Asheville City Council

Two years after a community group shined the spotlight on some businesses’ violations of the city’s Unified Development Ordinance—and a year after those complaints were supported by a consultant’s report—Greenlife Grocery says it’s ready to take steps to address the problems. And Staples, which had not responded to several prior requests for a meeting with the city, now appears willing to at least discuss the concerns.

Schadenfreude for Staples haters

by Hal L. Millard

Dead zone?: Staples officials allege that vandals are poisoning plants the store hoped would mute criticism of its maligned facade.

Earlier this year, after Staples had balked at addressing the various concerns regarding its imposing Merrimon Avenue storefront, the company extended an olive branch in the form of landscaping aimed at softening the impact of its towering brick facade. In a January letter to Mayor Terry Bellamy, Staples executive Ted Frumkin said the company believed “this enhanced landscaping will be well received.”

Apparently not.

In a June 8 e-mail to Bellamy, Frumkin said the company has proof that vandals were behind the slow killing of the trees and shrubs it planted. At least one Council member, Robin Cape, has dismissed the allegation as balderdash (see main story).

But corporate spokesman Paul Capelli told Xpress that tests had confirmed the plants were poisoned, adding that it would be odd that professionally planted, irrigated landscaping “would not be thriving.” Replacing the dead plants, said Capelli, had cost the store in excess of $15,000.

The landscaping issue will be one of the main topics of discussion when the mayor meets with Staples executives on Sept. 7 at corporate headquarters in Framingham, Mass., Bellamy told Xpress. She said she’s reserving judgment on whether the landscaping’s demise is indeed the work of vandals.

“We have 75,000 people in the city of Asheville; I can’t speak to if someone in our community did it. I can only go by what [Frumkin] said and ask him to validate it for the community’s sake, because I think there are a lot of people who want to know about the analysis that was done and what was the poison identified,” said Bellamy.

In the meantime, here’s the full text of Frumkin’s June 8 e-mail:

“I wanted to send you a brief note to explain some disturbing news regarding our store in Asheville. As you know, we planted the landscape per our previous discussion with the City in hopes of softening the look of the building to the street. Recently, we found that our plants were dying and could not figure out why as we have an irrigation system. We asked our landscape contractor about the plants. They observed, over the 3 months since planting, the slow death and destruction of the Holly trees, bushes, and the Virginia Creeper. They had the plants tested for poison and/or spraying and the tests came back positive. They are sending us the results.

“As you can imagine, this is not positive news. We have been forced to install cameras to protect our store from vandals. We will have to reinstall these plants at our cost as the landscape contractor does not warranty plants that die because of vandalism. We have tried to work with the city and the neighborhood groups to satisfy their concerns regarding our building. But, I suspect now that this latest incident (along with all the others in the past) shows that there is nothing we can do to satisfy these groups.

“I thought you should know what we are dealing with here. I can only hope that our continued efforts on contributing to the greater good of Asheville—by fostering small business growth, supporting youth and education, encouraging recycling, and more will ultimately win out.”

 

At the Asheville City Council’s Aug. 28 meeting, Greenlife co-owner John Swann said his company will proceed with plans to extend the store’s parking lot. That, he says, will enable delivery trucks to enter, exit and turn around without using the residential Maxwell Street. The expansion plans were already in the works when a lawsuit by unhappy neighbor Reid Thompson, a leader in the campaign to hold the grocery’s feet to the fire, caused the company to hold off on the project, said Swann.

“My partner and I are dead serious about implementing this plan,” he assured Council.

The city also accepted Swann’s offer to pay for repairing Maxwell Street sidewalks that were damaged by delivery trucks.

The move came just as Council members Bryan Freeborn and Brownie Newman appeared ready to propose a traffic-calming plan for Maxwell Street that would have cost the city $35,000 to $40,000, according to staff reports. The new parking-lot design, which eliminates the need for that work, seemed to find favor with most on Council. “That was what I wanted to hear tonight,” said Newman.

Meanwhile, Mayor Terry Bellamy had a surprise of her own, announcing that Staples representatives had agreed to sit down with her. Bellamy herself seemed surprised by the development, saying she’d learned about it only by reading that day’s Asheville Citizen-Times. A subsequent phone call, she said, had confirmed the information. The mayor said later that the meeting is slated for Friday, Sept. 7, at Staples’ corporate headquarters in Framingham, Mass.

Several elements of the Merrimon Avenue office-supply store’s massive structure—erected several years ago—drew the ire of the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods, which pointed out that it violates state regulations concerning traffic “sight triangles” and that the three oversized signs violate the UDO. The company has never been cited for either offense (see “No Change,” Aug. 8 Xpress).

In a Jan. 8, 2007, letter to Bellamy, Staples Regional Vice President of Real Estate Ted Frumkin said the company would not change its sign, noting that the design had been approved by the city Planning Department. And in a June 8 e-mail to Bellamy, Frumkin said that landscaping planted by Staples as part of its remediation efforts had mysteriously died and that he suspected foul play, because the plants had tested positive for poison (see sidebar, “Schadenfreude for Staples Haters”).

“This latest incident (along with others in the past) shows there is nothing we can do to satisfy those groups,” the e-mail asserted.

Council member Robin Cape dismissed the allegation, saying: “That is a very disingenuous statement. I don’t think anyone in our community poisoned those trees.”

But she also expressed disappointment that lawsuits filed by community members had impeded progress in both cases. Early discussions with Staples, undertaken before consultant David Owens of the School of Government at UNC-Chapel Hill had presented his report, might have gone more smoothly if the neighborhood group hadn’t appealed the matter to the Board of Adjustment, Cape maintained. Cape said she’d felt progress was being made even if there’d been no face-to-face meeting.

She also wondered what sort of solution might be found now, since Staples is clearly unwilling to move an entire building back 15 feet. “I’m a little concerned about the [community’s] expectation of outcome,” said Cape.

Bellamy directed that question to CAN President Joe Minicozzi, saying, “I guess my question is, ‘When is it done?’”

Minicozzi, who spoke several times during the discussion, said he was simply following the law in filing the appeal, and had tried to keep Council in the loop.

“In all these [cases], we came to you as soon as possible,” he noted.

But City Attorney Bob Oast continued to advise Council that it has very limited ability to enforce UDO violations and even hinted that such a move could leave the city open to litigation.

“I think we could have a very hard time issuing a notice of violation,” said Oast. In response to further questioning by Council member Carl Mumpower, the city attorney said that legal advice should be discussed only in closed session.

In the Zona

Fifteen stories at half the energy: Zona Lofts, a proposed condo development on Coxe Avenue that will incorporate energy-efficiency measures, got the go-ahead from Council.

A 15-story condominium building slated for 150 Coxe Ave. slid through the conditional-use permitting process on a unanimous vote, based largely on its revolutionary environmental design. According to estimates by city staff and the developers, Zona Lofts is expected to use 50 to 60 percent less energy than other buildings its size.

“I’m very excited. You took on the challenge of the energy usage of the world and the community,” Cape told developer Rod Cagey.

The project’s planned energy-saving features have been attracting attention since it was first announced. Built using energy-efficient materials, the high-rise will collect rainwater for flushing toilets and use solar power to heat water. It will also feature energy-efficient appliances and low-flow plumbing.

“Our goal is a cool, simple and green development downtown,” Cagey told Council. The developer called the lower-priced units—projected to cost between $122,000 and $242,000—“work-force housing.” Condos on the upper floors will be priced higher, he said.

Construction is expected to begin in mid-November and to take about two years, according to the developers.

Clang, clang, clang

Within the month, Asheville Historic Trolley Tours will have some competition in the local sightseeing trade. City Council granted a franchise license to Gray Line Trolley Tours. Owners Howard and Deborah Helmken said that only two of their four trolley buses will be on the street at any given time, following routes through downtown and distinctive neighborhoods such as Montford. The couple, who previously ran a similiar business in Savannah, Ga., have relocated here.

Although trolley tours are a relatively recent phenomenon in Asheville, Howard Helmken said there are at least 40 such vehicles operating in Savannah, and some on Council were concerned about the potential future impacts of increased tour traffic here. Council member Jan Davis worried about the vehicles obstructing traffic, and Vice Mayor Holly Jones reminded Helmken that there are also noise issues, since sightseeing tours often go through residential areas.

Bellamy, meanwhile, asked that the YMI Cultural Center and The Block, both landmarks of local African-American culture, be added to the tours.

“The current trolley system ignores that part of Asheville’s history,” she noted.

The measure passed 6-1 with Mumpower opposed, because he wanted such proposals to first go before the city’s Transit Commission.

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One thought on “Asheville City Council

  1. lokel

    I’m sure the Touristas will love the addition of the “Block” in all its glory to t he Tour!

    Maybe Ms. Bellamy should also request the Tour include South French Broad so the Touristas can can see the Citys “French Broads!”

    Maybe they should include the lovely gated community of Hillcrest too!

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