“Qui bono?” Who benefits?
As the Tribune goes to press Code Studios of Austin, Texas is winding up a series of ”charrettes” – a buzzword for “planning sessions” — designed to garner public participation and input regarding the introduction of a new zoning format in and around the city’s River Arts District. For nearly a week neighborhood residents and other stakeholders have heard presentations from Code Studios and, furnished with colored markers, have sat around maps of the area making notes and suggestions.
The next step will be for Code Studios, which was paid $100,000 by the city to conduct its workshop series, to lay a final plan before city council for approval. Critics have maintained that the whole charrette process is window dressing and that the consultants’ own version of the form-based riverfront zoning code will be approved, thus allowing the city to govern riverfront development with an iron hand. (As opposed to traditional zoning codes, which are usually guidelines, form-based codes, once adopted, become law.)
Not the least of form based code’s benefits to the city is that it will, on adoption, increase by twentyfold the amount of land the city may develop — from 50,000 to one million square feet.
The New Belgium Factor
In 2012 New Belgium, headquartered in Fort Collins, Colorado, officially announced that it would be locating its east coast manufacturing and distribution headquarters in Asheville, locating its $144 million brewing operation on Craven Street at the confluence of three Asheville residential neighborhoods. Buncombe County at once paid New Belgium $8.5 in incentives and the city kicked in $3.5 million plus extensive improvements to Craven Street. It will be seven years before either sees a return on its investment in the form of tax revenue.
New Belgium, the eighth largest brewery in the U.S., is known for its aggressive marketing, which includes actively engaging in community projects, and politics as well. Analysts say the coming of New Belgium doubtless played an important part in the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s selection of Asheville to receive a $14.6 million TIGER grant for street improvements along a 2.2-mile stretch of Riverside Drive. And that award, in turn, accomplished two things: It jump-started operation of the Asheville Area Riverfront Redevelopment Commission (AARRC) and it turned that section of riverfront property into a Monopoly board.
The AARRC comes to life
Founded in 2008-9, the AARRC had been in limbo, deciding from month to month and year to year what its scope and purposes should be and drawing up a master development plan which it had no idea it would be able to initiate, when – bang! – word came of the bestowing of the TIGER VI grant. Suddenly the AARRC had access to money – and city council’s full attention. In virtually no time the AARRC’s plans came off the table and went into the works, morphing into a vision which includes at least one riverfront hotel as well as condominiums and retail space. The city, which holds the purse strings, turned the Commission into a hybrid organization – autonomous internally, yet liaised with the city via the oversight of former urban planner Stephanie Monson Dahl, now retitled AARRC Director.
(Dahl’s husband, Darren, is a free-lance writer who says, “I chronicle the growth of New Belgium Brewing, a leading craft brewery” for such publications as Forbes magazine. It is not clear whether Dahl is on retainer to New Belgium or to Forbes, but his New Belgium features are ongoing. )
The AARRC is comprised of 14 members, “2 members appointed by the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, with one being a County Commissioner; 5 members appointed by City Council, with one being a City Council member; 2 members appointed by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce; 2 members appointed by RiverLink; 2 members appointed by the Council of Independent Business Owners; and 1 member appointed by the Woodfin Town of Aldermen. Each appointing body shall ensure that at least one half of their appointees are an owner 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.”
AARRC members who are riverfront property owners include Commission Chairman Pattiy Torno, an artist and the owner of Curve Studios on Riverside Drive; Joe Ferikes, who is also attorney for the Town of Woodfin; commercial realtor and developer George Morosani; Karl Koon, president of Sea-Nic enterprises; Ricky Silver, CEO of Silver Line Plastics; and Pam Turner, CEO of Mills Manufacturing Company.
In early June, the city sent letters to all of the 33 businesses and individuals who own property along the Riverside Drive corridor, notifying them that the city would be using eminent domain to take all or part of those properties and outlining compensation plans and owners’ rights of appeal. In some quarters this action immediately generated charges of insider trading and conflict of interest, as AARRC members who are also riverfront property owners had prior knowledge of the city’s intent; however legal experts have hesitated to confirm whether acting on such foreknowledge would actually be illegal.
The Tribune asked AARRC chair Torno what the rationale had been when the AARRC included the provision in its bylaws that half its members should be property owners. Torno said she didn’t recall exactly how that measure was introduced but said, “I have a recollection of Jerry Sternberg suggesting this proviso during a public meeting to discuss the formation of the AARRC @ All Souls Episcopal Church (in 2009? not sure about the date).” The Tribune was unable to reach Sternberg by press time.
With the meteoric rise of riverfront plans — to the tune of an estimated quarter billion dollars’ worth of government, corporate and private development money – attention has been called to connections among New Belgium, the city, AARRC and parties waiting in the wings. Outright conspiracy theories have not materialized, but social media outlets have picked up on such factoids as:
Shannon Tuch, the city’s Director of Development Services, which is involved in the riverside planning process, is married to David Tuchs, President of Equinox Planning and Design, the consulting firm charged with designing the French Broad River Greenway Westbank Extension, opposite the New Belgium facility.
Steve Ahn, former Senior Project Manager and Purchasing Manager for FLS Energy, is now the Facilities Manager and Construction Manager for New Belgium’s new facility. County Commissioner Brownie Newman, who serves on AARRC, is Vice President of FLS.
Josh Awtry, Executive Editor of the Asheville Citizen Times, came to the Asheville paper from the Fort Collins Coloradan.