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Last night at council: Project Aspire vote delayed, Debra Campbell to stay on as city manager

Last night, Asheville City Council met for nearly four hours. They spent much of the meeting discussing the ins and outs of Project Aspire – a 10-acre mixed-use development just north of downtown that would include housing, office space, a brand-new YMCA, and a 20-story tall hotel. Decisions were also made about the panhandling ordinance, emergency shelter beds, and the contract renewal of Asheville’s city manager Debra Campbell.

Portrait of Debra Campbell, City Manager of Asheville.

Debra Campbell to stay on as city manager  

Debra Campbell, who has served as Asheville’s city manager since 2018, will continue in the role as Asheville’s city manager for at least another two years. At the very start of last night’s council meeting, the Mayor announced the news, saying “the council has worked together to set goals and priorities with the manager as we move into the two-year renewal period beginning December 2023.” See the full statement.

A sketch from the conceptual masterplan submitted to the City of Asheville lays out the plan that includes a new YMCA, hotel, parking deck, green space/park, office space, and retail.
Furman Co.
A sketch from the conceptual masterplan submitted to the City of Asheville lays out the plan that includes a new YMCA, hotel, parking deck, green space/park, office space, and retail.

Project Aspire takes a beat 

After a hearing from the developers about the Project Aspire development that lasted nearly two hours — and much confusion on the nuances of the project’s parking, bike lane, and hotel specifications — the vote was continued to September 26. For the 20 residents who signed up for public comment, that meant their opportunity to speak was also put off until the next city council meeting.

YMCA of Asheville and First Baptist Church of Asheville are the developers of Project Aspire, a 1.1 million sqft mixed-use development just north of downtown Asheville. While they wanted to receive a conditional zoning permit, members of council — especially Maggie Ulman, Antanette Mosley, Kim Roney, and Sage Turner — expressed ongoing reservations about the project. Concerns included the height of the hotel, the number of parking spaces, the absence of a bike lane, and lack of a separate storefront for the hotel building (a requirement for any hotel project in the city).

Project Aspire is perched right on the northern tip of downtown on Woodfin St.
Screen grab courtesy of City of Asheville
Project Aspire is perched right on the northern tip of downtown on Woodfin St.

The scope of the project involves five buildings, including a brand-new YMCA, 400-650 residential units, 165-300 hotel rooms, and 133,000-250,000 sqft of commercial and office space. If approved, 20% of the residential units would be designated affordable for those earning 80% or less of the AMI. The project also calls for two parking garages of 1,700 total spaces.

  • Building 1: six stories tall with YMCA space, residential, and retail.
  • Building 2: 20 stories tall with hotel/lodging.
  • Building 3: six stories tall with office and commercial.
  • Building 4: 19 stories tall with residential and commercial.
  • Building 5: six stories tall with residential and commercial.

Mosley said that while she believed much of the proposal was reasonable, a sticking point for her was the height of the proposed 19-story and 20-story structures.
“Buildings of that height are disproportionate to the aesthetic and character of the community. I won’t speak for members of the East End community, but it’s my belief that the height is a sticking point for them. My request is that you consider a 15-story maximum,” she said.

Robert Poppleton, one of the four developers present at the meeting, maintained that the heights of the buildings were consistent with zoning. He also said the hotel would be an “economic facilitator for all other elements of the project.”

“I do wish the hotel was a housing development, all due respect,” Turner added. “Something that could become the tallest hotel just needs a little more scrutiny.”

Ullman, who critiqued the number of parking spots for the project as well as the evolving list of zoning requirements, said she needed more time to sit with the plan.

“I believe in this vision,” she said. “It’s just gotten very muddied.”

New panhandling ordinance approved 

Council voted unanimously to approve updates to the city’s panhandling ordinance. According to city attorney Brad Branham, these changes had to be made to adapt to changes in federal law. Changes to the ordinance include excluding transactions between family members and mutual acquaintances and setting the boundary for a second request to eight feet.

43 new emergency shelter beds, 45 more preserved

City council sealed the deal on adding 43 new emergency shelter beds to serve the city’s vulnerable populations, voting unanimously to allot $875,000 in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to support the work of three area shelters: The Salvation Army of Asheville & Buncombe County, Haywood Street Congregation, and Safe Shelter.

These funds, which match the $875,000 in ARPA funds that Buncombe County contributed last week, will also preserve 45 existing emergency beds at The Salvation Army that were at risk of closure.

 Pack Square Park in July 2023
BPR News
Pack Square Park is a focal point for demonstrations, art projects, and events in downtown Asheville.

Other tidbits

  • Urban planner Mitchell Silver presented a formal rundown of the Pack Square Plaza Vision Plan, which released its draft plan in late July. See BPR’s recent coverage for more details on what the plan entails. The plan will return to the agenda for a public hearing and vote on September 26.
  • As part of the city manager’s report, IT Services Director Holly Barham announced that Asheville has migrated its entire GIS infrastructure to a cloud system. This upgrade aims to improve access to maps and other public data.

Every second and fourth Tuesday, Asheville City Council meets at the Council Chamber on the 2nd Floor of City Hall, 70 Court Plaza beginning at 5:00 p.m. See the full recording of the September 12 meeting and the action agenda.

Laura Hackett joined Blue Ridge Public Radio in June 2023. Originally from Florida, she moved to Asheville more than six years ago and in that time has worked as a writer, journalist, and content creator for organizations like AVLtoday, Mountain Xpress, and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. She has a degree in creative writing from Florida Southern College, and in 2023, she completed the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY's Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms program. In her free time, she loves exploring the city by bike, testing out new restaurants, and hanging out with her dog Iroh at French Broad River Park.