By Leslee Kulba-Asheville’s Mayor Terry Bellamy ripped Councilman Gordon Smith Tuesday night. On council’s agenda were three proposals to rehabilitate projects that dried up during the Great Recession. Smith even spoke about how great it was to have post-recession development in the city again. But he didn’t think it was right to have construction without at least some component of affordable housing.
Council first considered a new proposal for multifamily development on Hendersonville Road behind the old McDonald’s. Back in 2006, the city approved construction of a mixed-use subdivision with residential and office space. The developers graded the lot and installed most of the infrastructure, but they abandoned the project, as did many developers at the time. In 2008, another developer submitted site plans for a gay/lesbian community to be known as Carefree Asheville. That project was abandoned upon approval.
Tuesday, council entertained a proposal for a 149-unit residential complex that would provide more than ample natural outdoor amenities and boasted its share of greenwash. All the developers asked was permission to build one apartment structure a little taller than ordinances allow, and, in light of difficult topography, some leeway with setback requirements. At first, the developers were going to create only seven units of affordable housing, but after community conversations, they agreed to double that amount. Council approved the project unanimously.
Next up was the RAD Lofts project. Back in 2004, the city awarded Dave Steel $3500 in corporate welfare, and the county supplied $5310. Shortly thereafter, Dave Steel closed down its Asheville operations, leaving a “hole” in what has become the River Arts District. RAD Lofts, LLC proposed converting the lot into a mixed-use development offering 141 residential units plus 26 retail spaces and 11,656 square feet for office space. Below it all would be a 338-car garage, something residents hoped would alleviate problems caused by the city failing to deliver on its promise to construct parking spaces on Depot Street.
That was nice, but Smith asked where the affordable housing component was. The developer, Harry Pilos, said it wasn’t going to happen. He said he could offer shorter commutes and free gallery space, but he wasn’t going to compete with existing businesses, and somebody was already offering affordable studio space for artists. Smith still thought a sit-down to negotiate options was in order, but Pilos explained it was a matter of math. He then told Smith he would be happy to have his accountants work out the cost of making units affordable for the next ten years and turn the bill over to the city to see if they wanted to pick up the tab with taxpayer contributions.
At that, Smith thanked Pilos for living up to his reputation as a straight talker. Councilman Cecil Bothwell then contributed that Pilos could make the development more affordable by placing solar panels atop the structures. In addition to providing cheap electricity, the hardware could be written off as a business expense. Pilos replied he had already talked to “Brownie next door,” referring to County Commissioner Newman, who serves as vice president of FLS Energy. Council approved the conditional zoning request unanimously.
Third up was a request to finish the project that has sat more or less abandoned on the west end of Haywood Road. Following widespread community input, the project approved in 2006 ran into complications and was therefore downscaled. The smaller project was approved, and one building was constructed, along with some parking amenities. Then, in 2011, the developer died. Rather than abandoning the property, the family kept it up and tried to sell it. Now, with some give and take, a new developer will try to bring the bane of West Asheville to life.
The new project proposed 75 residential units plus 4800 square feet of commercial space. That was nice, but it was Marc Hunt’s turn to ask about affordable housing. Urban Planner Alan Glines said there would be no HUD-defined affordable housing units, but the project would provide workforce housing. Pressed for a breakdown of proposed rents, it was discovered that the developer had not sent anybody to the presentation with that information. Smith thought it would be advisable to postpone a vote until the city could negotiate a little affordable housing out of the deal.
The mayor reacted strongly. She said the neighbors have waited long enough. They had voiced enough complaints. They needed no further delays. Furthermore, it was rude to spring new requirements that were not mentioned at any point in the approval process on the developers “in the ninth hour.” The fact that nobody had rental information was an indication of how obtuse the request was. It was not council’s place to force developers to comply with changes in the rules. She kept repeating that it was imperative to present the rules “at the front end, not the back end.” What Smith was proposing was going to make developers skittish about building in the city.
Smith held his ground, saying he was only upholding the city’s stated goals. Besides a developer who presented earlier had been coaxed into providing twice the affordable housing he had initially intended. Chris Pelly, Hunt, and Smith all thought it would be a good idea for council to hard-code more exacting affordable housing requirements for future development in the city, and Bellamy said she would leave that to a future council, as she is not seeking re-election. Only Smith voted against the conditional zoning request.