As zoning officials conclude their investigation of possible violations by a Montford soup kitchen, City Council may seek ways to enable the facility to keep serving the poor.
The Asheville-Buncombe Community Christian Ministry — which provides food, clothing and other assistance to the area’s needy — is under fire from the city Planning and Development Department for its Cumberland Avenue facility. A decision from the Code Enforcement Office, expected within days of Council’s Dec. 3 work session, was delayed when the enforcement officer had to leave town to attend a funeral.
With the clock ticking and local media keeping the issue in the spotlight, Council member Brian Peterson wondered whether Council could direct city staff to look for loopholes that would exempt ABCCM from the zoning restrictions.
Zoning officials first notified the nonprofit about possible violations in late October. The investigation was touched off by an e-mail sent to Mayor Charles Worley and City Council members listing complaints from neighbors who say the facility attracts drug users and prostitutes. An initial inspection by Code Enforcement officials turned up several possible problems, including the siting of the soup kitchen and an adjacent facility (said to be an office) in a residential district, and the storage of cars on the nonprofit’s lot.
ABCCM’s executive director, the Rev. Scott Rogers, maintains that the “office” is actually a residence and that Planning and Development staff are welcome to check it out. He also said the complaints reflect neighbors’ mistaken belief that the ministry operates a homeless shelter on the property.
“It’s like people were complaining about something else, then they hit pay dirt,” observed Council member Holly Jones. “It’s not like we didn’t know it was going on. I think we should at least try” to save the soup kitchen, she added.
According to City Manager Jim Westbrook, amending the Unified Development Ordinance requires a formal vote by Council; Peterson said he will make the necessary motion at the Dec. 10 formal session. Westbrook also noted that ABCCM can appeal any decision by Code Enforcement to the Board of Adjustments, which would postpone any regulatory action by the city at least till January.
“It’s a big part of our community,” observed Council member Joe Dunn “I’d hate to see us shut it down.”
But not everyone on Council agreed that a soup kitchen that supplies up to 75 people a day with food should be exempt from zoning rules.
Mayor Charles Worley expressed “some reluctance” at the idea, fearing that the city would be “sending the wrong message if somebody is breaking our zoning ordinances.”
And Council member Jim Ellis, voicing similar concerns, said, “We need to let it work its way through the process, then see what we can do.”
Chief Planner Gerald Green, reached after the meeting, said the zoning office was still conducting its investigation, including collecting information and looking at old files. A decision, he said, would come shortly. (Green must sign off on the decision, which will be drafted by Chief City Code Enforcement Administrator Mike Wheeler.) Although the final report had not been issued at press time, Green did say that storing vehicles on the Short Street property would be a definite violation. (In addition to the Cumberland Avenue soup kitchen, the ministry owns two buildings behind it, which face Short Street.)
Rogers said later that the parked cars are part of a program to store, refurbish and give vehicles to people in need. The program, he said, has expanded to meet community need and now handles about 12 cars a month (up from five). According to Rogers, the nonprofit has already complied with the city’s request to move the vehicles, some of which have been given away. As for the soup kitchen, it’s been there since 1981.
“We’ve never hidden the fact or denied the fact that we feed people,” said Rogers. He also noted that there were crime problems in the neighborhood long before the soup kitchen opened.
Rogers says he has supplied the city with the original building plans for the Cumberland facility, which clearly show sections for offices, food warehousing and feeding areas.
Besides its daily meal service, ABCCM distributes food boxes to homes, providing up to 12,000 pounds of food a month to 2,500 local families, said Rogers. The nonprofit also operates a men’s shelter on Coxe Avenue, downtown.
City to seek public comment on parking deck
It’s time to solicit city residents’ opinions on a proposed downtown parking deck to be located adjacent to the Battery Park Apartments, City Engineer Cathy Ball told Council.
“We’re at the point where we need public input on the project,” she said, noting that it can’t move forward until this is done.
Plans for the facility grew out of a 1998 study that analyzed the parking situation in the central business district. The next year, the city contracted with Tessier Associates to negotiate the purchase of the needed property from seven separate owners, including the Diocese of the Basilica of St. Lawrence. Those talks are still under way. According to Ball, the fact that some of the property owners live in other parts of the country has complicated the negotiations. “There are pretty complicated logistics involved,” she said later.
The parking facility would have a maximum of 647 spaces (compared to 250 spaces each for the Wall Street and Rankin Street decks).
If the project is approved by Council, construction (expected to take 18 months) could begin next fall, she said. The plans call for a three-building complex that would also include retail shops, residential areas and offices. Although the city is shouldering the cost of the parking deck (estimated at $11.8 million), Ball said the retail and apartment complexes would be developed by the private sector.
Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy wondered whether some of those new residential units could be designated as affordable housing.
“We don’t want to tie our hands if no one will do it,” cautioned Ball. But the city, she said, could “strongly encourage” developers to include affordable-housing units by making it clear that such plans would weigh heavily in determining who is awarded the contract for the project.
The proposed project would also include a “pocket park” and a walkway that would run between the Civic Center and the Grove Arcade. The final design would be determined by contractor bids, said Ball.
No dates have yet been set for the public-input sessions, she said.