“Without the risk factor, I would absolutely postpone this for another month.”
— Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower on the South Pack Square Redevelopment
In the wake of the November election, it may have seemed like “deja vu all over again.” The agenda for the Asheville City Council’s Dec. 9 work session featured a smorgasbord of the kind of tough issues that Council members Brownie Newman, Jan Davis and Terry Bellamy faced during their fall campaigns, including homelessness, development and the Interstate 26 connector.
Some concerns — such as Council member Holly Jones‘ request for $7,500 from the city’s contingency fund to enable a shelter for the homeless to remain open 24 hours a day — amounted to little more than a shot across the bow hinting at larger, more volatile issues still to come.
Other subjects, such as Planning Director Scott Shuford‘s update on the I-26 corridor, presented much information without asking Council to take any action. These items, however, gave new Council members Newman and Davis a chance to show their stuff in their first work session. Responding to Shuford’s presentation, Newman cited new traffic studies projecting far less congestion than the numbers originally used by the state Department of Transportation to justify building an eight-lane highway, rather than one with six lanes. The DOT, noted Shuford, is sticking by its guns despite the new information, though he added that there may still be options — and Newman later assured Xpress that he intends to keep pushing the issue.
But one knotty topic came before the new Council every bit as problematic as it was when it was tabled at the previous Council’s next-to-last meeting. When the proposed South Pack Square Redevelopment was up for consideration last month, a heated discussion of the project’s details resulted in a vote to hold off on deciding the convoluted matter until the new Council members had been sworn in. With those seats barely warm, however, the issue was back, as Shuford and Community Development Director Charlotte Caplan tried to answer the questions that had derailed their efforts to get the project approved a few weeks before.
Shuford, Caplan and the two principal nonprofits involved are pushing for a budget amendment that would enable the city to accept a grant and loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, clearing the way for the $6 million project to move forward.
The long-awaited plan, a decade in the making, calls for renovating half a dozen buildings on “The Block,” downtown’s historically African-American commercial district, and building one new structure. The two nonprofits — the Eagle/Market Streets Development Corporation and the Mt. Zion Community Development Corporation — plan to pony up a combined $4.9 million. The city budget amendment would bring in another $1.1 million in grants and loans. (See “Blocked” and “Fire and Brimstone,” Nov. 26 Xpress.)
Most of the controversy appears to involve the new “infill” building planned for what is now a vacant lot. Some say the building wasn’t part of the original redevelopment plan. Shuford and City Attorney Bob Oast maintain that an infill building isn’t generally considered a change of plans. But opponents of the structure are whistling a different tune and grumbling about possible legal action to block the project.
Neighborhood property owner Gene Ellison, who’s threatening a lawsuit, brought an attorney to the work session. But Mayor Charles Worley denied Ellison’s request for time at the microphone, reminding the audience filling the chamber that a Council work session is not the appropriate place for public comment.
Yet the lack of public input on the project continued to be a sticking point for Council members, many of whom seemed partial to the idea of delaying a decision once again were it not for the threat of a pullout by developers.
“I recognize the public-involvement process has not been the greatest,” conceded Shuford, though he said this was the responsibility of the Eagle/Market Streets Development Corporation.
Council members Davis and Bellamy both mentioned a request for more time by a task force that had met earlier that day to discuss the issue. And Council member Joe Dunn and Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower talked about waiting until after Christmas to address the matter.
“Without the risk factor, I would absolutely postpone this for another month,” said Mumpower.
That risk factor, however, is not so easily discounted. And the developers have kept the pressure on, saying rising interest rates could derail the whole project. Developer David Rogers urged Council to green-light the development, pointing out that in the past 30 days alone, interest rates have increased by 1 percent.
In the end, Mayor Worley got his wish: The item remained on the agenda for discussion and public comment at the Dec. 16 formal session. But even after that meeting, which Ellison has predicted will bring out hundreds of people, Council could still postpone a final vote on the budget amendment.
Changing the channel
Public Access Channel Commission Chair Beth Lazer asked City Council to dissolve the commission on which she has served for the past three years.
In October, both the city and county formally signed on in support of the proposed cable channel. That, said Lazer, means it’s now time to pass the torch to the board that will oversee the station’s operations. She urged Council to appoint the five members of the current commission to the new board, have the city and county each pick one member, and let those seven choose four more, for a total of 11 members.
Some Council members, however, said they want more city representation.
Joe Dunn — unswayed by Holly Jones’ warning that increased government representation could produce a “political monster” rather than an effective nonprofit supervisory body — suggested letting the city and county each select two or three board members.
And though Terry Bellamy didn’t necessarily jump on the bandwagon for more Council appointments, she did push for adding a nonvoting Council liaison to the board to help keep the lines of communication open.
Mayor Worley, meanwhile, reminded his colleagues that the heavy hand of government should not interfere with the content and running of the channel.
“I will guarantee you that, no matter which end of the political spectrum you are on, there will be programming that is objectionable to you,” he declared.
Dunn assured the mayor that his concern was with monitoring the use of taxpayers’ money, not controlling the station’s programming. The station is slated to receive an estimated $200,000 in annual operating funds from a special charge added to Charter Cable subscribers’ bills.
Dunn maintained that the money is a tax; Lazer, however, said that perception is wrong, noting that people who aren’t cable subscribers will neither pay for nor receive the public-access channel.
The matter will come before Council for a vote at its Dec. 16 formal session.