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.