In the early ’90s, Asheville was in an economic malaise.
Many stores were boarded up, and if you fired a cannon downtown after 6 p.m., the only person you might hit was a hooker or a drunk falling out of a beer joint on Lexington. The Asheville Mall had sucked the oxygen out of center city, and manufacturing jobs were moving offshore, leaving many obsolete industrial buildings shuttered.
Making matters worse was the fallout from the savings and loan debacle, which dried up capital, and the attitude of many retired and affluent community members, often recent transplants, who wanted to raise the drawbridge and keep Asheville a quaint and charming, sleepy little place.
Aiding and abetting them was the abusive regulatory overreach of the city’s Planning and Zoning and Inspection departments, which controlled not only Asheville proper but the extraterritorial jurisdiction containing most of the buildable industrial land.
Because of the excessive regulatory costs, builders were charging 15 percent more to build within the city limits.
The great Julian Price, a philanthropic visionary whose unselfish investments were the catalyst for downtown Asheville’s renaissance, once told me that he’d come here as a screaming progressive liberal but that after his experiences dealing with the city while trying to renovate the old J.C. Penney building on Haywood Street, he was ready to become a libertarian.
The Chamber of Commerce became alarmed, and in 1991 I was invited to a very important meeting with Chamber leadership, top city officials and a number of other local shakers and movers. Many ideas and issues were advanced, and the Chamber complained that it was hard to sell out of an empty wagon, citing the dearth of available modern industrial buildings.
With this much firepower behind me, I felt comfortable announcing that I would demolish the noxious Asheville By Products rendering plant on Riverside Drive, an eyesore I’d recently purchased, and erect a 35,000-square-foot industrial building on speculation. This was met with applause, attaboys and pats on the back from all assembled.
Despite my noble gesture, though, we ran into resistance from the get-go. RiverLink’s Karen Cragnolin and Jean Webb of Quality Forward strenuously objected to putting a big industrial building on the riverbank. They wanted to wipe the area clean of all commercial structures and build a greenway.
Nitpicking at the Planning and Zoning Commission delayed the permit for three months. One commission member insisted that the 32-foot-wide access driveway be reduced to 16 feet, to keep teenagers from parking and “necking” on the property. I am not making this up: This same woman opposed Ingles’ Patton Avenue store, saying Asheville already had enough grocery stores.
From the level of scrutiny this project received, you’d have thought we were planning a neurosurgery facility instead of just a metal shell on a concrete pad in an industrial zone. Whoever said, “If you build it, they will come” must have been talking about the inspectors who swarmed over the place and ate their lunch in the parking lot, because there was so little construction going on around town that they had nothing else to keep them busy.
For example, we had a huge issue about where to put the drinking fountain. The building inspector insisted it be placed as indicated in the drawing; the fire inspector said that was too close to a fire door. The ADA inspector said it wasn’t handicapped-accessible. We finally called all three of them together and told them we would put it on the roof if that’s where they wanted it: Just make up your mind.
Somewhere in the early stages of construction, we found a tenant for the property. They were anxious to move in but insisted that we shift the dock doors to the building’s north side and have a 32-foot-wide driveway to safely accommodate his big tractor-trailers.
Ongoing complications with the city delayed the project another three months, but we finally got a temporary certificate of occupancy and the tenant began moving in.
Then we ran into another firestorm.
We were denied a permanent C.O. because we’d moved the dock doors and widened the driveway. They also said we didn’t have enough parking spaces, even though it was the same number they’d approved: They were just in a different place.
In keeping with the riverfront site, we planted river birches to satisfy the landscaping requirements. But the inspectors were used to developers planting fir trees, because they grow faster, and even though the tree ordinance didn’t specify the type of tree, they said we were out of compliance.
I appealed to Planning and Zoning Director Julia Cogburn, who said there was no administrative procedure for changing plans once they’d been approved, and she refused to override the building inspector’s interpretation of the tree ordinance.
Having run into this stone wall, I decided to apply for a demolition permit. The environmental inspector, who was looking for asbestos or other toxic materials, was shocked and asked why I was taking down this brand-new building.I said it had no value without a permanent C.O., so I was going to re-erect it somewhere outside of Asheville.
Apparently that angered the city: They sent me a demolition permit but required me to remove the concrete pad. Yet when I checked on a recent permit the city itself had been granted, to take down the old buildings on South Charlotte Street so they could erect the monstrosity we call the Taj Ma-garage, I found that their permit did not require removing the concrete.
At that point I demanded a hearing before City Council, determined to make this issue a cause célèbre in hopes of changing Asheville’s abusive regulatory culture.
This was midsummer in 1992, and I put the word out in advance that if I didn’t get my C.O., I fully intended to take the building down and tell all the neighboring cities’ chambers of commerce about how business-unfriendly Asheville was. I’d even optioned a billboard out by the airport that was going to say, “MR. DEVELOPER GET BACK ON THE PLANE. YOU CAN’T BUILD IT IN ASHEVILLE.”
Standing before Council, I held up two documents and demanded that they either sign off on my permanent C.O. or give me a clean demolition permit with no pad-removal requirement. There was a lot of heated rhetoric: Staff claimed I’d made arbitrary changes, but they couldn’t demonstrate how it degraded the project in any way. I, meanwhile, insisted it was just pure bureaucratic intransigence.
Then we got into the tree issue. Trying to help me forge a compromise, my good friend Gene Ellison, an attorney then serving on Council, came down to the floor and told me I had to plant more trees. Gene’s a huge man with a voice as loud as mine, and he got frustrated when I said I wasn’t going to plant one more damn tree. We got into a shouting match, him saying, “One man don’t make that much difference,” and me saying, “This one does.”
Then it was Mayor Ken Michalove’s turn.
Anticipating my lifelong friend’s lecture on how everyone must follow the law, however, I gave him and every other Council member folders containing photos of an illegal, unsupervised dump the city had created in the floodway, in clear violation of federal law, between the river and Craven Street. The photos showed asbestos shingles, metal drums with unknown contents, and other suspicious debris. The city kept a bulldozer on site and periodically just covered up whatever had been dumped. There was no real compaction and no one to inspect or reject toxic materials — which is why New Belgium Brewing, which bought the property in 2012, has had to do brownfield remediation and pile-driving there.
After seeing those photos, Council members fell silent, and my C.O. was unanimously approved. But it was pathetic that I had to resort to ridiculous gamesmanship and blackmail to get a permanent C.O. for such a simple construction project.
Fast-forward to 2014. Both the real estate market and new construction are booming, because the culture is changing for the better. City Manager Gary Jackson and City Council now understand that reasonable application of the building code promotes economic development.
The building I erected on Riverside Driveis now Asheville Community Movement, a wonderful children’s gymnastic center; New Belgium has bailed out the city, and everyone lived happily ever after.
Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at email@example.com.