- McCormick Heights, Swannanoa River Road developments approved
- Bid to expand city manager's authority fails
- $134.4 million budget passed
Shortly after the Buncombe County commissioners approved a resolution aimed at encouraging the city of Asheville to work out a land swap with developer Stewart Coleman in connection with his controversial Parkside project, City Council said that remedying the situation is the commissioners' responsibility.
"The county's thrown the ball up in the air, and I think they are hoping it will land somewhere over here," Vice Mayor Jan Davis observed during Council's June 24 meeting.
Laurie Saxton, the city's public-information officer, had attended the commissioners' meeting earlier that evening and reported back to Council.
As Coleman's proposal continues to work its way through the approval process -- a Technical Review Committee hearing is scheduled for July 7 -- both the city and county have been weighing options to avoid having the Parkside condominiums built on a piece of parkland that Buncombe County sold to Coleman in 2006.
On June 10, Council members unanimously approved a resolution condemning the sale, but in previous closed-session discussions, they've resisted the idea of swapping the park property for an adjacent, city-owned parcel on Marjorie Street, various Council members have said. Now, however, the county wanted Asheville to revisit that option.
But the city wasn't buying. Council member Robin Cape said it's laughable that the county thinks the Marjorie Street site could be properly considered in such a short time when Buncombe County is allowing itself a full three weeks just to reappraise the disputed parcel.
Although the county resolution gives the city more time to arrange a deal, "They've only given us 60 days to do a swap with a much more complicated piece of property," she said. "I think it's an impossibility."
City Council lost its chance to review the project after the developer lopped two stories off the proposed high-rise (see "What Now?" June 4 Xpress). Nonetheless, Council members aired their thoughts on the project's placement on a portion of the new Pack Square Park. The downtown public space, adjacent to City Hall, is in the midst of a $20 million makeover partly funded by the city and county.
Council member Brownie Newman went so far as to raise the specter of a lawsuit. "I believe the development of that building in its current configuration would be a tragedy," said Newman. "I would be open to the city taking legal action to challenge the sale. It would say a lot for the city of Asheville to side with the citizens who started that effort."
Mayor Terry Bellamy -- noting that despite the extended back-and-forth on the issue, Coleman has never spoken directly with City Council -- urged the city to reach out to the developer.
"There has to be a willingness for Mr. Coleman to come forward," she said. Besides, continued Bellamy, "It doesn't matter what we say to the County Commission when they are in the driver's seat."
Davis observed that, while he would like to see the issue resolved, he's tired of seeing Coleman painted as a villain. "It is hard for me to see him made out as a bad guy," said the vice mayor, adding that he's a longtime friend of Coleman's. "I don't think he is a bad guy -- he just saw an opportunity."
Davis also said that Coleman has consistently acted within the law.
Meanwhile, Cape focused on what could be the project's last significant hurdle -- a "no build" waiver that the county must approve before construction can begin. Because Pack Square Park butts up against Coleman's property, the county must agree not to build along the property line to ensure that there won't be another building shoved up against Coleman's residential structure. Interim Planning and Development Director Shannon Tuch said that while the Technical Review Committee meeting could proceed without the waiver, the TRC's ruling would be contingent on obtaining one from Buncombe County.
"So the county commissioners still have a role to play," noted Cape.
On a 5-1 vote, Council members opted to postpone further discussion of the Parkside issue until July 15 (their next work session). In the meantime, they'll try to promote dialogue with Coleman and encourage the county commissioners to continue exploring ways to recover the park property. Council member Holly Jones, a candidate for the county Board of Commissioners, cast the lone opposing vote, and Council member Bill Russell was absent due to a family emergency. Jones did not indicate why she was voting no; she had previously maintained that it's the commissioners' responsibility to resolve the matter.
Welcome to the neighborhoods
Two new developments got the nod from City Council, each gaining the conditional zoning needed for high-density residential use.
Hunt Hill, slated for the former McCormick Heights site, will contain 180 units in four principal buildings.
The McCormick Heights housing project behind Memorial Stadium was mostly vacant and falling apart when, in December 2006, the city voted to purchase the property and relocate the tenants in hopes of building an affordable-housing complex there. But a few months later, the city backed out of the deal after the title search turned up deed restrictions that would have limited how the property could be used.
Now, developer Steve Moberg is planning to build condominiums there -- efficiencies as well as one-, two- and three-bedroom residences. Eighteen of them will meet the city's definition of affordability.
Cape voiced support for the project, noting that it will use the existing footprint and complimenting its proximity to the city's central business district.
But Mayor Bellamy, a staunch advocate of affordable housing, asked Moberg to consider expanding the percentage of affordable units. She did not, however, go so far as to propose making this a condition for the rezoning.
Moberg responded that adding more affordable units would only raise the prices of his other ones, which he said would be risky in the current housing market.
The conditional zoning passed 5-1 with Bellamy opposed.
Meanwhile, the plans for another vacant property had Council members gushing.
With 125 units and a grocery store, the development at 48 Swannanoa River Road will incorporate a host of sustainable features including solar panels, a graywater system and green construction practices.
The project, which fits into the Wilma Dykeman Riverway Plan, is being hailed as a major step in revitalizing the River District, according to staff reports.
"We're taking a parking lot and putting up paradise," said developer David Madera, paraphrasing the Joni Mitchell song.
Madera also said the building has been designed to handle floods like the one that ran off the property's previous tenant in 2004. "We're counting on it," he said about the threat of the Swannanoa River flooding.
Pattiy Torno, who serves on the River District Design Review Committee, had high praise for the project. "It seems this developer has brought us the development we are looking for," she observed.
"I want to thank you," added Cape. "This is exciting."
The conditional zoning passed unanimously.
A staff recommendation to increase the dollar amount of city contracts that the city manager can unilaterally approve failed on a 3-3 vote. Currently City Manager Gary Jackson can approve contracts up to $50,000 without Council approval, explained Assistant City Attorney Curt Euler, noting that the threshold was last raised in 2002. Other cities surveyed allow their city managers to sign for contracts involving anywhere from $9,000 to $500,000, he said, adding that the proposed move would enable such contracts to be executed more quickly.
But Council member Carl Mumpower said he wasn't comfortable with increasing the amount of spending decided without the scrutiny of open meetings, and Bellamy and Davis joined him in voting against the measure.
With all public comment and most deliberation behind them, however, there was only limited discussion before City Council approved a 2008-09 budget of $134.4 million. Cape hailed the budget for not raising taxes, but Mumpower said it was too lavish given current economic conditions. The final vote was 5-1.
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