Advantage, an Austin, Texas-based company that “manages 5,000 beds in several states … and is one of the best in the U.S.” He added that the dorms would help address Asheville’s lack of affordable housing by freeing up low-cost residential units now occupied by students.

To that end, Sneed showed City Council a letter of support written by Jim Barrett; although he serves on the board of the Affordable Housing Coalition of Asheville and Buncombe County, Barrett wrote the letter as a private citizen. Sneed also called Michael Peter, the president and CEO of Campus Advantage, to testify. After his remark about “inmates running the asylum,” Peter added that the housing would not resemble Animal House (the 1978 Hollywood production that has served as a kind of unofficial training film for a generation of college students who made “party” a verb).

“Residential stress”

Nonetheless, if someone had been doing the casting for a remake of Animal House, Peter might have been a strong candidate to play Dean Wormer. Although he never uttered Wormer’s famous line “No more fun of any kind,” Peter played the role of disciplinarian like a veteran. Campus Advantage, he maintained, runs a tight ship, with a full-time, on-site resident director overseeing a staff of resident advisers to enforce quiet after 10 p.m., as well as numerous other rules detailed in a hefty book he waved at Council members. Among the company’s policies, noted Peter, is “zero tolerance” for any kind of drug offense: “If a resident adviser smells marijuana while making rounds, those students will be evicted. Typically it happens early in the semester, and when the students are evicted, everyone realizes that we are serious about this.”

When Peter had finished, Sneed called on Janice Brumit, who introduced herself as a member of UNCA’s board of trustees. After stressing that she wasn’t officially representing the university, Brumit heartily endorsed the project, noting that despite the fears of some project opponents, “Students come to UNCA for an education, not to party.” The student body, added Brumit, “is very conscious environmentally and morally.” As proof of the students’ commitment to academics, Brumit reported that the median SAT score for UNCA students is 1,163.

Council member Brownie Newman asked Brumit why the university isn’t involved in the project. After reiterating that she wasn’t speaking in any official capacity, Brumit noted: “We are public and they are private. There are legal ramifications of endorsing a private development.”

After that, Council members caught an earful from project opponents and supporters alike. Longtime Montford resident Gerald Green, a former Asheville city planner, asked Council to consider eliminating a proposed access from the complex to Montford Avenue. The increased traffic, argued Green, could create “residential stress.” Green even took a humorous shot at Brumit’s reference to UNCA student’s SAT scores, noting that while he’d had higher scores himself, he still wished he “hadn’t partied as much in college.”

Steve Buie, whose psychiatric practice is near the proposed site, supported the project, which he said fills a need in the community. But Montford resident Linda Palmer told of having lived near a university in Tampa, Fla., that she said was “glutted with what was once off-campus student housing.” Abandoned by students, the units had ended up serving as “transient housing,” she said.

Montford resident and UNCA assistant professor Dee Eggers also noted that she wasn’t speaking in any official capacity. Warning that the dorms might not fill up with students, Eggers predicted, “Within a few years, it will be low-income housing.”

A split vote

After the public hearing had ended, Council members peppered Traffic Engineer Anthony Butzak with questions about the need for direct access to the complex from Montford Avenue. Many project opponents had argued that speeding cars and traffic volume are already a problem on the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare. On the other hand, one Zillicoa Street resident had asked that the access be retained to prevent residents of the dorms from using her street as a shortcut to Broadway Street. The developers, too, wanted the access removed, saying it had been added at the request of city staff when the project was being reviewed. Butzak stood his ground, however, explaining that the access is needed to avoid overburdening side streets adjoining the complex.

Brownie Newman also expressed concerns about noise and traffic impact. He moved that the hearing be continued for 30 days to give city staff and representatives of the development team a chance to meet with UNCA officials and brainstorm other ways to move students between the complex and the school.

Sneed balked at the suggestion, explaining that if the project couldn’t open in the fall of 2005 (when students would be looking for housing), it would have to delay opening until the following year.

Council member Holly Jones seconded Newman’s motion, but it failed on a 2-5 vote.

Council member Jan Davis then made a motion to approve the permit with the added condition that the Montford Avenue access be designated as an entrance only.

Newman countered with an amendment calling for a 15 percent reduction in the number of parking spaces for the development and allowing the developer to regain those spots after a needs assesment had been completed one year after the project was up and running. Only 64 percent of UNCA students have cars, said Newman, arguing that if the developers were going to house 448 students from the school, they presumably wouldn’t need the 448 parking spaces they’d requested.

Council member Joe Dunn, rolling his eyes, commented, “I’ve got a problem with you pulling numbers out of a hat.”

Newman shot back, “Yeah, that’s why I asked for 30 days to look into [the transportation issue].”

In the end, however, Newman and Jones — the only two Council members who live in Montford — were outvoted by their colleagues. Davis’ motion passed on a 5-2 vote.

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