Developers appear to be calling all of the shots in Asheville, North Carolina’s River Arts district.
The Back Story of the River Arts District
Asheville’s River Arts District (“the RAD”) runs along the east bank of the French Broad River a mile or so from downtown.
It once had no name but was an area of light industry and warehouses that in recent decades had fallen into disuse and neglect, a haven for drug trafficking, prostitution, and vagrancy. But beginning in the 1990’s artists and craftspeople began renting the semi-derelict properties for next-to-nothing and turning them into makeshift studios and galleries.
Before long the area became an informal but well-defined creative colony. Ever trend-sensitive, the City of Asheville in 2004 began branding the riverfront as the River Arts District.
In 2014 Asheville received a $14.6 million federal TIGER grant for street and infrastructure improvements. This spawned the RAD’s Transportation Improvement Project (RADTIP) with the city budgeting $50 million for greenways, bike paths and other amenities there, as well as using eminent domain to buy up riverfront properties along the way.
Several property owners have objected – some by lawsuit – and many residents consider the plan a taxpayer burden and a waste of money that could be spent alleviating Asheville’s affordable housing crisis and living-wage job shortage.
This opinion was strengthened recently when updated figures showed the planned RADTIP with a projected cost overrun of $26 million, in what has been called the biggest financial boondoggle in recent Asheville history.
The city was therefore grateful to announce that two outside developers would be bringing projects to the RAD: one a boutique hotel and the other a large-scale apartment complex. But …
In late October, Charlotte investment company White Point Partners presented city council with its plans for turning the 1920’s-era Kent Building on the edge of the RAD into a 70-room luxury hotel with restaurant and retail space, as well as a possible rooftop bar.
Jay Levell, a co-founder of White Point Partners, said his firm has “been able to partner with a really cool boutique hotel group in the northeast” that specializes in adapting historic structures.
He declined to name the builder, but the trail of bread crumbs seemed to lead to the door of Lark Hotels, of Newburyport, Massachusetts, an aggressive and relatively new player in the boutique hotel industry (Lark did not reply to phone and email requests for confirmation.)
In his presentation, Levell said, “We want to keep everything as local as possible, to keep the character & fabric of the RAD; we want to have local retail, a local restaurant, we want to support the area.” But when by council members as to whether the hotel would be committed to paying employees a living wage he back pedaled.
“I really can’t make that commitment,” Levell said. He also hedged when asked if the hotel planned to make public any of its on-site or adjacent parking spaces.
The hotel project dismayed affordable housing advocates. In 2013 a group of private citizens purchased the Kent building for $2.2 million and said it would be turning the structure into affordable apartments.
“They got all kinds of conditional zoning permit changes because they were going to do all of this fancy stuff,” said local marketing consultant Mari Peterson. “Instead, they’ve ended up flipping it to [White Point]”.
Next up: the apartment builders who are siting their 133-unit complex in the middle of a flood plain and say they can’t afford to make any of the units “affordable housing” … because they’re building in a flood plain.
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In June, Saluda-based developers Altinvest unveiled plans to construct a four-building apartment complex – 133 units in all – in the middle of the RAD, on the site of the old JR Stoneyard.
The Stoneyard Apartments complex will also embrace turning an adjacent structure, the former Carolina Coal and Ice building, into parking and ten “affordable” artists’ studios, plus a restaurant. The rent, Altinvest said, would range from $750 for a studio apartment to $1,400 for a two-bedroom.
Almost immediately a majority of council members said informally that they would require a percentage of the apartment units – 26 was eventually the designated number – to be set aside as “affordable housing” with rents adjusted downward accordingly.
But Stoneyard stonewalled.
Altinvest principal David LaFave said his company wanted the project “to stand on its own merits” and added that there was no leeway in its budget for rent reductions considering the financial risk associated with building in a flood plain.
In that case, then-Councilman Gordon Smith suggested, Altinvest should sweeten the pot by contributing $750,000 to the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund. No response.
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Later Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler announced she had crunched some density and city subsidy numbers and concluded that $175,000 would be a suitable contribution to extract from Altinvest.
Altinvest countered with a nose-thumbing $50,000. And no affordable units.
Some pro-project business owners in the RAD touted the “overall public benefit” the upscale apartments and hotel would bring to the district. But, said one Ashevillian, “It’s hard to give a crap about public benefits when you don’t have a place to live,”