Project Aspire, a vast mixed-use, mixed-income development set to reshape the city’s skyline, received approval from Asheville City Council at its Sept. 26 meeting. After nearly two hours of public comments featuring 37 speakers and discussions between Council members and the developer, Council approved the rezoning for the project in a 5-2 vote, with Council members Antanette Mosley and Kim Roney opposed.
Project Aspire is a joint venture involving First Baptist Church of Asheville and the Asheville YMCA, which own the 10.5 acres along Woodfin and Oak streets. The development is being managed by Greenville, S.C.- based Furman Co.
Council voted 6-0 on Sept. 12 to delay consideration of the project until the Sept. 26 meeting because of Council members’ concerns regarding building height, parking and funding.
The development includes plans for apartments, hotel rooms, commercial spaces, a brand-new YMCA and office facilities. It includes two imposing structures: a 19-story residential building and office space; and a 20-story hotel, the latter of which is poised to become the city’s tallest building, potentially surpassing the Buncombe County Courthouse and Kimpton Hotel Arras.
Despite urging from several Council members, the developer, represented at the meeting by Furman President and CEO Stephen Navarro, said he was unable to lower the building’s height. A smaller hotel, he said, would mean sacrificing revenues and other services.
“The decision to not lower the hotel is a complicated one,” Navarro said. “We have minimums and maximums for this project, so we don’t know exactly what each of the buildings will entail because each of them will have to come back to [city staff] for individual approval. However, we are trying to work within your guidelines.”
Though it’s “possible” the hotel could have fewer stories, Navarro said, he could not make any promises.
Jennifer Murphy, chief administrative officer of the YMCA, spoke after Navarro’s comments, noting that she fully supports the project. “After years of discussions with one another, our neighbors, community organizations, local businesses and our local government, we have embarked on a plan to reimagine our downtown corner. This project’s positive impact could endure beyond the individuals in this room. This shared space for the community is ambitious and crucial for our city’s continued desirability as a place to live and belong.”
Several other supporters were longtime members of the First Baptist congregation. Wayne Caldwell, the church’s historian and member of the church since 1989, noted that he spoke in Council Chambers once before in 1981 opposing a “suburban-style mall” proposed for the middle of downtown. He said that Project Aspire was finally something that he could wholeheartedly support.
“I have waited 42 years for a large downtown mixed-use project to emerge that I could support wholeheartedly, so tonight I am happy to be called to speak,” Caldwell said. “This is a downtown project that truly does not bear down; it builds up. Project Aspire does not displace people; it will give displaced people space in which to live, do business and grow.”
Local opponents to the project include residents of the East End/Valley Street neighborhood, a historically Black community that bounds the project area at the edge of downtown.
Kimberly Collins, a representative of the neighborhood, said not only is the project going to damage the historic footprint of the East End neighborhood but that “when it comes to people wanting to see progress, they want to see progress through their lens. They don’t want to see progress through the lens of the people who are truly impacted.”
Collins said the neighborhood knew it couldn’t stop the hotel but asked, again, for the height to be reconsidered.
“You’re driving them out,” she said of her community’s residents. “Aspire will do this. Your 20-story building will do this. I admonish you to please take into consideration not your white privilege, take into consideration the harm that you will actually be doing to a Black community who has already been harmed to the hilt.”
Mosley said the development was part of a larger city narrative that disregards minority voices.
“I’ve never seen a single instance where a majority community has ceded ground to a minority community, even when the minority community purports to speak for itself,” Mosley said in her closing comments. “It seems as if tonight will be no different.”
Vice Mayor Sandra Kilgore cited in her support the amenities that the development would provide for the surrounding community.
“I understand the pain. I have suffered, my family has suffered,” she said. “But I also understand that we have to stop getting in our own way. I want our children to be able to enjoy the services that the Y and this development will bring. I want that for kids in the East End, in Southside, in Shiloh. We cannot stop progress, and these developers are willing to work with us and we can keep them accountable.”
In other news
After months of public engagement and discussion, City Council also approved the proposed Pack Square Plaza Vision Plan in a 7-0 vote. The 49-page plan is part of the city’s Pack Square Visioning Project.
Durham-based civil engineering firm McAdams Co. began work on the plan in July 2022 and has a $111,000 contract funded by both the city and county. There are 10 main areas of focus within the plan, including creating new spaces for civic engagement and expression, repositioning the elevated lawn and redesigning South Market Street as an active cultural corridor to The Block.
The plan proposes closing North Pack Square to vehicular traffic, converting College Street from one-way into two-way traffic, and moving the Patton Avenue-Broadway crosswalk farther south for safer pedestrian access to Pack Square Plaza.
The most ambitious part of the plan involves possibly relocating the police and fire departments at 100 Court Plaza. The building could be “repurposed as a cultural museum to share a comprehensive, inclusive story of Asheville,” the plan suggests.
Central to the redesign is to make the park a more “people-centered place.” According to the plan, community members noted that “the presence of the police and fire department limit the potential of Pack Square, South Market Street and The Block.”
The fate of the Vance Monument also remains in question, pending a state Supreme Court ruling that is expected soon. The Society for the Historical Preservation of the 26th North Carolina Troops sued to put back the obelisk, arguing that the city was in breach of contract after the group raised more than $138,000 in 2015 to restore the monument.
“The plan itself is just the first step in the process,” City Attorney Brad Branham said. “It is still my belief that we will hear something from the court, which will provide direction before the City Council would take any final action to start plan implementation work.”
McAdams Co. included in its plan a contingency in case the Supreme Court rules that the Vance Monument must be put back.