Fresh from a weekend retreat where they outlined priorities for the coming year, Asheville City Council members bulled their way through a host of topics at the Jan. 24 formal session.
Two new residential proposals -- including a downtown high-rise condominium development -- sailed through the approval process, greased by design details that Council found appealing.
Among the other issues touched on during the wide-ranging meeting were flood preparedness, bailing out Bele Chere and redefining the Merrimon Avenue corridor.
Developers are planning to wrap a multistory, mixed-use condo complex around the Thomas Wolfe Memorial and fronting both Market and Woodfin streets. The proposed structure will house 75 residential units and 6,000 square feet of office space.
Former City Planner Gerald Green, an agent representing developer Halliday Capital, emphasized to Council that the building meets downtown needs outlined in the city's priorities for the area. The complex, said Green, will strengthen the gateway to downtown, increase pedestrian flow and "enhance the city's goal for infill development."
The L-shaped building's two wings will have differing heights -- nine stories on Market Street and seven on Woodfin -- to fit with adjacent structures.
Urban Planner Alan Glines confirmed that the project is consistent with surrounding structures. The Altamont Apartments are eight stories high, and the nearby Renaissance Asheville Hotel is 12.
Anticipating Council concerns about other recent downtown projects, the developers had already met with the staff and advisory committee of the Thomas Wolfe House and had modified the building design so as not to compromise the sightlines from the historic landmark. They also agreed to a 20-foot setback from the property line, creating a 40-foot gap between the new building and the Wolfe House.
Additional support for the project came from the Asheville Community Theatre (the current property owner), which is selling the 0.78 acre parcel.
ACT board President Joe Salm said the theater had been trying to strike a deal for the property for some time and that the offer from Halliday Capital was by far the best to date. The land deal, he said, is a key piece of the theater's long-range financial plans. The city, Salm pointed out, has been kicking around ideas for new performance spaces in both the Civic Center and the Battery Park area, which could provide additional competition for the 59-year-old theater company.
But the ACT's support for the project goes beyond funding. "We want to see good neighbors there," said Salm, noting that the apartments will put more people within walking distance of the theater.
The added design elements and the developer's attempts to meet the needs of neighbors seemed to score points with a Council which, in its brief tenure, has already shown a willingness to scrutinize proposed developments such as the latest local Wal-Mart and a downtown parking deck.
Another residential project -- six houses and a duplex on Hudson Street in West Asheville -- also won Council members' warm blessings when the developer, Real Concepts, announced that the plans had been changed to include solar panels for heating water. The developers were asking City Council for a conditional rezoning of the property, and both city staff and the Planning and Zoning Commission had endorsed the proposal even before the addition of the solar component. The revised plan calls for two solar panels per unit to heat water for the residences.
Once again, Green represented the developer, and he touted both the buildings' energy efficiency and their affordability. The houses will sell for $200,000 and the two condos for $160,000 apiece, he said.
"Without any incentives, you are doing a great thing for this world and this community," declared Vice Mayor Holly Jones. And Mayor Terry Bellamy noted that the courtyard design is a good fit with the development goals outlined at Council's Jan. 20-21 retreat.
Both the conditional-use permit and the conditional zoning passed unanimously.
Can a computerized monitoring system give the city advance warning of an impending flood? City Council is betting that it can -- to the tune of $46,335. The money, supplemented by a $57,620 National Weather Service grant, will pay for buying and installing an automated flood-warning system. Four gauges will measure rainfall, and four others will monitor both rainfall and river levels; the data will be fed into a computerized operations station.
Besides sounding the alarm about rising floodwaters, the system -- which measures water speed and underlying river-bed moisture as well as water levels -- will also enable the city to build a database of water trends, said Stormwater Services Manager Chad Pierce.
Last year, Council voted unanimously to hire local consultants Schnabel Engineering to revamp the city's then 10-year-old flood plan after Biltmore Village business owners complained about the city's handling of the September 2004 flooding. At the time, Council member Carl Mumpower staunchly defended the city's actions during the flood.
And on Jan. 24, Mumpower expressed doubts about both the usefulness and price tag of the high-tech monitoring system recommended by Schnabel, citing numbers supplied by City Engineer Cathy Ball when the issue first came before Council on Jan. 10. Mumpower had asked Ball how long it takes water to get from outlying areas of the watershed into town, and she said 30 minutes. But two weeks later, Pierce was questioning that figure.
"That maybe the case in a dam breach, but in normal flooding, the response time would be much greater," he said.
Mumpower, however, was resolute. "I believe I see some excesses here," he said. "Thirty minutes does not provide adequate time for this to be useful." Why couldn't someone simply drive upstream and take a manual measurement, he asked.
Such weather incidents, answered Pierce, could disrupt communications and even wash away roads along waterways -- as happened in 2004.
Jones, meanwhile, felt the equipment might give the city sufficient warning to open floodgates and head off more extensive damage. "This seems like a very good use of taxpayer money," she said.
Schnabel Engineering has yet to determine the optimum locations for the gauges, but Pierce told Xpress that some would probably be placed along the Swannanoa River and its tributaries.
The measure passed on a 5-2 vote, with Mumpower and Council member Brownie Newman opposed. Newman later told Xpress that he wasn't convinced there wasn't a less expensive solution.
Braking on Merrimon
An upcoming survey will try to help guide future development on Merrimon Avenue by gauging the desires of both business owners along the corridor and the people who use the road.
The survey, initiated by Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford in response to concerns raised by a city study group, is part of a larger effort to curtail current development trends on Merrimon in light of the controversy surrounding the recently completed Staples office-supply building and the sale of another property to a fast-food chain.
"The time line on this is fairly critical," Shuford emphasized. The survey is supposed to be completed and the data analyzed by the end of February, and City Council is slated to consider a new zoning designation for the Merrimon corridor by the end of April.
"All along Merrimon, we are going to see this happen," predicted study-group member Hedy Fischer, the former vice chair of the city's Planning and Zoning Commission. Fischer's group had already conducted its own survey of 63 Merrimon Avenue merchants, though some on Council dismissed it as too small and selective a sampling.
But Fischer, citing the survey results, urged Council to implement an interim conditional-use overlay on the Merrimon corridor until the results of Shuford's survey were in.
City Attorney Bob Oast shot down that idea, however, pointing to regulations that would prohibit such a rezoning unless it were initiated by the affected property owners. Council could declare a moratorium, he said, but jumping through the requisite procedural hoops would take about as much time as Shuford's survey.
Mumpower, meanwhile, challenged the whole concept of controlling development, saying rezoning the corridor could create an "elite" Asheville.
But Shuford insisted that another project recently approved by Council shows that smart development and a healthy business environment are not mutually exclusive. In November, City Council approved a rezoning that allowed a former Merrimon Avenue Burger King to be converted into a bank and office building. Reaction from the neighbors was mixed. Some were unhappy because the Burger King had been grandfathered when a 1997 zoning of the area prohibited drive-throughs. Other neighbors praised the new development for breaking away from the fast-food model.
"It is possible to increase the property potential for owners and still realize the desires of people who fill out the survey," said Shuford.
Jones, too, took issue with Mumpower's use of the word "elite."
"I really, really resist that word with citizens,"she said. "There are people of all walks of life who care about many different issues."
In the end, Council voted 6-1 to proceed with Shuford's survey despite Mumpower's disapproval. They also unanimously instructed Oast to continue looking at options for stalling additional development in the meantime.
Bele Chere's hangover
Bele Chere: cash cow or money pit? It depends on whom you ask. While some downtown businesses enjoy a revenue boom during the annual festival, Bele Chere 2005 ran a $120,000 deficit, despite extra revenue from the festival's first-ever pay-per-listen stage and increased beer sales.
And with the books now closed on last year's event, Parks and Recreation Director Irby Brinson came to Council seeking a budget amendment to cover those expenses. But first, he had to endure a scolding by Council members unhappy about the deficit spending.
"You overspent, and now you're asking us to cover for it. That doesn't sit well with me; I wish we could slap you on the wrist a little bit," Council member Bryan Freeborn said tartly.
Brinson blamed the deficit on higher-than-usual entertainment costs. All told, Bele Chere paid out $185,000 to bands last year.
Council member Robin Cape, a professional musician, said those numbers are out of line. "We have to rein ourselves in a bit on that," she observed.
Brinson emphasized that the festival had taken in $260,000 more than in 2004, due in part to the paid-admission stage.
In a compromise move, City Council approved a $100,000 budget amendment, telling Brinson he would have to find the remaining $20,000 in the Parks and Recreation budget.
Deja vu all over again
The latest incarnation of the Civic Center Task Force is treading familiar ground by asking City Council to fund yet another study, Council member Jan Davis conceded in making his pitch to his colleagues.
Davis, who chairs the task force, said this study would differ from previous ones such as the Highland Group's 1999 demand assessment and the 2002 Heery Report. The new $12,000 study, to be conducted by interns at Western Carolina University, would assess what sort of market the Civic Center could expect to serve.
"We're not going to be able to move forward unless we have that information," insisted Davis, though he said he understands some Council members' misgivings about spending still more money on such research.
"I get a lot of heartburn thinking about another study for the Civic Center," said Freeborn. "Every time we get a new task force, we need a new study."
Mumpower, too, was skeptical about how realistic such studies are, saying the results usually reflect the expectations of city leaders and task-force members.
"Studies tend to support our desired goal," said Mumpower, who served as chair of the Civic Center Commission some year back.
Davis, who also served on the previous task force, noted that both the city and the market have changed in the last five years.
"We are talking about changing the venue," said Davis, adding that the new study would provide base-line data that could serve as a reference point as new economic data comes in. Council members voted 6-1 to approve the funding, with Mumpower opposed.