Council votes to delay approval for Aspire development

NOT ADAPTABLE: Stephen Navarro, Furman CEO, said the 2,000 parking spaces in the development would not be able to be adapted to other uses if they were found to be underused. Screenshot courtesy of the City of Asheville

Asheville City Council voted unanimously Sept. 12 to postpone approval of a massive development near the downtown YMCA because of concerns over the project’s scope and impact on the surrounding community.

Developers of Project Aspire envision it to be a “walkable, dense development that will serve as a gateway to downtown Asheville.” The project would span three properties totaling 10.5 acres, including the current downtown YMCA building, the First Baptist Church and the State Employees Credit Union building, which are located next to Interstate 240 on Woodfin and Oak streets.

The Furman Co., lead developer for the project, is requesting to have the area rezoned from Commercial Business District to Commercial Business Expansion District, which would allow for more flexibility related to the size and scope of buildings. While the Planning and Zoning Commission approved the request Aug. 2, final approval from City Council is needed before the project can move forward.

Five new buildings are proposed — requiring the demolition of the current YMCA and SECU buildings; the historic church would remain. If approved, construction would be in two phases over 10 years. Phase 1 would include a 20-story hotel with up to 300 rooms and a six-story YMCA with an attached 800-space parking garage of the same height. Phase 2 includes three buildings: a 19-story office building with an attached seven-story, 900-space parking garage and two six-story residential buildings with up to 650 units. A surface parking lot in phase 2 would bring parking to 1,800 to 2,000 spaces.

Council member Antanette Mosley called attention to the height of the proposed development, reflecting concern from several community members that it does not accurately reflect the “aesthetic and character of the surrounding community.” She requested that the developers cap the building at 15 stories. However, Robert Poppleton, vice president for Greenville, S.C.,-based The Furman Co., declined to consider the appeal, noting that 20 stories is allowed under the requested zoning.

“We understand through reviewing the current zoning ordinances that the height of these buildings is consistent with what is laid out in the existing code,” Poppleton said. “It is not possible to achieve what we are seeking to achieve with our sponsors if we were to reduce the height of the buildings.”

Council member Maggie Ullman said that such a large number of parking felt excessive, noting that the total number of all city-owned parking in downtown is fewer than 2,000. She asked if it would be possible to limit the number of parking spaces to 1,700. That was also rejected by the developers.

“We started this process by looking at the comprehensive plan, and it says that the goal for Asheville is to have parking on the outer sides of the city so that people can park and walk in. This development is an outer gateway to the city, so if there is excessive parking, we expect that people will want to park there and walk into the city,” said Stephen Navarro, Furman CEO. “Also, when we are seeking funding for the development, the first thing that [the bank] will ask about the project’s viability is ‘Where can people park?’ If we can’t answer that question, we won’t get the funding.”

Vice Mayor Sandra Kilgore asked if some parking could be redeveloped later if found to be underused. Navarro said that’s not possible. “Parking is the bane of every developer’s existence, and if we could reduce the amount of parking, we would,” he said. “The way we have planned to build our parking is as space-efficient as possible, but it is not adaptable. I wish that they were, and we did think about it, but it was not feasible.”

Additionally, Navarro said that since the parking garages would be available to the public, he hopes the city would help fund them.

After further discussion, Council members voted to postpone approval because of unresolved issues related to parking, building height and future funding. Rather than deny the request, which would prevent the developer from reapproaching for six months, Council voted 6-0 to delay consideration to the Sept. 26 meeting. Ullman noted that while Council members are excited and support the project, more details were needed.

“We have one chance as the community’s elected officials to put in some controls through this zoning request,” said Ullman. “I understand the ambition and scale of this project makes it difficult to answer some of our concerns, but we are trusted by the public to be the check and balance for developments. I hear a lot of the vision, but I just wish there was more detail before we move forward.”

Because the vote was delayed to Sept. 26, public comment related to this development was also postponed.

In other news

City Council also approved two technical amendments to city panhandling ordinances.

The first amendment added language specifying that solicitors must be at least 8 feet away from “transit stops” (such as bus stops or busy medians) as well as “individuals who have made a negative response” to their solicitation attempts. The second amendment provided an exception to the existing ordinance for people who are soliciting family members and mutual acquaintances.

The second phase, set to come before the City Council in early October, will consider more substantial amendments that would restrict donations from vehicles and increase the number of high-traffic zones.

The technical amendments passed 6-0, with Council member Kim Roney attending by phone due to illness. Roney stated her opposition to the ordinance but could not cast a vote. North Carolina law states that City Council members only can vote remotely under a governor-declared state of emergency.

Resident Jensen Gelfond encouraged more community input on the amendments.

“I want to encourage the city to think about a deeper level of engagement with citizens,” Gelfond said. “Even a deeper level of engagement with people who are soliciting or panhandling. How can you know exactly what to do about this situation if we don’t even reach out to the people who will be affected most?

“There are lots of things to be thinking about here. How is a $500 fine for soliciting, when someone breaks that 8-foot barrier, going to affect them when they can’t pay it?” Gelfond said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was updated Sept. 14 to reflect that Antanette Mosley called attention to the height of the proposed development. The Council’s vote was also updated to 6-0.  


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About Chase Davis
Chase Davis is an Asheville-based reporter working for Mountain Xpress. He was born and raised in Georgia and holds a Bachelor's degree in Political Science from LaGrange College. Follow me @ChaseDavis0913

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14 thoughts on “Council votes to delay approval for Aspire development

  1. kw

    “Additionally, Navarro said that since the parking garages would be available to the public, he hopes the city would help fund them.”

    Developers (mostly wealthy white men who don’t even live here) have learned that whenever they mention more parking or more affordable housing (even as vague empty promises), our elected officials tend to spread this city’s legs and fork over the cash…

    • NFB

      Well, in this case the developer was being asked to reduce the number of parking spaces.

      Interesting that in two cases — parking and building height — the developer is absolutely refusing to consider showing any flexibility in altering the plan. It is all or nothing. I hope Council takes that into consideration in making its decision.

      • woodlenznc

        I disagree. I encourage everyone to review the history of this proposed project through the various city boards and commissions to gain a better understanding of the changes that have been implemented as a result of city feedback.

        Also, Asheville’s Comprehensive plan calls for more parking on the outer edges of the core, this project provides it. With respect to the building height, why has the city zoned that area of downtown for that type of height only to take issue with the proposed height?

        This council is notorious for making demands devoid of reality. This is a good project and should be approved.

  2. Curious

    . . . Shenika Smith called attention to the height of the proposed development, reflecting concern from several community members that it does not accurately reflect the “aesthetic and character of the surrounding community.” . . .
    Concern from several community members? How many are “several?” Who are these community members? Do they live in the community surrounding this proposed project? What are the aesthetics and character of the surrounding community they are concerned about? Whom does Shenika Smith represent? How can our city thrive if our council members are so opposed to thoughtful development by two respected members of the community, First Baptist Church and the YMCA?

    • Thomas Calder

      Hello Curious, the comment about the development’s proposed height was made by Antanette Mosley, not Sheneika Smith. We have since corrected the attribution in our reporting.

  3. North Asheville

    Did representatives of the First Baptist Church and the YMCA speak? These two charitable organizations have set important goals for this project. This is not an out-of-town developer with a commercial project. The goals of the church and the YMCA should be stated in this conversation:
    “We understand the importance of designing a community that reflects the diversity of Asheville and creates a sense of belonging for all residents. Our commitment to inclusiveness and our passion for excellence has led us to numerous points of outreach and will guide us as we work towards realizing this vision,” said Mack Dennis, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Asheville.

    These plans are consistent with community goals identified in the Living Asheville Plan and are in line with the charitable missions of FBCA and the YMCA. Both organizations are nonprofits with common values, including community engagement and seeking to help Asheville flourish. Both are concerned about issues of justice, equity, and healthy living. As neighbors for more than five decades, they believe working together will help them serve for generations to come.

    “Our goal is to create a dynamic and inclusive environment where people can live, work, and play in downtown Asheville, making it a destination not just for guests and visitors, but for the residents of the greater Asheville community as well,” said Paul Vest, president and CEO of the YMCA of Western North Carolina. “This plan also allows the Asheville YMCA to stay open during construction of a new state-of-the-art YMCA.”

    • luther blissett

      “This is not an out-of-town developer with a commercial project.”

      The piece literally says that the developer is based out of Greenville and the CEO described its funding model and requirements in the same terms as any other hard-nosed commercial project, in contrast to the airy abstractions from FBC and the YMCA. It’s a Greenville-style commercial project regardless of who provides the land it’s built on. Many people would argue that Asheville needs more Greenville-style commercial projects, but let’s not kid ourselves about what it is.

  4. JonesAVL

    First, I’m deeply disappointed that MTX allows the kind of crude discourse in KW’s comment. It has no place in civil discussion. Secondly, most are overlooking the fact that it is the proceeds from the sale and development of the hotel that will underwrite one of the most significant investments in affordable housing ever undertaken in our downtown. One is not possible without the other. You scale back the hotel, you diminish the affordable housing commitments – this is the entire purpose of the proposed development. Failure of some of our elected council members and commenters to grasp this is disheartening.

  5. luther blissett

    In passing: One Oak Plaza (the SECU building) is one of the places in town with affordable (though limited) office space for small businesses. The Flatiron building used to be another before it was sold to build another hotel. I doubt that the proposed office building will accommodate them.

    “Additionally, Navarro said that since the parking garages would be available to the public, he hopes the city would help fund them.”

    Oh, does he now? We’re all still on the hook for the county HHS deck (Sears Alley) which consistently has 300 spaces free. The other county deck on College Street — within a couple of minutes’ walk of this development — is mainly used by people going to the municipal buildings. There is no issue with overall parking capacity in downtown Asheville any more: the people who complain about parking just want it to be free and within a hundred yards of their intended destination. Those people are not going to “park and walk in”, even if the comprehensive plan wishes it were so. (Check for the real-time stats: there are 933 empty spaces as I write this at 3.35PM on a Thursday.)

    There is no rationale for public parking in that location and City Council should tell Mr Navarro to go fly a kite.

    • woodlenznc

      The reality is that parking must be part of the project to obtain financing regardless of how many available spaces are available at any given time. It makes no sense to develop a project of this scale inclusive of residential, commercial, hospitality and not include parking. The arrogance of this city is off the charts.

  6. T100

    19 story office building ?? Maybe the developers investigate occupancy in Old San Francisco before building that in New San Francisco?

  7. Jason Williams

    A 19 story OFFICE building?!? I thought the pandemic and remote working killed offices. Do they have an anchor business to go in there?
    For an example NYC currently has nearly 75 million square feet of office space empty. Global companies are trimming office space by 10-20%.
    Before it was renovated, the BB&T building had a hard time keeping tenants.
    It just sounds like the developers are investing in dinosaurs instead of oil.

  8. indy499

    This council has no problem investing $ and caving to developer pressure in tiny 200 square foot apartments with no kitchen (46 aston), noise from rabbit rabbit, professing to want to limit sprawl and grow public transportation and then shoots down multi use developemnt which would actually growth in the core. Their inability to string together two thoughts to drive a coherent policy is pretty amazing.

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