Letters dated May 1 have been sent to stakeholders along a 2.2-mile stretch of Riverside Drive informing them that “your property will likely be directly impacted by this project and some of your property may need to be purchased by the city.”
The project referred to is the Riverfront Arts District Transportation Improvement Project (RADTIP). It is the first phase of the Riverside Drive Development Plan quietly concocted over a period of some four years by the entity now known as the Asheville Area Riverfront Redevelopment Commission, a joint city and private sector board originally formed in 2010 to study ways of revitalizing a U-shaped section of the French Broad from Woodfin to East Asheville.
AARRC’s master plan calls for a necklace of greenways, bike paths and related amenities. Its first emerging battleground is the stretch of riverfront that includes and abuts the city’s much-touted Riverfront Arts District – the former mill and warehouse area where numerous neglected buildings became inhabited and refurbished by local artists and craftspeople who didn’t mind putting up with their surroundings because the rent was cheap. (Under the AARRC’s plan, this area now faces gentrification and many artists face prohibitive rent increases.)
The AARRC pursued its plans, including a 2013 “windshield tour” of the area to catalog potential sites for eminent domain takeover, with little public attention. Then, last August, the city – some say to its surprise – landed a $14.6 million state TIGER transportation improvement grant. This windfall enabled AARRC to begin drawing up plans in earnest.
It was at that point that former vice mayor Chris Peterson, who owns the property where Asheville’s popular 12 Bones Smokehouse is located, found that his tract stood squarely in the way of a proposed traffic roundabout that would take most of the restaurant’s parking lot and all of its outdoor seating area.
Further examination of the TIGER grant disclosed that in such a situation a property could, after review by a state board, be declared an “economic remnant, no longer viable at its present location. The state would hand its findings back to the city, which could then move to take the property under eminent domain. This scenario would probably apply to 12 Bones.
In all it was found that some 50 properties would be similarly affected, but at that time there has been no disclosure from the city to those property owners until the release of the May 1 letter.
“We would like to sit down and talk through the project with you,” the letter states. (It does not mention whether the property owner will be asked to sit as well.) “At this meeting, we will discuss with you the timeline for the project, the acquisition process for the property required, and will specifically discuss your rights to compensation.. Even after the meeting, we will do our best to continue addressing any questions you may have.
“The RADTIP plan,” the letter continues, “involves adding modern safety and traffic flow improvements to the River Arts District. In addition, we intend to install bike lanes and greenways near the French Broad River. Our goal is for the road to be safer and for the entire area to continue its renewal.
“It’s an exciting and grand plan and one that we cannot do without your help. Our goal is to advance the future of Asheville so that everyone will benefit.”
The letter is signed by Ellen McKinnon, City Real Estate Coordinator. McKinnon, a former grant writer, has been at her job for about six months. She reports to Niki Reed, the city’s real estate manager. The letter also indicates copies sent to Stephanie Monson Dahl, city planner recently designated director of the newly created Riverfront Redevelopment Office at City Hall, and also to City Manager Gary Jackson.
Peterson, never noted for going quietly, went public in January with what he had found out — first by personal appearance before the AARRC, then, along with his wife, Mari, a business consultant, on a website called Asheville River Gate, then by distributing flyers to the riverfront property owners. His message has been the same: many of the properties lie squarely in a flood plain, making them unsuitable for AARRC’s ambitious plans. He has cited what he said are glaring conflicts of interest on the part of several AARRC members. More basically, he has charged that the entire commission was improperly formed and constituted, and has no legal authority to be carrying out its plan.
The 14-member AARRD is composed of a member each of city council and county commission, together a member appointed by each of those bodies; two representative each from the chamber of commerce, Riverlink and the Council of Independent Business Owners, and one representative from the Town of Woodfin. The bylaws further provide that “Each appointing body shall ensure that at least one half of their appointees are an owner [sic] of real property or an owner of a business in the Regional Riverfront. The Town of Woodfin, having only 1 appointee, is exempted from the ownership requirement.”
Chairman of the AARRD is Pattiy Torno, owner of Curve Studios and the property it occupies at 6 Riverside Drive. The brick structure that houses Curve and two other businesses originally housed Asheville’s first municipal gas works. That building is earmarked for city acquisition and conversion to a public information center with restrooms and additional parking space. The building is on the “dry” side of Riverside Drive, diagonally across the street from 12 Bones. Torno was among the AARRC members called out as standing to realize considerable gain from the acquisition process, along with county commissioner Brownie Newman, Atty. Joseph Ferikes, Woodfin mayor and member Jerry Vehaun, who owns property nearby, and others.
In its media dealings, AARRC has played down the eminent domain power implicit in the TIGER contract and Monson Dahl told the Tribune, “Your understanding of AARRC involvement regarding demolition or eminent domain and the City’s role in TIGER VI land acquisition is incorrect. I am happy to speak with you next week about it as background if you are reporting on it.”
However, attempts to speak with Monson Dahl by phone have been unsuccessful and she has not responded to e-mails asking in what respect the Tribune’s reportage was incorrect.