Quick facts

Folks just can’t abide that Pack Place sign: On Nov. 9, Nan Davis and Julie Brandt begged Asheville City Council members to take a closer look at the special agreements that cleared the way for the sign — and then to take it down, especially in light of current plans to redesign Pack Square.

“In the Pack Place encroachment agreement … there is provision for removal,” declared Davis, who represents an informal group calling itself Redesign the Sign.

“This sign does not belong on the Square. It is out of character — in scale and materials — with Pack Square,” Davis declared. She emphasized, however, that the Redesign the Sign group was not “here to argue about whether Pack Place needs a sign. … Pack Place is a wonderful asset to our city, and we are supportive of the museums and their desire to attract attention to their events.”

At issue, Davis explained, is how a previous City Council gave special permission to Pack Place, allowing it to build a sign that doesn’t comply with the city’s sign ordinance, and to build it on a public sidewalk. Members of the previous Council had had to adopt special amendments to the city’s sign ordinance and create an encroachment agreement (pertaining to the use of the public sidewalk and the Patton Avenue right-of-way) in order to make the sign legal.

“Who is next? How can you make this possible for one business and not another? … How are we going to protect our downtown from more inappropriate signage?” Davis asked. She and Brandt urged Council, at the very least, to examine the ordinance amendments that made the Pack Place sign possible, and take steps to ensure that such an error doesn’t occur again. They also suggested that Council could use provisions in the encroachment agreement to require Pack Place to redesign the sign — or place it somewhere else in the city, where it would inform residents and visitors about Pack Place and other city events, without marring Pack Square.

Davis also mentioned that City Planner Mike Matteson had informed Pack Place this past February that the sign didn’t conform with the city’s downtown design guidelines. Because compliance wasn’t mandatory, she said, it had just created another loophole for the sign fiasco — a loophole that she believes needs to be closed. But, she continued, Council seems to have the power to have the sign removed, under certain conditions, according to provisions in the encroachment agreement between the city and Pack Place.

“In retrospect, Council made a mistake [in not requiring] mandatory compliance to design … standards,” Council member Chuck Cloninger responded. With fellow Council members’ consent, he directed City Attorney Bob Oast to research the agreement with Pack Place and report back to Council on whether the city has any recourse in the matter.

Housing bonds approved

Despite the concerns raised by two citizens, Council endorsed the Asheville Housing Authority’s proposed $6.4 million bond issue. The Authority plans to lend the money to a private developer who will renovate an Oakley apartment complex formerly known as Oak Knoll.

City resident Dan Breen said he endorses the concept — the renovations are meant to improve 180 units of federally subsidized affordable housing in the city. But Breen wanted assurance that neither the Authority nor the developer (Silver Street Development Company of Portland, Maine) will increase rents or kick out the facility’s Section 8 tenants. “If the developer decides to be a jerk and condo-ize the place, or charge $800 rent — where are these [180 families] going to go?” he asked, urging, “Don’t just blindly approve this.”

And a current Oak Knoll employee mentioned that she and her co-workers are fearful that they’ll lose their jobs, when redevelopment begins.

The deal carries a key restriction, responded City Attorney Bob Oast. “If [the developer] takes the … money, [he’s] obligated to maintain [Oak Knoll] as low- and moderate-income, affordable housing,” noted Oast. That’s for the 30-year life of the bonds, he added. As for current workers job-security concerns, Oast didn’t think the bonds carried any guarantees, or that Council could impose any restrictions on the workers’ behalf.

Council members made little comment, voting 6-0 to endorse the bonds (Barbara Field made the motion, and O.T. Tomes seconded; Mayor Sitnick was out of town.)

The tower stops here

Asheville City Council members amended the city’s wireless-telecommunications-tower ordinance to give cell-phone companies a bit more flexibility — but stopped well short of upping the current 100-foot tower-height limit.

Barbara Field voiced her support for the amendments, saying: “For all citizens, the beauty [in Asheville] is pre-eminent. We don’t want ugly towers all over.” Field admitted that she had, at one time, called some towers “elegant.”

Chuck Cloninger — who had originally pushed for the tough ordinance now in effect — consented to the amendments, but resisted any further concessions (tower companies are still asking Council to relax the 100-foot height limit). “We need to stop here,” said Cloninger, arguing that Asheville has a model tower ordinance of national significance. But adopting “revision after revision” to better accommodate cell-phone companies and tower developers could weaken it. “Let’s live with this [version] and see how it works,” he said.

Vice Mayor Ed Hay remarked that the latest revisions should help reduce the number of towers in the city by providing more flexibility in the ordinance and encouraging the co-location of wireless-telecommunications equipment (“co-location” means using one tower to accommodate multiple transmitters). For example, the revisions permit existing structures to be improved or rebuilt, in order to accommodate co-location, he noted.

O.T. Tomes made a motion that Council approve the revisions; Field seconded. The motion passed, 6-0.

Spruce Street closed

When Public Works Director Mark Combs said that closing Spruce Street on The Block is “amenable to all parties,” he was only half right: It’s true the property owners on both sides of the narrow street have agreed to the closing. But then, the owners are one and the same entity — Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church.

New Hope Community Health Center Director Bonnie Love and city resident Abraham Adams objected. “[The street is] just a little shortcut. … It is a road to the church,” said Adams. Reported problems with litter should be taken care of by the city’s Sanitation Department, and drug/crime problems should be dealt with by police — not addressed by closing a public street, he added.

Love agreed, arguing that The Block needs to be “uplifted … not segregated.” Closing the street affects the area’s disenfranchised, she remarked. “There has to be another way [to address the problems],” said Love.

But Council had already been swayed by the arguments put forth by Mt. Zion Pastor John Grant and church member Willie Mae Brown. Said Brown, “People take [the street] as a public restroom, not only as a shortcut.” Brown has participated in numerous cleanup attempts on the street, with volunteers collecting up to 30 bags of garbage in one short hour. But within a week, it’s a mess again, she said. Brown mentioned that it’s difficult to get grants for redeveloping the area without first cleaning things up.

And problems with alcoholics, prostitutes and others urinating, defecating, sleeping and engaging in other “illicit acts” have gown so bad, added Grant, “We’ve had to put gates on the front of our church.” He presented Council with a petition signed by 218 people calling for the street to be closed. Many of them attended the meeting and stood up when Grant asked Council to recognize them.

“I agree with you. I’ve been there,” said Council member Field. She asked only whether Mt. Zion would police the street, clean it and maintain it, especially since the city requires that a surface suitable for fire-emergency vehicles be maintained.

“Absolutely,” Grant replied. “We already do [that].”

On a motion by Tomes, seconded by Field, Council voted unanimously to close Spruce Street.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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