A developer had intended to construct a 48-unit apartment complex with a two-level parking garage on a 0.55 acre plot. The developer brought the project before the board to request a variance on the UDO’s streetwall stepback requirement.
Citizen Inge Durre and a dozen others were concerned about the imperiled old growth on the South Slope. It included eighty-some 100-year-old oak trees. The small forest was celebrated as being a natural greenspace, with greenery so tall it could be seen framing buildings from various parts of town. It was habitat to beautiful songbirds. Durre explained the six-story complex would occupy almost the full acreage, being propped up by two-story retaining walls on two sides.
The project was happily making its way through the design review process. Concerned citizens had reached out to leadership in various organizations. All were either non-responsive, indifferent, or of the opinion they weren’t in a position to help.
Others who spoke indicated the small wooded area constituted 10 percent of trees downtown. One said Asheville was supposed to be a Tree City as well as a Beer City. There would be secondary economic impacts of removing the trees. Another implied there would be environmental hazards from the earth -moving. Yet another shared his belief that trees had rights and standing.
Activist Steve Rasmussen, high priest of Coven Oldenwilde, pointed out the small woods was “smack-dab” in the middle of a location the Downtown Master Plan said needed a greenspace. Rasmussen had been involved in the sit-in downtown staged to protect a single magnolia tree. He recalled how difficult it had been to save a single tree due to the city’s lack of consideration of the triple bottom line in its planning process.
Councilman Cecil Bothwell was sympathetic. He said he had watched the trees disappear since he moved to Asheville. He also recalled how the city planted trees across from the downtown post office only to have the county come in and tear them out for another project. The city definitely had room for improvement in the way it managed greenery. Bothwell was emphatic. “You can’t replace old trees. . . . It would be crazy to try recreate the woodland somewhere else.” Bothwell noted a lot of the city’s parks, like Pack Square, are actually largely paved.
Vice Mayor Marc Hunt recalled his work with acquiring eleven acres for the Hominy Park Greenway before he served on council. Citizens presented a proposal that was denied. The city didn’t accept the idea until proponents, in no small part led by Hunt, raised funds, and presented a concrete design. He said citizens proposing parks typically don’t realize their ideas come with an arduous fundraising effort.
Hunt said Councilman Chris Pelly had had a similar experience with Masters Park, a nine-acre tract in Haw Creek. Citizens had raised so much, the city only had to fund one-third of the cost. The same was true of Beaucatcher Overlook Park, which was a $1.5 million venture. The city only paid about twenty percent of costs for Pack Square Park, and Riverlink has acquired many tracts of land with no city funding. Carrier Park was largely donated.
“City leaders are not in the best position to go out and raise money,” he explained. The city had “other priorities that are really stretching us, now it feels like more than ever;” and added, “I’m frankly not comfortable with the proposition that the city figure out how to fund all of it or 90 percent of it. This really needs to be a community effort.”
Pelly had been holding conversation with the developer, who said he was willing to wait a couple weeks and consider a swap with city-owned land. He’d given city staff some PIN numbers to consider, and he was open to even taking a loss to open an opportunity for conservation. Pelly added the developer “understands the city wants affordable housing.”
Councilman Gordon Smith was somewhat skeptical about the affordable housing statement. Other developers had fallen through on their promises to Smith for affordable housing components. Smith also observed the little forest was in one of the city’s Innovation Districts, which is targeted for urban in-building and up-building. Once again, the city’s master plans were contradicting one another.
In the end, council directed City Manager Gary Jackson to work with the developer to negotiate a land-swap. Pelly and Hunt advised those in the audience to start fundraising.
In Other Public Comment –
Nick DiYorio, representing Chapter 124 of the Vietnam Veterans of America, asked members of city council for financial assistance for bringing the traveling Vietnam War memorial to Buncombe County. Honoring 152 local casualties, it was already in Swannanoa. A similar plea had been made before the Buncombe County Commissioners the week before. Then, a man named Spider told how some vets are too old or too disabled to visit the memorial in Washington, DC; and others refuse to talk about the war, leaving questions of their progeny unanswered.
DiYorio explained the vets had gone to festivals, held fundraising events, and written letters to friends and businesses. That said, they had only raised about half of the $25,000 required. They had hoped not to ask for government funding, but now they saw no other recourse.
A scheduled agenda item requested a $6000 match from the commissioners for funds to be raised by municipalities. The vote was unanimously in favor.
Commissioner Joe Belcher said, “I’m grateful for the opportunity to be able to support this and help spread the story to our children and grandchildren, and I appreciate your sacrifice.”
Mirand DeBruhl commented, “This has special meaning to me, so I just want to truly thank you all.”
Brownie Newman said seeing the wall in Washington, DC was a highlight of one of his daughters’ trips, and it opened conversations with his dad, who had served in the Air Force. He said the traveling wall was, “really special.”
Mike Fryar said he was in the Navy at the time, “picking up the Apollo off Hawaii.” He said he respected the fighters more and said of the vote, “It’s a pleasure. . . . Thank you for what you did in Vietnam.”
Back to the city council chambers, DiYorio was cut short by the buzzer, so he merely asked an unspecified donation. Following the proverbial chirping crickets, Mayor Esther Manheimer asked, “Is there anyone else wishing to speak?”