Asheville – Before COVID, whether approaching from the west or the south, it typically took two to three long cycles to pass through the traffic light at the intersection of Sand Hill Road and Smokey Park Highway. Now, a last-mile fulfillment center is planned for the former BASF site. Designs call for 278 employee parking spaces and 696 spaces for vans, which will be making one or two trips, in and out, per day. In addition, about 16 semi-trucks would be delivering shipments to the facility daily. The developer’s representative, Brian Hall, said the traffic study had been completed three weeks ago, but the response from the North Carolina Department of Transportation would not be received until January 19, which were not available as of press time.
The rules the North Carolina General Assembly adopted for remote public meetings held during a state-declared state of emergency, which apply to Asheville City Council’s decision to meet via Zoom for the duration of the pandemic, require written comment to be accepted up to 24 hours after the meetings, so bodies cannot vote on a matter the same evening as the appurtenant hearing. That means the NC DOT’s assessment of how badly the new facility will impact traffic will be available in time for the council to talk amongst themselves before voting; but, like so many opportunities for public comment anymore, the time to weigh in will have passed before the data is made available. The few who did speak during public comment, however, were well-spoken, like Hall, and very good at cramming unduplicated facts into their allotted three minutes.
Planner Shannon Tuch explained the history of the property’s zoning, and Councilmembers Kim Roney and Sage Turner expressed concern that the project could prevent affordable housing from being built on that site. To that, Hall said because of the assessment of onsite contamination, the brownfields agreement for the property specifically banned residential development, and further, Assistant City Manager Cathy Ball added the property is deed-restricted to prevent residential development.
Construction would “disturb” 31.7 acres of remediated brownfield for a 48-foot, one-story structure taking in 130,000 square feet. Attention was paid to how the developer will treat stormwater runoff and how he is constructing sidewalks throughout the property as well as providing easements for what will become the Enka Heritage Trail. In addition to connecting Smoky Park Highway and Sand Hill and Enka Lake roads, the greenways will provide walkable shortcuts to Enka Intermediate School, Bob Lewis Ballpark, and the Buncombe County Sports Park.
Continuing the greenwash, Hall said the site will be the first to honor the city’s Tree Canopy Protection Ordinance. The site is currently deforested, but the developer would reforest about 10% of the track and pay a fee-in-lieu for the other 10% required. The fee would be somewhere around $500-$570 and be used to plant trees elsewhere in the city. At least 15% of the site will be protected open space.
To accommodate van traffic, a new road will be constructed and dedicated to the state. So, as with Smoky Park Highway and Sand Hill Roads, decisions about widening or installing and regulating traffic signals will be entirely up to the NC DOT. The roads will connect to what Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer referred to as the “infamous bridge.” A bridge to nowhere since 2016, Manheimer celebrated the fact it might finally get used. It had been funded with $2 million from the Appalachian Regional Commission; $1.3 million from the NC DOT; and $350,000 from the commerce park’s developer, Fletcher Partners. A lack of funding caused construction to stall, so last year, the Buncombe commissioners appropriated another $650,000 from the county’s general fund.
Hall explained the developer is spending about $3.5 million to run conduit for underground electrical connection to charging stations for each van parking space. He said the electric vans that would be used are not yet available but should be within two to three years. As they become available, conversion to an all-electric fleet would occur progressively. Also, the building was being constructed to support photovoltaics to power the charging stations as well as indoor operations to some degree. When Turner asked if he could commit to installing solar panels and using an all-electric fleet, Hall explained he was the guy trying to negotiate the rezoning, and it would be up to engineers to work out the technology. He was, however, able to say that management for the company that is expected to operate out of the site has “definitive plans” for those ends and has invested in the same preparations for similar projects.
From an economic development perspective, Tuch estimated the project, when complete, would generate about $130,000 in property taxes, which would more than offset what its operations would consume in city services. Hall said the facility would employ about 115 full-time employees, 50 part-time employees, and 190 contract delivery persons. A minimum wage of $15/hour would be paid to all, plus medical, dental, and vision benefits with no waiting period. To that, Turner pointed out that Just Economics had just announced the local living wage for 2021 is $15.80/hour with benefits or $17.30. “So, there’s an opportunity for a little entrepreneurship in there,” she concluded.
And, lastly, the clocktower will be preserved. While of sentimental value to members of the community, the tower does not have the protection of an official designation. Still, last year, the developers stated they were receptive to the public outcry and committed to working around the tower.