The Asheville City Council approved three conditional-use permits for new buildings at its July 26 formal session, including one that will almost double the size of the Fun Depot entertainment facility on Roberts Road. But most of the discussion concerned a 10-story office building planned for the corner of Woodfin and College streets downtown.
The county-owned site, now a parking lot, sits across College Street from the Buncombe County Courthouse and next door to the Health Department. The county, which will have offices in the building, is granting the developer a long-term lease. The 130,000-square-foot structure will also include private offices, a bank with a drive-through window, and retail space on the ground floor.
Former City Planner Gerald Green attended the meeting on behalf of the developer, the Asheville-based Northwest Property Group. Green, now a consultant, has been involved in other recent downtown projects, including the Grove Park Inn's controversial attempt to build a high-rise hotel on city-owned open space adjoining Pack Square last summer. The inn pulled the plug on that project after City Council had imposed stricter conditions in response to public outcry -- a situation Green says he hopes to avoid this time around.
"Having not succeeded on several other buildings downtown, it would be nice to see this one happen," Green told Council members.
He also expressed relief that the proposed office structure had not drawn the kind of intense public scrutiny that plagued the GPI project. "After the Grove Park debacle, I'm happy not to have this on the radar," said Green.
The Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously approved the project back in June. Construction, slated to begin next spring, is expected to take about 18 months. With a conditional-use permit in hand, the developer can now refine details such as landscaping and outdoor public space, before the project goes before the city's Technical Review Committee.
During public comment, Asheville resident Brad Burns, the only member of the public to speak about this project who wasn't connected with it, said he was deeply disappointed with the lack of public input into the project -- and with its design.
"The proposed building is within eyeshot of the BB&T monstrosity and the I.M. Pei building-on-a-budget," fumed Burns. Calling on the city to tighten its restrictions on building heights, he asked the "people who rose up against the Grove Park monstrosity to rise up against this ugliness."
Attorney Patsy Brison, representing the developer, said attempts had already been made to make the building more friendly to the 2025 Plan, including moving the building back 25 feet to avoid complicating the new College Street roundabout.
But Council member Terry Bellamy, noting the masonry-and-glass construction, said, "This design does not conform to a lot of things in our community."
And while Green maintained that there had been an attempt to incorporate some elements of neighboring structures, he conceded that the proposed building represents a departure from surrounding architectural styles. "We are moving ahead," said Green. "We are not stuck in 1910, 1920 or 1971."
Council member Joe Dunn defended the design and pushed for approval of the permit, saying, "I think it looks a lot better than some of the other things downtown."
And Council member Jan Davis, while reserving his opinion of the building's appearance, nonetheless wondered about its effect on Asheville's skyline. "None of us are architects [and] we cannot legislate art," he said, adding, "We're sitting here on the eve of something that will have a huge impact on downtown."
The structure's location at the gateway to downtown from the east will increase that impact, said Davis."You can't help but see this city from every angle, and that concerns me a lot," he said.
Chad Roberson of the Asheville-based PBC&L Architects elaborated on the design, emphasizing that it conforms to the specifications laid out by both the Downtown Commission and the 2025 Plan's stated desire to encourage high-density infill. Projecting a sketch of the building on the wall, Roberson noted that unlike the BB&T Building, the proposed design includes three distinct elements: a base, a middle section and a cap.
Council member Brownie Newman, however, had a different concern: a parking deck the county has agreed to build on an adjacent site in order to address the developer's concerns and to replace the spaces lost when the existing parking lot is eliminated. The exact location and design of the 750-space deck have not yet been nailed down, and technically, the two projects are separate. But due to their proximity, they are inevitably intertwined, argued Newman, asking for more details.
"This project would not be coming before us if not for the parking deck," he said. "If they are saying that this building needs a lot of parking to work, they really do go together."
Green was unable to provide those details, however, and he argued that the building and the deck should be treated separately. "If you don't want this project, that's one thing, but don't mix up these things," he urged.
Brison, a former assistant city attorney, confirmed Green's assertion, saying, "There are no parking requirements, so it is not part of this project."
And City Attorney Bob Oast backed up Brison, noting that at this point, significant changes could still be made in the contract that could, technically, exclude the parking element.
"This is useful information to have, but it's not really relevant to this issue," said Oast.
According to a city staff report, there are no size, height or off-street parking requirements for buildings zoned Central Business District. And the parking deck will need its own conditional-use permit, noted Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford.
Newman appeared unconvinced. Green, however, argued that the developer needed Council's blessing now in order to keep the project on schedule, because buildings take longer to design than parking decks.
But by that time, Dunn had had enough. "Why are we wasting our time?" he demanded, making a motion to approve the measure. As with other motions during the five-hour meeting, however, more remained to be said.
Council member Holly Jones agreed that the building and parking deck are separate issues, but she went on to question the city's whole process for evaluating such projects.
"The times I have had my feathers ruffled the most is when I've been backed into a decision based on a previous decision," she noted.
In the end, however, the conditional-use permit was unanimously approved.
Following a national trend in response to a recent Supreme Court ruling approving government seizure of private property for use by private developers, City Council unanimously approved a resolution declaring that it won't exercise its right of eminent domain for such purposes.
Championed by Dunn, the resolution proclaims that Council won't seize private property except for clearly public purposes. It also implores the North Carolina General Assembly to refrain from changing state law to conform with the ruling.
"I have real problems since the Supreme Court trashed private property," Dunn declared. "I don't know of any issue that is more important than private property."
Current state law allows local governments to use eminent domain only in connection with public works such as sidewalks, transportation corridors and parks.
"As I understand it, North Carolina laws prohibit [seizing private property for private use]," said Mayor Charles Worley. "I don't think we could do it if we wanted to." Nonetheless, Worley supported the resolution.
Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower, meanwhile, pushed for a vote on the matter, saying, "The clock is ticking; if we wait until the next work session, the moment may have passed."
And though Dunn acknowledged that the resolution would not affect state law and would not apply to future City Councils, he still advocated strongly for it, arguing, "It would give the public less heartburn if we stood up and said it."
The resolution passed unanimously.