Nearly half to come from city; land acquisition begins
$50.1 million. That’s the total amount listed by the AARRC as being earmarked for spending over a six-year period. Spending embraces work on the west side of the river from just north of the New Belgium Beer property down to French Broad River Park, the Town Branch Greenway and the Livingston Street “Complete Street” project, and the Clingman Forest Greenway which ends at Hilliard Avenue.
But most of the money will be used to fund dramatic changes to a 2.2 mile stretch of Riverside Drive along the east bank of the river from Hill Street to Amboy Road. Embedded in the master plan is RADTIP, the River Arts District Transportation Improvement Project, which involves a rerouting of Riverside Drive itself. Over the past few weeks, as snippets of information about RADTIP have come to light, the project has generated considerable controversy over what the AARRC intends to do and how it plans to do it.
Specifically, some riverside property owners are now complaining of a lack of transparency on the part of the AARRC in making its plans known, and have expressed fear that the stage is set for a large-scale land grab. Artists who were originally attracted to the neighborhood by comparatively low rents have now learned that their rents will nearly double under the Riverside Drive Development Plan and that the so-called River Arts District, which was named for them, will likely no longer be affordable.
The AARRC, a joint city/county/private sector entity which has been formulating a master plan for riverfront development since 2010, was catapulted into action last September when it received a $14.6 million dollar TIGER VI grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The Tribune has obtained a copy of a January memo confirming the hiring of an independent property appraiser to “perform the land acquisition functions associated with TIGER VI, with work “to commence immediately.”
A second memo, dated March 13, noted that 25% of construction drawings for RADTIP has been completed. That memo goes on to say, “this engineering threshold kicks off tasks like sequencing the production of right of way plats and developing the public art plan.”
In May, the memo says, the commission’s real estate division will begin receiving letters of intent for “comprehensive real estate services (e.g. appraisals, title work and acquisition service)” with city council expected to approve the chosen firm’s contract for acquisition services at the May 26 council meeting.
The progress outlined in the March 13 memo was reported verbally at the AARRC’s regular monthly meeting the day before. The news was received enthusiastically by the 14-member commission.
At that meeting, however, Angela Koh and Brian King, who own the popular 12 Bones Smokehouse, asked the commission, “What happens to us?” 12 Bones sits in an elbow of the road where Lyman Street runs into Riverside Drive. The AARRC plan calls for construction of a roundabout at that spot, which would take all of 12 Bones’ outdoor seating area and most of its parking space. Under the terms of the TIGER grant, the third-party appraiser would then make the call as to whether the property would be salvageable or would be declared an “uneconomic remnant” and destroyed.
The same scenario could apply to many of the properties which line that stretch of Riverside Drive, though Stephanie Monson Dahl, who is the director of the city department that has now been created to administer the municipal end of the project, stressed that the “uneconomic remnant” process would be a sort of last resort that would kick in only if acquisition negotiations with property owners should fail.
“A lot of things could happen,” Dahl told the 12 Bones owners. “There are a lot of variables. I know that’s not a great answer,” she said.
It was former Vice Mayor Chris Peterson, who owns the property on which 12 Bones is built, who first called public attention to the doings of AARRC. Peterson attended the AARRC meeting in February and related that he had learned of the commission’s intentions last fall and had met with City Manager Gary Jackson to discuss the plan’s implications for him and for all the other property owners in the area. He said he had attempted to include “rude mayor” Esther Manheimer in one discussion but that Manheimer did not keep the appointment.
Peterson clashed with AARRC chairperson Pattiy Torno, who owns Curve Studios across the road from 12 Bones, saying she has a conflict of interest in the matter. He made the same charge against county commissioner Brownie Newman, Woodfin mayor and county emergency services director Jerry Vehaun and commercial realtor and developer George Morosani, all of whom sit on AARRC.
The sources making up the $50-plus million include a $1.3 million public works assistance grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration; a $4.2 million grant from the state DOT / French Broad River Metropolitan Planning organization (in addition to the $14.6 million TIGER money and $800,000 in TIGER II planning funds); $1.1 million in other state grants; $1.8 million from the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority; a $300,000 direct contribution from Buncombe County … and a total of $26,000,000 from various city sources including the general fund and the enterprise fund. (A major income stream for the general fund is a substantial portion of the city’s collected stormwater tax.)
The Tribune emailed Dahl asking whether funds from any of the listed sources had been received yet, or if commitments from all of them have been received; whether there was a further breadown of the city’s $26 million figure available; and whether there is a final head count of how many property owners along the French Broad riverfront stand to be affected. Dahl had not replied by press time.
Meanwhile, as more and more details of the project began coming to light, editorial letters and social media posts showed battle lines being drawn between those who see the riverfront and greenways development as aesthetically pleasing, a boon to bicyclists and a safe and attractive means of promoting trans-river pedestrian traffic; and those who view it as a wholesale gentrification scheme using money that urgently needs to be spent in other places.
“Does the greenway go through the food desert?” Asheville resident Angel Chandler wanted to know. “Will there be riverboat tours to see hungry children in their natural habitat? You know, the ones Buncombe doesn’t have enough money to feed. People could toss out cans of soup as the boat rolls by.”
Editor’s Note: The Asheville Tribune originally published the figure ‘$56 million tab’ in its Thursday edition. It has been corrected in this on-line version.