Outgoing Councilor Gordon Smith observed it was ironic the first two projects the city would approve for the River Arts District would be a hotel and an apartment complex with no subsidized housing. Yet, council gave the go-ahead to Stoneyard Apartments, a 133-unit complex with a 247-space parking structure, to be built at the former site of JR Stone Sales and Carolina Coal and Ice.
The development will include four apartment buildings. Because it is in the flood plain, the ground floors will support parking. Developer David LaFave had successfully obtained a variance to put a restaurant on the ground floor of a fifth structure, the Carolina Coal and Ice building, because that building was solid, and most restaurant equipment is easily replaceable. Above the restaurant will be ten affordable working artist studios and a gallery-lobby.
Ordinarily, developers of large projects are required to provide sidewalks in front of their buildings, or if that does not make sense, they can pay a fee in-lieu. This development was exempt because the federal government will be paying for sidewalks in the River Arts District, but the developer decided to be a good sport and contribute $50,000 to the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund nonetheless.
Studio apartments were projected to cost $750-$800; one-bedroom apartments, $1100 and up; two bedroom apartments, $1300-$1400; and artist studios, $300-400. This did not sit well with citizens who called attention to Asheville’s ongoing affordable housing crisis and wanted the developer to commit to rent controls for low-income households. Todd Halliday said the $50,000 contribution was, “quite frankly, paltry,” and Casey Campfield said members of council would not be representing their constituents if they did not negotiate better terms from the developer.
Others spoke well of the project. They asked members of council to consider more goals for affordability, and for the city in general, than just subsidized housing. Hedy Fisher said people of all income levels need housing, and Cindy Weeks of Mountain Housing Opportunities had counted almost 1000 affordable housing units within a mile of the project already. Fisher said additional residents would support existing businesses and help with revitalization.
She and Pattiy Torno told how studios in the RAD had waiting lists. Torno said the district needed the quality studios the developer was going to provide, and his rents were, overall, “on the low end.” Matt Wallace said existing businesses needed parking immediately. The developer had committed to make 85 spaces public, and Councilor Julie Mayfield later calculated, at the going rate, it would cost the city $1.5 million to provide that much parking.
Councilor Cecil Bothwell, who has spent most of his adult life in the construction industry, found credible the developer’s claim that providing affordable units was not financially feasible. He suspected building parking facilities on the ground level to bring the housing out of the floodplain likely escalated costs enough to justify the developer’s request to build 46.2 units per acre instead of the allowable 35.
Bothwell’s peers, however, thought density bonuses should only be given to developers of affordable housing. It had, after all, been a couple years since council, guided by Marc Hunt, had an epiphany about the law of supply and demand.
Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler thought $175,000 would be a more appropriate contribution for the AHTF. She said she arrived at that number by multiplying the density the developer was asking as a percent of the “right-by use” by the city’s typical subsidy for affordable housing and adding the $50,000 offered.
Smith referred to the density bonus and waiving of the sidewalk requirement as public subsidies. “This is everybody chipping in,” he said, adding the city was setting a bad precedent. He felt the developers could make the buildings taller or the apartments smaller, maintain good aesthetics, and then “make the numbers work” for providing affordable housing.
Smith said, “If that isn’t a conversation that y’all can have at this point, then I would get behind Vice Mayor Wisler” in asking for $175,000, and he did. The project was approved 5-2, Wisler and Smith opposed.
Things That Make You Go Hmmm –
By way of their consent agenda, council unanimously approved the purchase of a virtual-reality simulator that creates the perception of drunk driving. Equipment and training would cost $43,000 and be funded by a grant from the North Carolina Governor’s Highway Safety Program. The machine is expected to reduce fatalities, deaths by motor vehicles in Buncombe County having spiked to 38 in 2015.
Council also accepted $402,331 from the NCGHSP to staff educational initiatives designed to reduce drunk driving. Activities include distributing literature; asking festivalgoers if they would be willing to forego driving if, while intoxicated, they believed their blood-alcohol levels exceeded legal limits; and operating blood-alcohol monitoring stations at events. The Asheville Police Department will administer both programs.