Visionary body or straw man? Answers affect much more than city’s riverfront
Places for the commission’s 14 members are arranged around a hollow square of tables. A few feet away, facing the commission at an oblique angle, is a single table with places marked for the Asheville City Manager Gary Jackson, Urban Planner Stephanie Monson Dahl (who is variously listed as AARRC Director or City Staff Liaison) and one or more other various city staffers whose attendance depends on the agenda.
So while the volunteer commission members face each other around their self- contained square, Asheville city government hovers nearby. The seating arrangement is a metaphor for the workings of this once-obscure body that now finds itself in the spotlight of power and control as the future look of Asheville’s riverfront becomes a major issue in this election year.
Where it came from
The AARRC began meeting informally in 2009 and was officially created by City Ordinance number 3886 on August 24, 2010 “for the sustainability and continued development of the Riverfront District,” which the ordinance defines as “the area within the City of Asheville’s corporate boundary or extraterritorial jurisdiction adjacent to the French Broad or Swannanoa rivers, including non-adjacent or nearby land … directly impacting the economic climate of the Riverfront district.”
The creation ordinance specifies that the commission is to consist of:
Two members appointed by the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, with one being a County Commissioner;
Four members appointed by the City Council, with one being a Council member;
Two members appointed by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce;
Two members appointed by Riverlink;
Two members appointed by the Council of Independent Business Owners;
The chairperson of the River District Design Review Committee shall be a member of the Commission;
One member appointed by the Woodfin Board of Alderman.
The stated purposes of the commission, according to the ordinance, are to “Recommend to the City and County an overall policy for the continued development and sustainability of the Regional Riverfront;” to “Provide recommendations to the City and the County for effective management of the public resources for the districts and actively pursue and assist private sector investment in the districts for the welfare of the citizens of the City and County,” to “Cooperate with, evaluate, and represent the recommendations of other organizations, including, but not limited to, property owners, merchants, residents, businesses, tenants, non-profits, institutions and other members of the Riverfront and Regional Riverfront district communities.”
Thus, the AARRC was given broad theoretical authority to receive input and make recommendations about the development of a great deal of riparian territory, but in fact it had little actual power. It conducted cleanup operations along the riverfront itself and authored a brownfield study called “Between the Bridges” – the bridges in question being the Bowen and Riverlink bridges over the French Broad – but its ability to make significant changes in its “jurisdiction” were not clearly defined and commission minutes reflect frustration at the absence of the key element needed to give itself some teeth: money.
Kingdom Comin’: The arrival of New Belgium
In April of 2012 New Belgium Brewing Company of Fort Collins, CO, announced it had chosen Asheville as its east coast manufacturing and distribution center. (Documents indicate that a back-and-forth between Asheville and Ft. Collins had been in progress since 2010.) Almost overnight the AARRC found itself in favor with city council and with other potential stakeholders along the riverfront, especially hoteliers and tourist industry-related developers. City council suddenly remembered it had created a commission to study riverfront development and asked AARRC how it could help.
Well, said the AARRC, it did have an ambitious plan on the table: RADTIP, the River Arts District Transportation Improvement Project, which called for overhauling the road system that flanks the East bank of the French Broad between the bridges. If there were a way to get the project going …
Say no more, said Buncombe County Commission, which promptly gave AARRC $6.5 million outright and pledged another $650,000 for three years to get things rolling. Then, to crown the glory, New Belgium, instantly recognizing the value of RADTIP to its own plans, New Belgium partnered with the city to file and obtain a $14.6 million North Carolina Department of Transportation grant to help make RADTIP a reality. The AARRC now had – or anyway had control over – some serious money, which it began to exercise right away.
No longer being all dressed up with nowhere to go, the AARRC moved swiftly. By January of 2014 the AARRC had completely absorbed the functions of the old River District Design Review Committee, which meant that, according to the city, “Anyone planning construction work in the River District must have their proposal reviewed by Planning & Development Department staff, and by the AARRC Design Review Subcommittee if the project is a Major Works. While review is mandatory, compliance is voluntary.”
Mandatory review but voluntary compliance? That wouldn’t do, so AARRC moved to plug that loophole this year by getting the city to pay Code Studios, a Texas company, $100,000 to draw up a form-based zoning code to cover future riverfront development. (Form based code differs greatly from traditional zoning practices in that, once adopted by a municipality it becomes law, and its specifications trump any plans individual property owners mav have to the contrary.)
Property owners and others protested that AARRC had exceeded its authority – that such activity properly belonged to the Planning and Zoning Commission – but there was no move to curb AARRC, which now firmly had the bit in its teeth. In April, the commission announced it had enough of its RADTIP construction drawings in hand to recommend that the city commence eminent domain proceedings with property owners along the riverfront – a process which affects 36 privately owned land parcels along the riverfront.
“How do you like me now?”
Despite the fact that affected property owners have already received eminent domain right-to-appeal letters from the city, and other than the revelation that AARRC’s master plan calls for construction of a hotel and retail outlets on the riverbank – in the middle of a flood zone – the colonization of Asheville’s riverfront by the AARRC and the city has taken place largely under the radar, virtually unremarked by local mainstream media and shrugged off by all except those directly affected. Not even the news that evidence suggests the city, which actually holds the purse strings, has been paying out DOT grant money for project purposes other than those for which the grant was specifically intended has raised many eyebrows.
Critics who are aware of the riverfront Monopoly game have criticized the governmental setup, saying that the AARRC has become a “pass-through” board whose “recommendations” are rubber-stamped by the city, which is now in full partnership with it. (Not only do city officials attend and interact with the AARRC at all its meetings, but the fifth floor of City Hall has now been given over to its operations, under the direction of Monson Dahl.)
So how does the AARRC see itself? Apparently it depends on who asks the question and when. The minutes from the commission’s 2012 retreat say, “We are a filter between the city and the general public.”
At the AARRC’s June meeting, Black community activist and consultant Dee Williams, attending her first AARRC meeting, inquired what, in a nutshell, the AARRC’s actual function was.
“We’re just advisors,” one commissioner said.
“We don’t even have a bank account,” said another