At Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, Mission Hospital presented plans for one of the largest building projects ever contemplated for Asheville — a 12-story, 681,000 square foot tower at 509 Biltmore Avenue. Intended to replace the aging St. Joseph’s facility on the opposite side of the street, the new facility will include an all-new Emergency Department, a new main building entrance, patient rooms and surgical facilities, according to Sonya Greck, Mission’s senior vice president of Behavioral Health and Safety Net Services.
Council unanimously approved the massive project, which has been reviewed by the city’s planning staff, the Technical Review Committee and the Planning & Zoning Commission, in a planning process that has spanned more than a year.
According to Asheville attorney Derek Allen, who spoke as a member of Mission’s project team, “The only reason this project is subject to the conditional use permitting process is its size. This is a replacement project; no new beds are being added. Everything that was there before at St. Joseph’s will be in the new facility, but better.”
City planner Jessica Bernstein presented an overview of the project, which she said will occupy 7.6 acres of a 30-acre tract made up of three contiguous parcels of land. The site previously held parking structures, which have been demolished to make way for the new building. The site’s parcels, and all parcels adjacent to the site, are zoned institutional. The area as a whole is home to medical and office uses. The building will have frontage on Hospital Drive and Victoria Road as well as Biltmore Avenue. The public will access the new emergency department entrance and main hospital entrance from Victoria Road, while emergency vehicles will enter the facility from the existing bridge that spans Biltmore Avenue.
During the preliminary review process, both city planners and the Planning & Zoning Commission expressed concerns about the height of significant retaining walls on Biltmore Avenue, Hospital Drive and at the entrance drop-off area, as well as a lack of pedestrian access from Biltmore Avenue.
To mitigate the concerns about the aesthetic impact of the walls, which are as high as 28 feet in some places, the city provided Mission with several options: add green screens, use a variety of materials in different wall sections and/or add fenestration design elements.
To respond to concerns about a lack of street-level, human-scale context along the Biltmore Avenue corridor, Mission added a design for a street-level plaza at the corner of Biltmore Avenue and Hospital Drive to its original proposal. Mayor Esther Manheimer wondered how far from the plaza a pedestrian would need to walk to access a hospital building entrance. On hearing from Mission project director Toby Kay that it would be “about a five-minute walk,” Manheimer asked whether a stair could be added from the street-level plaza to the building.
Bernstein replied that significant engineering challenges made a stair difficult to integrate into the design, and that a stair in that location would result in pedestrians crossing the busy Emergency Department parking area to reach the building or the street.
Mission agreed to two additional conditions: first, to pay the actual cost of constructing a new transit shelter on Livingston Street (which is not part of the project site) up to a maximum of $30,000 and second, to add crosswalks and curb cuts for pedestrian access to a portion of the street frontage which lacked those features in Mission’s design.
During discussion, Manheimer expressed some ambivalence about the impact of the project on the Biltmore Avenue corridor: “This approach is not a very forward-thinking concept in terms of creating a vital urban corridor.” Nonetheless, Mission’s team convinced Manheimer and other members of council that the project design met the seven general conditions required for approval under the ordinance governing projects of this size and type.
Councilman Cecil Bothwell voiced his hope that the redevelopment of the St. Joseph’s site would introduce “mixed-use development with an affordable housing component” on the opposite side of Biltmore Avenue. Consolidating hospital functions will reduce the carbon footprint of the complex, Bothwell pointed out, since patients transferred between the two sites currently must travel by ambulance.
No members of the public commented on the project.
City appointments to Tourism Development Authority
Prior to its regular session, Council interviewed two applicants for city-appointed seats on the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority (BCTDA), John Luckett, General Manager of the Grand Bohemian Hotel Asheville and Himanshu Karvir, General Manager of Holiday Inn Asheville – Biltmore West. Two other applicants for the seats, Gary Froeba of the Omni Grove Park Inn and Dennis Hulsing of the Crowne Plaza Resort and Four Points Downtown Asheville, were determined to be qualified according to state-established criteria, but were unavailable for interviews.
Mayor Manheimer recused herself from the interviews and from voting on the appointments. A member of Manheimer’s law firm represents the BCTDA.
In their questioning, council members referenced a recent 2% increase in the amount of the hotel room tax to be collected in Buncombe County. Despite the increase, only money directed to a Product Development Fund can be applied to projects or infrastructure to benefit the city as a whole. All other proceeds are used for advertising and marketing efforts to increase hotel occupancy rates, which both Luckett and Karvir said was a critical and appropriate priority, given the number of new hotel rooms under construction in the city.
To be considered for receiving Product Development Funds, the city must submit projects for BCTDA consideration along with other nonprofit organizations.
Councilmen Gordon Smith, Chris Pelly and Bothwell pressed both candidates on whether they, as city appointees to the board, would push to preferentially approve Product Development Fund projects submitted by the city. Neither candidate agreed to commit to this course of action.
Councilwoman Gwen Wisler wanted to know if there was any point at which the tourism industry would have grown enough to consider shifting some of the distribution of the hotel room tax revenues toward the cost of providing city services and infrastructure. While Luckett wouldn’t speculate when or if such a point might be reached, Karvir said that he could foresee possibly reconsidering the proportion of the tax revenues available for the Product Development Fund at some time in the future.
Vice Mayor Marc Hunt pledged to collaborate more closely with the BCTDA in the future. Council voted unanimously to approve Karvir, and 5-1 to approve Luckett, with Smith opposed.
Neighborhood Sidewalk Plan
Jim Grode, chair of the Multimodal Transportation Commission, presented the city’s new Neighborhood Sidewalk Plan. The purpose of the plan is to guide decision-making and to prioritize potential sidewalk projects in an objective and transparent way. Sidewalk projects considered under this plan are those funded through the city’s Capital Improvement Plan. Sidewalks along state-owned roads are funded separately, as are sidewalks constructed as part of larger development initiatives such as the River Arts District Transportation Improvement Plan (RADTIP).
Grode pointed out that about 90 miles of potential sidewalk projects are encompassed under this plan. The city currently budgets $350,000 for sidewalk projects per year. That amount will build about 1,000 feet of new sidewalk. Bothwell commented that his math indicated that all potential sidewalk projects should be completed in about 475 years, “so don’t count on it anytime soon.”
The new policy will use a two-step process for evaluating sidewalk needs. In the initial process phase, locations will be analyzed using geographic information system (GIS) data to determine:
- proximity to transit stops and community destinations
- areas zoned for small lot or multi-family residential use
- prevalence of low-income households and of households without motor vehicles
- two measures of safety: traffic volume and pedestrian crash history
The second phase of the review process will examine top-ranking projects from the initial phase. These sites will be evaluated using criteria that cannot be applied from GIS analysis, including:
- connectivity to the transportation system
- whether sidewalk is already present on one side of the street
- construction feasibility
- if a choice must be made from two or more similarly ranking projects, geographic distribution of projects
Using these criteria, Transportation Department director Ken Putnam said, the highest-ranking project priority was Old Haywood Road, followed by Louisiana Avenue and North Louisiana Avenue.
Council approved the plan, which Putnam said should be available on the department’s website by the end of the week. Final recommendations for project priorities, however, will not be finalized for several months and will first impact the allocation of the city’s budget for 2017.
Riverview Station public comment
Helaine Green, property owner of Riverview Station in the River Arts District (RAD), spoke during the open public comment period of the council meeting. Green, who was accompanied by a group of about ten other property owners or artists working in the RAD, expressed a concern about the recently-released 65% design completion plans for the RADTIP.
Originally, explained Green, city planners said that the new road alignment planned for Riverside Drive would encroach eight to ten feet into her property. The 65% design plan, however, showed an encroachment of 20 feet, which Green said would eliminate 48 parking spaces and crowd out the dog training area located on the site. Citing a severe impact on the many businesses housed in Riverview Station, Green pleaded: “We are asking you to reconsider the 65% alignment. We believe changes can be made to this plan without compromising the RADTIP objectives.”
Artist Jonas Gerard, who has a studio and event space at Riverview Station, echoed Green’s argument and added colorful language of his own: “This is an incredible space. There is nothing like it all throughout Asheville…When we have events, we fill the parking lot…This is the only place in the whole RAD with that much parking space.” Gerard said the quality of the businesses in Riverview Station is also unique. “You can feel the energy in there. It’s not just a bunch of second-rate losers. And it’s all in one building. You can park one time and visit 60 studios,” he concluded.
Manheimer and City Attorney Robin Currin reassured Green that there is still time for the city to consider her input. Smith added, “Our intention is to enhance the area, not detract from your business.” Seeming satisfied, Green replied, “That is what I was hoping.”
Bothwell commented that he is troubled by recent city enforcement procedures on short-term rental violations. “I don’t know if letters have gone to homestays or only to STRs, but it troubles me that we considered changing the homestay rules and then moved that discussion on down the line. For example, we were going to change the number of square feet required to operate a homestay. If we are enforcing against people we were about to make legal, that really bothers me,” he said.
Smith brought up the national trend of renaming the Columbus Day holiday Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Smith reported he has reached out to Tribal Chief Patrick Lambert of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and he is looking forward to exploring the possibility of renaming the holiday with the chief. Manheimer commented that it would be appropriate to discuss the change with the city’s Governance Committee when Smith has assembled information and input.
Council adjourned at 7:30 to go into closed session to discuss a recent Court of Appeals decision on a 2013 law mandating transfer of the Asheville water system to the Metropolitan Sewerage District. The court reversed an earlier trial court decision in Asheville’s favor. Manheimer indicated that council would vote during the closed session on whether the city will file another appeal.