Opinion: The most intractable problem in Asheville — courtesy of Whole Foods — has become ‘just inhumane at this point’

Maxwell Street resident Velvet Hawthorne says this flatbed tractor-trailer damaged a tree and curb while trying to turn onto the residential street. Her neighbor, Reid Thompson, has been waging a two decade battle with the city over the truck deliveries that occur on the street. // Photo credit: Velvet Hawthorne

By John Boyle, avlwatchdog.org

Sure, Reid Thompson can come off as a bit, shall we say, overly passionate at times.

But can you blame the man?

For two decades he’s been listening to the relentless beeping of delivery trucks in reverse, smelling their diesel fumes and watching them pile up on his residential street right behind the Whole Foods store in North Asheville. It’s supposed to be a residential street, but many days it’s delivery central, with trucks clogging the road, cutting off the sidewalk and even smashing up cars and retaining walls.

The store’s main entrance sits on Merrimon Avenue, but to the rear lies Maxwell Street, a short, shaded route that runs between Chestnut and Broadway streets. The problem is that on this end of the building, Whole Foods has a loading dock, which was issued a permit by the city two decades ago.

Simply put, the city never should have approved this. Ever since, it’s created a steady stream of truck traffic that neighbors have to live with.

Trucks are supposed to come into the store from Merrimon, but sometimes drivers don’t do this, maybe because they’re new and don’t know the rules, or GPS directs them to Maxwell or possibly because some of them are just in a hurry and ignore all the signs on Maxwell that say very clearly, “No trucks over 10,000 pounds.”

Even the trucks that follow the rules often have to pull onto Maxwell to back up into the loading dock, which is legal but problematic.

Thompson and his neighbors have plenty of videos and photos showing trucks, including tractor-trailers, driving or attempting to drive on Maxwell Street, trucks parked on the street, and drivers unloading parked trucks on the street. Sometimes it looks like a traffic jam.

Understandably, it has made Thompson pretty confrontational at times with delivery drivers and Whole Foods’ security staff that sometimes patrol the public sidewalk next to the dock. The trucks are there every day, bright and early.

“Every single day,” Thompson says of the noise. “There’s not a holiday goes by, not a Sunday goes by, there is not one day of the week…”

His voice trailed off in exasperation.

In my three decades of observing Asheville and environs, this has to be among the most unsolvable problems in the region. Forget about the biggies like affordable housing, homelessness, and drugs. This, apparently, is tougher to crack.

Yes, the city, and one of America’s mega-corporations, cannot solve truck traffic on a residential street ruining life for residents.

This issue also involves Thompson’s long-running battle to operate Airbnb rentals in houses he owns and has owned on Maxwell Street, and his very contentious relationship with the city that at one point resulted in him being temporarily banned from City Hall. A few years ago, he ran up $1.4 million in fines from the city for running the illegal Airbnbs, although he later settled for a repayment obligation of $29,000, according to the Citizen Times.

In 2019, Thompson was convicted of impeding a vehicle, fined $215 and put on a year of unsupervised probation, according to the Buncombe County Clerk of Court’s office. In videos attached to his emails to the city, Thompson is at times confrontational with drivers and Whole Foods employees.

Reid Thompson has fought the city of Asheville and Whole Foods for two decades over trucks that continue to use Maxwell Street for deliveries. The city has installed extensive signage on the street, and trucks are allowed to back into the dock, but many trucks park and unload on the street, which is not allowed. // Watchdog photo by John Boyle

None of this is a good look for Thompson or anyone else involved, but I totally get it. It’s 20 years of frustration boiling over.

It’s a royal mess that Solomon himself might run from.

Or is it? Just because three city managers, three mayors and scores of city employees haven’t been able to tame this imbroglio doesn’t mean it’s some uncrackable code.

Amazon, the mega-corporation that had net assets of $477.6 billion at the end of the second quarter, according to macrotrends.net, owns Whole Foods. Jeff Bezos, the third-richest man in the world, according to several news sources, with a net worth of a cool $160 billion, owns Amazon.

The building Whole Foods inhabits on Merrimon is locally owned by a company run by the Turner family, as in former state legislator Brian Turner. Everyone involved in this property exudes wealth.

Over the years, Thompson has wanted a lot of things from the city — to term Maxwell a commercial street so he can run Airbnbs there (it likely still wouldn’t be legal, though), to keep the delivery trucks off Maxwell as promised, and to force Whole Foods to relocate the loading dock to the Merrimon side. That last one is what he wants now.

“The richest company in the world and the richest people in the county, and they both got the money to do it,” Thompson said. “I don’t care if it costs a million dollars, I deserve the same residential street that everybody else in the city lives on. And their staff has said it’s residential. Make it so. I do not want to hear, ‘Beep, beep, beep’ ever again.”

Thompson said he plans to attend the City Council meeting Tuesday and play 10 minutes of truck noise and back-up beeps.

He said he is going to “just make them sit there and listen to the soundtrack to my life.

And if you all think these are residential sounds and these are the sounds you hear in your neighborhood, then I live on a residential street.”

Thompson first bought a home on Maxwell in 2000 and moved into a house on the street in 2002. He said at one point he owned six houses on the street but that’s down to three now, as renters tend to come and go because of the noise and trucks.

This saga gets very complicated, as do the reasons why it continues, but complexity shouldn’t mean a solution is out of the question.

‘Utter incompetence’

Joe Minicozzi, a certified city planner and the principal of Urban3 planning group in Asheville, formerly served as the executive director for the Asheville Downtown Association. He’s also tried to help Thompson with his case since 2003.

Minicozzi has become as frustrated as anyone with all of this.

“Yeah, the loading dock relocation is feasible,” Minicozzi said. “Look, this isn’t like putting the man on the (expletive) moon.”

Minicozzi maintains that this all goes back to GreenLife grocery store, the precursor to Whole Foods, getting a variance for the loading dock that was questionable at best.

“They basically gave a variance to GreenLife without going through a legal process,” Minicozzi said. “And then it [became] one of these things where you can’t fight city hall.”

Minicozzi also chipped in on an email string Thompson had going with Asheville City Council members and city officials last week.

“We’re going on 20 years of this now,” Minicozzi wrote. “This is what a ‘conspiracy to violate the laws’ by our own government looks like. Or, it is a sign of utter incompetence. There isn’t a third option.”

The city has not allowed the street to become “commercial,” which would give Thompson more options for his property, Minicozzi maintains. The street, as Thompson noted, is classified as “residential.”

“So the enforcement of said ‘residential’ street falls squarely on City Staff to uphold the law,” Minicozzi wrote, noting Thompson’s recent videos of trucks crowding the street. “Watching these videos elicits a great deal of shame to bear witness what goes down on that street because of a failure of our government. It is a mockery of our Unified Development Ordinance.”

The city, property owner respond

The city has erected a lot of signs on Maxwell Street prohibiting truck traffic, but the problem persists. I asked the city why this situation cannot be rectified in some way. City spokesperson Kim Miller, in conjunction with the city’s legal department, responded via email.

Let’s start with the truck traffic.

“City ordinances do restrict truck traffic on residential streets but allow an exception to this when it is necessary for a truck to reach its final destination,” Miller said. “Although trucks are able to reach Whole Foods via Merrimon Avenue, they still must utilize Maxwell Street in order to maneuver into the store’s loading docks.”

The current property use, Miller said, “and all associated driveway permits, were approved many years ago.

“Therefore, the Whole Foods property maintains legal entitlements, which the City cannot legally remove.”

Allow me to translate: If the city did remove these entitlements for Whole Foods to operate this loading dock, the city would very likely get its arse sued.

Turner, a Democrat who served in the North Carolina House of Representatives from 2015 through 2022, told me he is one of six shareholders in Merrimon Avenue Investments, which owns the Whole Foods property.

“Our family corporation has owned that property since the 1980s,” Turner said.

The building Whole Foods inhabits on Merrimon is locally owned by a company run by the former state legislator Brian Turner’s family.

The building was an A&P grocery store long ago and then served as office space for Visiting Health Professionals before GreenLife took it over in 2004, Turner said.

Turner said Merrimon Avenue Investments uses Leslie & Associates to manage the property. The president of that company, Tom Leslie, “is in regular and ongoing communication with Whole Foods to address these concerns when they’re brought to his attention,” Turner said.

“And I know that Whole Foods does regular communications with their suppliers and delivery people to make sure they’re in compliance,” Turner continued. “But that’s not to say that there’s the occasion when somebody gets a new driver or a new route, or something happens, and they’ve got to then adjust and readdress it again.”

I reached out to Whole Foods but the company declined comment.

As the city noted, Turner said his company and Whole Foods were granted the property right to build and use the loading dock in question.

“It’s unfortunate that Mr. Thompson doesn’t like it, but not liking it doesn’t mean that we don’t have our property rights as provided by the city,” Turner said.

‘People need food’

As far as what the city has done to correct the situation, Miller said, “Both warnings and citations have been issued for violations of city ordinances on Maxwell Street.”

Police Chief David Zack said via email, “People need food, and we are not going to obstruct this from happening. Whole Foods will get their food.”

Miller told me the city also “has worked with Whole Foods to minimize truck traffic on this street.

“In response to the city’s requests, Whole Foods has and continues to provide maps and specific directions to drivers to avoid Maxwell Street to the extent possible.”

Reid has copious photographic and video evidence that plenty of trucks continue to use Maxwell Street, which the city also noted is deemed a “residential” street and “regulated as such.”

“This provides the maximum level of regulation against unnecessary truck traffic on these thoroughfares,” Miller said.

I asked if the city had plans to address the continuing truck traffic on the street.

“Regulations are currently in place to regulate this type of traffic, but certain legal exceptions do apply to this, and any other residential street,” Miller said. “These regulations will continue to be enforced by city staff. In addition, the city remains committed to its ongoing efforts to seek cooperation with the adjoining property owner to limit truck traffic to the extent possible.”

The Asheville Police Department, as well as the city’s parking enforcement employees, continue to enforce traffic and parking regulations on Maxwell Street.

“However, trucks that only utilize Maxwell Street to complete a maneuver into the Whole Foods loading docks are not violating city ordinances,” Miller said.

Not surprisingly, Thompson says the violations involve much more than drivers simply backing into the loading dock, as permitted.

“I can show you where tractor-trailer trucks are parked on the street,” Thompson said.

Thompson says flatly that he believes all that has transpired is designed to cause him financial harm. The trucks are just part of the story.

“Because the story is the Council and the city’s inaction have empowered all of this,” Thompson said, standing a few feet from the loading dock and watching as a Whole Foods security person walked the sidewalk. “They are empowered. They think, like this guy, that he owns the street and the sidewalk over here and can just bully me. They feel empowered. They know that the police aren’t going to do anything. It can be the same truck for 20 years, and they’ll say it’s the first time the driver has been on the street.”

Conspiracy theories?

Thompson also fervently believes Turner and his family have gotten preferential treatment from City Council and the city in general, a notion that makes Turner bristle.

“One thing I will say is that I really take issue with the idea that Reid thought that we were getting preferential treatment because of my office,” Turner told me. “Because his complaints and his issues predate me being in office, and I cannot recall ever having a conversation with the city about it. Again, I leave that up to Tom Leslie, who manages the property.”

Thompson suggested that Turner has spread out campaign contributions to politicians or otherwise exerted influence over them. Again, Turner bristled.

“I think the proper term is conspiracy theory,” Turner said. “I would hardly hold myself out as the kind of Democrat that the majority of City Council would fall in line behind.”

Thompson said while he’s already spent about $200,000 in legal fees over the years, he’s considering more legal options, possibly a lawsuit based on his civil rights.

“There’s equal protection under the law,” Thompson said. “So how come the residents on the residential Maxwell Street are less than the residents on the streets that council members live on? In other words, it’s either residential or it’s not.”

Other neighbors complain, too

Maxwell Street has about a dozen homes on it, and some other residents have complained about the trucks, too. Neighbor Velvet Hawthorne joined last week’s email string to the city, saying she’s owned her home for nearly 13 years.

Hers was a stream of consciousness sentence Faulkner would be proud of, but it’s worth sharing:

“During that time, besides disturbing the peace multiple times a day with loud trucks, huge, banging noises from the dumpster, having my car mangled to the tune of $6,000 by a tractor-trailer trying to turn the corner, losing our fire hydrant multiple times, because trucks have knocked them over, losing power, because the trucks have knocked over powerlines, losing our internet and cable because the trucks have knocked out our cable and Internet lines, almost being run over by tractor trailers, having my tree on the corner of my property, mangled by trucks knocking limbs off, so I had to have the tree cut down, having my retaining wall recently demolished by a tractor-trailer trying to turn the corner, having the ‘No trucks over 10,000 pounds’ sign in front of my house knocked over by a truck and never replaced, just a jagged metal piece sticking out of the sidewalk where the sign used to be and it’s been like that for over a year, I could go on.”

Another neighbor, Brandee Boggs, thanked Thompson for continuing to stay on the case.

Maxwell Street resident Velvet Hawthorne says a flatbed tractor-trailer damaged a tree and curb while trying to turn onto the residential street. // Photo credit: Velvet Hawthorne

“There are no words to express these actions, but the lack of response is simply put, ‘Incompetent Leadership,’ much like we see throughout Asheville City Government!” Boggs wrote.

When I talked to Boggs, she said she’s about given up on getting the city to fix the issue.

“You don’t have to agree with Reid’s tactics, but he’s not wrong,” Boggs told me.

She’s owned her home for nearly two decades, but this situation “has made me not be able to live there in peace and harmony.

“Everybody admits we were done wrong, but they say there’s nothing we can do about it.”

She’s rented out her place at 20 Maxwell, but renters often don’t stay long-term.

“Fourteen cars from my place have been smashed [by trucks],” Boggs told me.

Clearly, this situation is far from solved. Or even much improved.

When I asked Turner about any possible solution, he basically said it’ll be status quo.

“I think that continuing to address incidents when they happen, and Whole Foods continuing to work with their suppliers and delivery trucks is the best option,” Turner said. “It’s prevention, and to minimize or eliminate any inconveniences [caused] by those deliveries.”

That hasn’t worked so far, and I see no reason why it will work in the future.

Meanwhile, Minicozzi is genuinely concerned about his friend, Reid Thompson. This kind of never-ending stress takes a toll on a person.

“It’s just inhumane at this point,” Mincozzi told me.

It’s also just ridiculous that no one can fix this problem, especially one of the richest companies on the planet, and a city that considers itself very progressive and citizen-centric.

For crying out loud, I think Mr. Bezos, Amazon, and Whole Foods could certainly take a gold bar or two off the stack and try to relocate this loading dock.

If Jeff Bezos can blast a rocket into space so billionaires can get some kicks, he and his companies certainly can make life more livable for the people on Maxwell Street.

Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at jboyle@avlwatchdog.org. To show your support for this vital public service go to avlwatchdog.org/donate.


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2 thoughts on “Opinion: The most intractable problem in Asheville — courtesy of Whole Foods — has become ‘just inhumane at this point’

  1. Taxpayer

    How sad for the people that have live with that every day. The city of Asheville is certainly not supportive of their residents.

  2. T100

    Brian Turner must be an extremist MAGA republican that favors UUUGEEE business over the middle class…. OH WAIT .. he seems to be a Dimocrat! How can that be???

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