Affordable Housing Proves Too Costly - Again - TribPapers

Affordable Housing Proves Too Costly – Again

Aerial view of the site as-is. The skyscrapers would be about twice as tall as the Renaissance Hotel (lower left). Screenshot.

Asheville – Asheville City Council was asked to approve a transformational development with affordable housing. Right in the heart of downtown, taking up the entire block where the YMCA and First Baptist Church now stand, would be mixed-income housing with commercial space flanked by two skyscrapers: a 19-story apartment complex and a 20-story hotel. The YMCA would be revamped, and the church would remain as-is. Asheville’s design review process required city council’s approval for the proposal, and members of the board were counseled at their premeeting that they were legally restricted to evaluating only the appropriateness of the land use. Following a somewhat lengthy deliberation at their last meeting, council decided to continue the public hearing, not to get more information, not to further negotiations, but to “marinate.”

The proposed project would widen sidewalks along its perimeter and add tree grates and planting strips, and wide sidewalks would provide connectivity internal to the project. Cycletracks would be added along Charlotte and College streets, bus shelters would be added or upgraded to city standards, and 2,000 parking spaces would be constructed. No shops would be required on the first floor of the hotel front.

Principal Planner Will Palmquist explained that the last stipulation allowed lobbies, offices, gyms, and many other uses, but Councilwoman Sage Turner was disappointed. She had been led to believe the hotel would have shops for street activation. She recalled conversations where she was told, “If a hotel were to be built on a block that didn’t have any public uses on the bottom, it’s almost like an extraction of that parcel from the community.”

Councilwoman Maggie Ullman took issue with the 2,000 parking spaces. She said the last time she saw the plan, it called for 1,400 spaces, and she was struggling to see why that many were required. Mayor Esther Manheimer explained that the developer must provide a minimum number of parking spaces in order to convince financing institutions that construction plans for apartments are worth the risk of financing. The “going rate” was 1.25 spaces per unit. Then, parking was needed for the YMCA, the shops, and the hotel.

Actually, 2,000 was the maximum. “Nobody wants to build 2,000 parking spaces at $3,500 a pop,” said Steve Navarro, president and CEO of the Furman Company, which is developing the site. “So, if we can do less, we will do less.” Asked if he could build the parking areas for adaptive reuse, Navarro said he had already considered that, but it doubled the price of construction.

Turner also wanted terms added to the conditional zoning agreement that Manheimer considered equivalent to saying, “I agree to abide by the law.” Turner was quick to identify instances when projects did violate the law. In one instance, she wanted the developer to commit to prohibiting short-term rentals on the property. Navarro said he would commit to doing so as long as short-term rentals remain illegal. He said 20 years from now, there may be no such thing as a hotel, so they might make sense then. Manheimer added that the point could be moot because a bill, now working its way through the legislature, would annul any local ordinance restricting the operation of short-term rentals. Another duplicative term was a requirement that the developers not make the project an illegal gated community.

Councilwoman Antanette Mosley wanted conditions added to require the developer to have an ongoing dialogue with the East End neighborhood. She also wanted the skyscrapers to have fewer stories. To that, Navarro said he was in negotiations with the community, but the height was necessary in order to pay for the affordable housing units. To wit, Turner said she understood the need to subsidize housing, as many approved projects had been scuttled because they proved financially infeasible. She also, however, heard loud and clear that members of the public did not want hotels downtown.

Concerns were also expressed about a bike lane going through the project and the exact location of bike/ped pads. Councilwoman Sandra Kilgore said nobody was against bike lanes; the issue was whether or not the plan conformed with the city’s existing plans for bicycle routes. Kilgore said, “This project represents our comprehensive plan on steroids,” and she was very supportive. She added that by putting housing downtown, council was already facilitating the use of multimodal transportation, thus alleviating traffic.

This led to a conversation about the developer’s intention to seek public funding for the parking garage. This was the first time anybody on the board had heard about that, and it proved more than council was willing to process that night.