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Last night at council: Project Aspire mixed-use development approved after hours of debate

One Oak Plaza, located on the northern cusp of downtown, is where Project Aspire will build.
Photo by BPR News
One Oak Plaza, located on the northern cusp of downtown, is where Project Aspire will build.

When about 100 people gathered to debate the future of a 1.1 million square foot parcel of land on the northern edge of downtown, every seat was taken and dozens of other residents sat in the overflow room. The community members weighed in on the proposal for Project Aspire at last night’s Asheville City Council before a 5-2 vote in favor of a conditional zoning approval.

The vote paved the way for a mixed-use development that includes housing, a 20-story hotel, office and commercial space, and a brand-new YMCA.

Council also considered measures on the Pack Square Plaza Vision plan and the joint equity audit of the city and county.

The city council chamber holds around 70 people, meaning dozens had to watch in the overflow room.
BPR News
The city council chamber holds around 70 people, meaning dozens had to watch in the overflow room.

Project Aspire gets green light 

The controversial Project Aspire development proposal returned to council for the second time this month. Council members heard from nearly 40 residents during public comment.

In response to hours of feedback received at the last meeting, including parking, short-term rental use, sustainability, the size of the hotel, and impact on the nearby East End - Valley Street neighborhood,the developers made the following changes to the project plans:

  • A decrease in parking spaces from 2,000 to 1,800
  • The addition of EV charging stations in proposed parking garages
  • A commitment to “ongoing dialogue and collaboration” with the East End community 
  • 50% of the proposed 80-130 affordable units will be designated for voucher holders
  • Compliance with the city’s short-term rental prohibition
  • The development will have public access and no privacy gates 
  • Inclusion of an outreach program for Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprise 

Notably, the project did not concede on the height of the hotel – a sticking point for many, especially the historically Black East End community. As proposed, the project is authorized to become the tallest hotel in Asheville.

The First Baptist Church and YMCA of WNC partnered with Furman Co. for Project Aspire.
BPR News
The First Baptist Church and YMCA of WNC partnered with Furman Co. for Project Aspire.

Councilwoman Antanette Mosley questioned the developers’ commitment to dialogue with the East End community.

“How can the [East End] community be assured that their input can be heeded when from the very beginning their request to lessen the height of the hotel has been dismissed?” she asked.

Steve Navarrao, president of Furman Co., the developer on the project, spoke to the “track records” of the YMCA and the First Baptist Church.

“I don't know how we give assurances other than to say this church and this YMCA are invested in this community,” he said.“They're invested in relationships. They're vested specifically in relationships with the East End.”

The decision to not lower the hotel is “complicated,” he said, noting the project asked for the maximum and the hotel could end up being less than 20 stories. “Each of these [buildings] will come back to staff to be looked at individually,” he added.

Mosley maintained that the East End community wants “more than a conversation” and that she’s “never seen a single instance where people who purport to support racial equity have ever, if they are part of a majority community, have ever deferred to the wishes of a marginalized community, if those desires are in direct opposition to what the majority community wants.”

Watch the full exchange at 52:47. 

After several hours, council approved Project Aspire’s conditional zoning request 5-2, with Kim Roney and Mosley voting no.

“I do intend to vote yes, but it is going to be like heartburn,” said councilwoman Sheneika Smith (3:09:10), maintaining that, if possible, the city and developers should push for the reduction of the height of the hotel.

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

Pack Square Plaza also gets thumbs up 

Council also approved the city’s vision for an upgraded Pack Square Plaza, a plan with 10 focus areas, including new crosswalks and traffic patterns, added space for civic engagement, and the addition of an “active cultural corridor” that connects the park with The Block.

Mayor Esther Manheimer noted that the base of the remaining Vance Monument is still pending a decision from the NC Supreme Court and that oral arguments on whether or not to remove the base will be heard on November 1.

Operation: Cease the Harm

Brenda Mills, the city’s equity and inclusion director, shared an update on the Cease the Harm audit, which began work in August. The audit is a joint project from the city and county to identify and “assure the cessation of harms” to Asheville’s Black community.

The Miami-based Carter Development Group is leading the audit and expects to wrap in February 2024. The total cost of the audit was $174,375, which was split equally by the city and county.

After the presentation, Mills, who will retire at the end of the year, was recognized with WCU’s Master of Public Affairs Alumni of the Year award. Mills has served the city for 18 years as a project manager, economic development specialist, and founding member of the Reparations Commission.

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.