Conditions imposed by review committees prior council’s hearing included constructing to Healthy Built Home Standards, offering 10 percent of units as Affordable Housing, completing a comprehensive traffic study, and providing annual bus passes to tenants in perpetuity. Other community amenities included a dog park and forty bicycle spaces. All units would be made available at Workforce Housing rates, or less than 30 percent of the wages of somebody earning less than 140 percent of Area Median Income, which according to HUD is $56,000.
Instead of spending $15,000 on a sidewalk study, Grasso told council he had offered to spend what hadn’t already been sunk in soft costs on actual sidewalks. Pressed by Councilman Gordon Smith, Grasso indicated about $14,000 was left. Developers in the audience murmured that $14,000 wasn’t going to go very far; especially on a road described as having no shoulders. Rights-of-way would have to be acquired, and Councilman Marc Hunt asked the community activists present to help with the sometimes contentious process.
Community organizer Timothy Sadler advocated for the project as council heard public comment. Said Sadler, “We’ll be integrating monthly bus passes with the price of rent. This will add $22,000 to the transportation budget in perpetuity.
“We’ve been in talks with Asheville on Bikes to address their need for an office here in the city, and Mr. Grasso is willing to go back to TRC. I have been in conversation with Lindsay [Majer] over at Green Opportunities to have the folks over there to come and give a monthly workshop on how to raise a garden, how to maintain a garden, and how to prepare wonderful meals with garden vegetables.
“Mr. Grasso and I have been working together on this project to help make it a more sustainable project, and I have mentioned that there’s this new product called a Smart Wall that basically takes your energy needs down by 70 percent. And we have been in conversation with the company, American Craftsmen, Inc., to try and make the numbers work so that we can use this absolutely cutting-edge, green building material that will no doubt, if we use it, put Asheville on the map for having one of the most environmentally-friendly apartment complexes in the world, I would say.”
Neighbors protesting the project argued mostly against traffic congestion. Bridget Nelson questioned the utility of some of the developers’ offerings. “I would challenge you all to go to 281 Hazel Mill and try to take a bus downtown. Anybody who rides the bus as a matter of necessity is not going to be able to afford $819 a month for rent. For that, you have to make $15.75/hour.” Nelson reminded council they had, by ordinance, set the living wage at $11.85/hour.
Attorney Craig Justus had a specific complaint about traffic projections. “From the traffic report that’s part of the record, the traffic engineer noted an easier route, if you will, to get to Patton Avenue, and it happens to be this road here that crosses my client’s property, which happens to be a private road.” Justus traced on a map the popular shortcut through the Harry’s on the Hill parking lot. “We wanted to alert the city that my client is considering the option of closing that road in order to protect their property interest.” Requesting that council require the developer to notify potential renters that the road is private, he added, “It’s just as cutting-edge as identifying how to make a garden, to help them identify what roads they’re supposed to be using.”
Councilman Jan Davis expressed disdain with Justus’ request. He said he had a long-standing relationship with those involved, and he found it hard to believe they would be “turning their shoulder to that community.” He then added, “We’re sending the wrong message right now, Craig. I really regret that y’all are doing that.” To that, Justus countered that his client had an interest in serving his customers and in trying to conduct business. Hunt had no problem with Sadler’s gardening bit, but he had to ask City Attorney Robin Currin if council could honor Justus’ request.
Neighbors had filed a valid protest petition opposing the project. This meant a supermajority vote would be required for approval. Mayor Esther Manheimer was recused as she works out of the same law office as Justus. But it was all moot; council approved the project unanimously.
Council also unanimously approved a 254-unit apartment complex to be known as River Mill Lofts, located at the corner of Thompson Street and Stoner Road. The public was supportive enough, but the developers asked permission to make a normal-width sidewalk rather than the 10’-wide one required by the parcel’s zoning. “If we don’t need to pave the world, let’s don’t pave the world,” pled landscape architect Clay Mooney. Owner and developer Pace Burt didn’t want to spend $150,000 on the “huge, 10’-wide sidewalk that might have two people a day walking on it,” either.
Smith was interested in getting the developer to commit to making a number of units Affordable Housing; that is, rented at less than 30 percent of the wages of a person earning less than 80 percent of AMI. Burt explained he would have to work with the city for a Land Use Incentives Grant before they could do that. Each unit offered at Affordable rents would cost the developer about $3500 a year.
“We just need some help, because at the end of the day, the banks are the ones that are pulling the strings. They’re the ones that are willing to either not finance a project or finance it, and they’re looking at that as a loss of potential income and value to a project. These apartments today are costing anywhere from $80-$100,000 a unit, which is just unbelievable, and you gotta pay the bank back.”
Burt said he was hoping urban planner Alan Glines could get creative to try to make the LUIG program work for the project. At that, Smith replied, “You are singin’ my tune.” Smith made the motion to support the project, stating, “I’m comfortable beginning with that, knowing that we’re going to be working together for awhile.”