City-owned land on Haywood Street facing the U.S. Cellular Center and the Basilica of St. Lawrence has been the focus of development schemes ranging from a parking deck to a hotel to a corporate headquarters. Now the property will serve a new function: a testing ground for a broad community engagement process that will bring together a range of stakeholders to finally decide what the larger Asheville community wants to see (and, not coincidentally, to pay for) on the site.
City Council voted at its regular meeting on Tuesday, March 8 to approve a community “visioning” process led by the Asheville Design Center. ADC executive director Chris Joyell said the process will “change the tenor of of the conversation we’ve been having, away from opposing viewpoints battling it out,” into a more productive exercise. To fund the seven-month planning and public engagement effort, Council approved a $15,000 budget amendment, which will match $15,000 in funds donated by the Asheville Downtown Association, the Friends of St. Lawrence Green, Michael McDonough, the Downtown Asheville Residential Neighbors (DARN) and an anonymous donor.
An advisory team made up of stakeholders and three at-large members to be appointed by City Council will participate in an initial planning effort that will define the parameters for the public engagement process. Joyell said that a thorough site survey will help to identify topographical, infrastructure, financial and other constraints for the project. “Then we can open it up to the public and let the creativity run wild,” he explained.
In addition to the stakeholder groups previously identified to participate in the advisory team, Council added a representative from the Civic Center Commission and one from the Asheville Buskers Collective, an organization of downtown street performers.
Mayor Esther Manheimer called attention to the alleyway that runs between city-owned lots on Haywood Street and other city-owned parcels on Page Avenue (which are currently used as surface parking lots). “We are going to have to make a special effort to reach out to [those who hold easement rights to the alley] if we are going to ask for voluntary participation,” she said. Manheimer noted that, as an attorney who does easement litigation, she could envision legal complexities arising from changes to access to the alleyway. Those with rights to access property through the alleyway include the Battery Park Hotel, the 60 Battery Park condominiums, the Cambria Suites Hotel now under construction and the tenants of various buildings (such as the Captain’s Bookshelf).
A city-owned property adjacent to the study area, 33-35 Page Ave., also came under Council’s scrutiny. First purchased for $850,000 in parking fund moneys in 2004, the modest two-story brick building was slated for demolition. The property was to be used to provide alleyway access so that a parking deck could be built on the combined Haywood Street and Page Avenue sites.
In the meanwhile, the city allowed Sister Cities Asheville to use the building as its headquarters. The terms of the city’s lease with Sister Cities stipulated that the organization would accept the property in “as is” condition and that it would not occupy the premises for longer than one year. When plans for the parking deck fell through, however, the organization continued to keep offices in the building until November 2015, when the city building inspector declared the structure unsafe due to roof leaks that caused water intrusion and mold.
Assistant City Manager Paul Fetherston presented options for stabilizing, renovating or demolishing the building. The options ranged from a low of $38,000 for roof repairs to stop water coming into the structure to a high of $500,000 to renovate the building for leasing and occupancy. Demolishing the building was estimated at $115,000. The building’s continued existence, Fetherston said, was considered “a detriment to the market value of the property,” by the city’s real estate manager.
Representatives for Asheville Sister Cities, including the organization’s current president Andrew Craig, past president and former Asheville Mayor Russ Martin and Karen Hultin, spoke of the building’s importance to the organization and offered to invest $75,000 to $80,000 to make it suitable for occupancy.
Council also discussed the property’s status as a “contributing structure” in downtown’s historic district. Under current rules, no review or approval from the Downtown Commission or Asheville’s Historic Resources Commission are required for demolition of such a structure. Upon hearing that putting a demolition contract out for bid (as required by law) will take between 60 and 90 days, Council voted 6-1 to approve the demolition of the structure, with Council member Brian Haynes opposed.
Council member Cecil Bothwell pointed out that the city’s intention when the building was purchased was to demolish the structure. Council member Julie Mayfield said that the decision to tear down the building wasn’t a reflection of the city’s opinion of the Sister Cities organization: “There’s a difference between the organization and the building.”
Presentations and reports
Council heard presentations on the master plan for the redevelopment of the Lee Walker Heights public housing neighborhood, the Asheville Police Department’s implementation of body-worn cameras and a budget report.
Lee Walker Heights redevelopment
Gene Bell, CEO of the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville (HACA), told Council that the Lee Walker Heights redevelopment represents “the most transformational project we could possibly do.” Bell celebrated the conclusion of the master planning effort, saying, “Our residents have been involved in the process and they will be able to come back.”
HACA CFO David Nash explained that the 96-unit development was built 66 years ago. Today, Lee Walker Heights is ideally located close to thousands of jobs, Nash said. The master plan encompasses both the existing site of the community as well as the adjacent former Matthews Ford dealership property on Biltmore Avenue, which the city hopes to include in the project.
Lee Walker Heights resident Butch Worthy said children will be the most important beneficiaries of the new community. “We need to give the kids more hope; make things safe for them and give them more space,” he commented. Residents of the community have been included in the planning “every step of the way,” Worthy said. “If there’s any complaints, I don’t see why. All they had to do was to come to the meetings.”
An architect from the lead design firm, David Baker Architects of San Francisco, presented plans and renderings showing a mix of building types. The project will create at least 200 units and will contain a mix of deeply affordable units and market-rate housing. The complex will also incorporate ground-level commercial space with associated parking along Biltmore Avenue. The hilltop site will offer great long-range views of the surrounding mountains, as well as significant play spaces and open community spaces.
Body-Worn Police Camera Implementation
The Asheville Police Department posted its policy for body-worn police cameras on Tuesday, March 8. Manheimer explained that, while departmental policies are not generally presented to Council and do not require Council approval, the level of public interest in the policy warranted a presentation.
Chief Tammy Hooper presented an overview of the timeline and costs for the initial implementation of 60 police body cameras, which is anticipated to begin this summer. The cost of the cameras and unlimited online storage of video footage for one year will be $142,258. The contract also includes the purchase of 60 conducted electronic weapons (Tasers). Storage and maintenance in subsequent years is estimated at $78, 414. In 2017 and 2018, the department plans to purchase an additional 120 cameras. Grant funding to cover all or part of those costs will be sought.
The department is also planning to hire a technology specialist to administer the program; the chief said she has a recommendation for a hire on her desk and expects an offer to be extended to that candidate soon.
Once implemented, assuming costs remain similar to current levels and the program can be administered by one staff member, the chief estimates the program will cost around $300,000 per year.
The chief and assistant city attorney John Maddux outlined the city’s interpretation of public records laws and how those relate to video footage captured by police officers. Maddux said that records created in the performance of public business are generally considered public. Police records, however, created in the process of preventing or solving a violation of the law are considered investigatory in nature and are not public.
North Carolina law maintains that all personnel records are confidential in nature and are not public. Maddux said that the Greensboro police department considers all police video recordings to be personnel records, meaning that the records cannot be released under most circumstances. By classifying most video footage captured by police body cameras as investigatory records rather than personnel records, Maddux went on, the Asheville police department is acknowledging valid privacy concerns while maintaining the flexibility to create transparency.
Commenter Michael Collins told Council he was concerned that the public would bear the costs of the recordings but would have no access to them. “I feel disturbed that we are paying $300,000 or $500,000 a year for body cameras in which the public has little to no access to footage. The mechanism for accountability is not there. Public oversight is not there. So I hope you will find alternatives for ways in which police body camera footage can be made accessible to public.”
Council member Keith Young commented that he had reviewed the policy and: “Nothing sticks out as a sore thumb in this policy. We are in new territory when comes to body-worn cameras. We know new state legislation may be pending. I commend you for drafting this policy.”
Council member Gordon Smith said, “As we contemplate our annual budgets, we will see that there is a real price tag associated with this program.” After more discussion, Smith added, “This is a big deal. I hope we will all see the ‘civilizing effect’ we hope will be associated with the use of the cameras.”
Asheville Chief Financial Officer Barbara Whitehorn updated Council on the status of the city budget while showing off a new pair of cowboy boots, which drew favorable comment from the mayor.
In general, Whitehorn said, city revenue from sales tax collection is up. The city is also experiencing a 2 percent increase in property tax collections. At the same time, the economic recovery is resulting in higher costs in a range of categories. The city faces more competition for employees, and the cost of construction materials is higher. On the other hand, fuel and energy costs are down significantly. Those costs, however, are very difficult to predict.
Whitehorn outlined the ongoing budget process and said there will be a budget worksession on March 22.
The renaming of two disconnected portions of Merritt Street to “Bird Dog Way” for the south section and “Merritt Park Lane” was on Council’s agenda as a public hearing. After a brief presentation by city staff on the expected benefits of the change, no members of the public asked to comment. Council approved the renaming unanimously.
Several members of the public commented on an ordinance passed by Charlotte’s City Council on Feb. 22 to allow transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice. Andrew Sluder, pastor of Baptist Bible Church in Asheville, said he opposes any rule which would allow a person born as a man but identifying as a woman to use a women’s bathroom. Lacey Winter, who identified as a member of Asheville’s LGBT community, said that an ordinance protecting LGBT people’s right to use the bathroom of their choice would be the “logical next step” for a community known for “standing in front on social issues.”
Manheimer explained that Asheville’s Governance committee (which consists of Manheimer, Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler and Young) heard a presentation from the city attorney’s office on Charlotte’s ordinance prior to Tuesday’s meeting of Council. Asheville’s legal staff, the mayor continued, told the committee that a 1985 ordinance on Charlotte’s books allowed discrimination with regards to bathrooms. Since Asheville has no such law, the mayor said, the Governance committee concluded that “there isn’t anything we need to address.” The only action the committee recommended was a press release clarifying the city’s position. “We are glad to have had an opportunity to review our own ordinances and practices,” Manheimer concluded.
Board and Commission appointments
To fill seats vacated by Council member Julie Mayfield upon her election to City Council, Council appointed Sandra Frempong to the HUB Community & Economic Development Alliance and Kim Roney to the Multimodal Transportation Commission.
City Council’s next regular meeting will be held on Tuesday, March 22 at 5 p.m. in Council chambers on the second floor of City Hall.