Saving which environment?

“What are we going to do when every square inch of downtown is concrete?”

— Julie Brandt, People Advocating Real Conservancy

“We want to maximize that three acres. Not just from an economic standpoint, but from a use standpoint for the city.”

— David Payne, Power Development LLC

Ravenscroft development
Timber: Under current plans for the Ravenscroft development, these trees would be felled to make way for a seven-story condominium tower. photo by Jonathan Welch

The biggest development proposal to hit downtown Asheville’s South Slope to date has ruffled some feathers among the project’s Coxe Avenue neighbors. Ravenscroft, a four-tower hotel/condominium complex proposed by the Asheville-based Power Development LLC, must still clear some significant hurdles before ground can be broken. But residents of the adjacent Sawyer Motor Building, which was converted to condos in 2002, fear the grading and construction would destroy a small grove of roughly 50-year-old southern red oaks that straddles the property line.

“The trees, the trees, the trees: That’s what this is all about,” proclaims Jonathan Scott, who communes with the grove while walking his dog around the neighborhood.

Ironically, Ravenscroft is being billed as an environmentally sensitive project. One of the primary architects, Peter Alberice, is LEED-accredited in environmental design, and the plans call for incorporating energy-saving features, a storm-water management system, “green” rooftops and possible LEED certification. (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a national standard for “green” building and energy conservation, was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council.) What’s more, he notes, siting the complex close to downtown amenities reduces automobile use and suburban sprawl. Proponents say the project would also add much-needed work-force housing to downtown Asheville.

Power Development principal David Payne, who says his firm bought the three-acre parcel in early 2005, emphasizes the risk they were taking by plunking down nearly $2 million in cash at a time when nothing much was happening in the area. He maintains that Ravenscroft will “create a three-acre urban living center” that will “inject life” into the South Slope. Payne, who describes himself as a fifth-generation Asheville native, says the area was “in such disarray and disregard that, frankly, I was worried about my safety there. We’ve looked hard and we’ve listened long to figure out the best thing to do with a piece of property that’s been neglected for the past decade. We want to maximize that three acres — not just from an economic standpoint but from a use standpoint for the city.” The project site is bounded by Coxe, Banks and South Lexington avenues and Hilliard Street.

Further complicating matters is Alberice’s dual role as Ravenscroft designer and chair of the Downtown Commission — the public body charged with reviewing the project and making recommendations to City Council (see sidebar, “Competence or Conflict?”).

High-rise on the horizon

Dramatic change is already under way on the South Slope, an area roughly bounded by the central business district to the north and the hospitals to the south. The 66-unit Lexington Station condos are being built on Hilliard adjacent to the Ravenscroft site, and Zona Lofts, a 162-unit “green”-building project slated for Coxe Avenue, is awaiting approval.

Meanwhile, the Ravenscroft project — originally conceived as a 27-story hotel/convention center — has been re-imagined several times during the past a year-and-a-half in response to concerns raised by the Downtown Commission and others.

The latest design, which came before the commission Nov. 10 for another informal review, proposes four towers ranging in height from seven to 18 stories. “A lot of people were worried about the height,” notes Payne. But using modeling software that adds Ravenscroft to Asheville’s cityscape, the developers have determined that even though the highest tower would have the same number of stories as the BB&T Building, it wouldn’t appear to be as tall because of the lower-elevation site.

The current configuration calls for up to 350 residential units, 100 hotel units and a restaurant, plus retail and office space. Up to 10 percent of the residential units would be “work-force housing,” priced at “between 80 and 120 percent of what can be afforded by someone making an average salary in Buncombe County and Asheville,” said Alberice. The Zona Lofts condos, which are also being billed as work-force housing, are projected to cost between $122,000 and $242,000. Condos in the Sawyer Motor Building are selling for $250,000 to $350,000, said Scott.

Because of its size and scale, Ravenscroft is considered both a level III and a “landmark” project under the city’s site-plan-review guidelines. Accordingly, the project must navigate an extensive approval process. Three separate entities — the city’s Technical Review Committee, Downtown Commission and Planning and Zoning Commission — must consider the proposal’s compliance with Asheville’s downtown design guidelines and Unified Development Ordinance. And if it clears those hurdles, it must then go before City Council to obtain a conditional-use permit.

To date, Ravenscroft has made it past technical review and has been informally discussed each month at Downtown Commission meetings since June. The massive development is slated to be formally presented to the commission in early January.

Smart growth or old growth?

Jonathan Scott, who moved into the Sawyer Motor Building in 2004 when he relocated from Charlotte, is a public-relations consultant for “green” developers (Zona Lofts is one of his clients). Scott describes himself as pro-development, pro-urban density and in line with smart-growth principles. But he can’t bear to see the stand of mature oaks behind his Coxe Avenue residence felled to make way for a condo tower.

“The common sentiment of everyone in the building — whether they are for or against the development — is that we love the trees, and we think it would be a shame to cut any of them down,” he says. Although the trees occupy less than an acre of the property, Scott feels they’re valuable because there are so few trees downtown. In an Oct. 11 e-mail to Downtown Commission members, Scott suggested that preserving the grove could actually enhance the development.

Most of the grove is on the developers’ property, and once construction began, those trees would be removed and the slope graded. But Sawyer Motor residents fear that the disruption would also kill the trees on their side of the property line.

“To develop anything at all on this parcel would … threaten the trees on the adjacent property, most certainly resulting in damaging their root systems,” reports Don Chastain, a licensed forester who surveyed the grove at Scott’s request. “Within two or three years, we could see the trees that border [the Ravenscroft site] topple into the [parking lot behind the Sawyer Motor Building], creating massive amounts of property damage.”

Asked about the trees, Payne said: “A lot of people have a lot of ideas as to what you can do with your property, and it’s been called a moral issue. From a moralistic standpoint, we’re talking about a place that has become a haven for prostitution. I found a tent in there — and they weren’t camping, if you follow me. I’m concerned about the trees too. But the perplexing question is, I’ve been told that work-force housing is needed, but where I want to put it, people won’t let me cut the trees down. When it comes to a decision between saving the trees and work-force housing, I would side with the work-force housing any day.”

From the city’s point of view, preserving trees is a lower priority downtown — where the goal is to encourage “high-density, large and mixed-use development” — than it would be in a residential neighborhood outside the central business district, explains Planning Department staffer Shannon Tuch. She also questioned whether the city would even get involved in what appears to be, at bottom, a dispute between private landowners.

But Julie Brandt of the local grassroots group People Advocating Real Conservancy believes the city should be actively preserving precious green space. “I’m really concerned about park space downtown, and I think now is the time to implement it,” says Brandt. “What are we going to do when every square inch of downtown is concrete?”

A major impact

If and when the Ravenscroft project comes before City Council, there will be a public hearing, and that’s when issues such as public concern about the grove of trees will carry more weight, Urban Planner Alan Glines reports. Nonetheless, concerned citizens have already started showing up at Downtown Commission meetings, sometimes waiting for hours for a chance to voice concerns during the public-comment period at the end.

Commission members’ reactions have been varied. “I’ve got significant concerns about this project, the least of which is that grove of trees,” Jesse Plaster told Xpress. Plaster, a developer who owns the Wilson Building on Eagle Street, says he’s more worried about the project’s size and scale; he also questions whether it would discourage sprawl. “Smart growth is an argument that’s used a lot to shoot down anyone who questions a downtown-infill project,” notes Plaster. “It’s great to see people moving downtown, but that doesn’t restrict suburban sprawl. They’re the ones who want to be downtown.”

Fellow commission member Chuck Tessier, a major player in downtown redevelopment, also voices doubts. “Projects like Ravenscroft and Zona Lofts will leave a major impact in that area,” says Tessier. “We need to take a look at the larger picture: You can’t just drop these condos anywhere without thinking about what’s going to happen. It’s not appropriate to take $100 million worth of development to this area and assume that everything will stay the same.”

But commission member Kitty Love, a self-proclaimed “tree fanatic” who is executive director of the nonprofit group Arts2People, takes a different view. “If it is at all possible, we should save those trees,” she asserts, adding, “It’s important to have as much green space in downtown as possible.” At the same time, however, Love fears that the community might pay a high price for saving the trees. “From an infrastructure standpoint, it might be more advantageous for us as a community to ask for the work-force housing. I wish there could be a completely different arrangement where we could have both.”

Alberice, meanwhile, concedes that Ravenscroft would permanently alter the face of the area. But that, he says, is an opportunity to set a standard for green design. He also maintains that the development team is sensitive to public concerns and is “open to any reasonable discussion about alternatives on that property.”


Competence or conflict?

The Ravenscroft project sparked a lengthy discussion of how to avoid the public perception of conflict of interest at the beginning of the Downtown Commission’s Nov. 10 meeting. The issue has cropped up repeatedly since June, when the project was first introduced, meeting minutes show.

This is familiar ground for commission members, who are often chosen for their expertise in architecture and/or planning; many current members are developers who’ve done projects in the city. “Everyone knows that if you’re on the commission, at some point you’ll have that problem,” notes Alberice.

In this case, however, several members have voiced concerns about how the public might view having the commission’s chairman conduct the first half of the meeting and then switch hats to pitch a project. “I don’t think it looks very good,” Pat Whalen remarked during the October session.

The previous month, City Attorney Bob Oast briefed commission members on the legalities surrounding the issue. Members of appointed boards that advise City Council, he said, can’t vote on any matter in which they have a financial stake, and they must recuse themselves before giving formal presentations on projects they’re involved with. Accordingly, Alberice has asked to be recused as chair before giving informal presentations about Ravenscroft, and he’ll be recused for the entire meeting when he formally presents the project in January.

One question that came up during the October discussion was what would happen if both the chair and the vice chair — who takes over when the chair is recused — had development projects on the agenda for the same meeting. It’s not an unlikely scenario, commission members agreed, because of the number of proposals submitted in recent months.

At that point, Julie Brandt of People Advocating Real Conservancy spoke up. “It seems like there is an inherent conflict,” she noted, “for the majority of members on this board to be developers or working on projects.”

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