Critics weigh in on Asheville Mall redevelopment

Mar 18, 2019

Asheville City Council delayed action on approving a redevelopment proposal for a section of the Asheville Mall that includes the now defunct Sears building. The $45 million dollar project would include retail space, a movie theater and more than 200 units of housing.

Critics of the project say it lacks the streetscape and infrastructure needs of the area, as well as for the anticipated addition of new residents.

The redevelopment plan reflects a national trend that’s been called the “death” of American shopping malls. It even has its own hashtag -- #deadmall. Suburban retail has largely fallen out of style in the last decade, due to increasing online sales and a generational shift toward walkable, urban communities. That’s left many cities including Asheville facing the question of how to repurpose massive vacant department stores, like Sears on Tunnel Rd.

“Obviously Tunnel Road needs to change its feel, and that’s something that a private developer is not going to do. They’re not going to take on a streetscape project,” Joseph Minicozzi principal of Urban3, an Asheville-based consulting firm, said. “If we can look back and look and learn from Asheville, downtown didn’t convert itself until the municipality stepped forward  and did the bigger projects to lay the groundwork for that urban infill.”

The Council last week delayed its vote to Apr. 23, citing concerns about infrastructure and its impact on an adjacent neighborhood. The most pointed critique came from Councilman Keith Young, who’s requesting a larger portion of the housing units be made affordable. He directed his comment at the developer Seritage.

“The chairman of your company is also the chairman of Sears; I don’t think it’s far-fetched to ask you to be able to provide affordable housing on the same spot you’ve taken jobs away from people and didn’t even pay a living wage to,” Young said.

Another urban planner has concerns about the residential aspect of the plan. Abigail Emison, a planner and consultant for Vita Nuova, says the proposal is car-centric, lacking bus stops and sidewalks necessary to “connect the pieces.”

“If one of those residents wants to cross the road and go to Whole Foods, they’re taking their life into their own hands,” Emison said. “For them to have to get into their car just to cross the street is ridiculous.”

Emison, however, says she thinks it’s a good sign to see interest in mall redevelopment, particularly for one that’s close to downtown.

Minicozzi says the city should be looking at redevelopment in the same way a farmer looks at crop yields. But instead of tomatoes per acre, it’s tax revenues and jobs. For instance Minicozzi points to a redevelopment project from a decade ago, the old JC Penney building on Haywood St. downtown.

“That building produces $634,000 in taxes per acre. And that old Penney’s building downtown will fit in most people’s front yards,” Minicozzi said.

The building sits on two-tenths of an acre, but generates nearly 100 times more retail and property tax revenue than a 34-acre Walmart supercenter. Minicozzi says that retailer typically generates about 65-hundred dollars per acre.

“For a city like Asheville, that’s doing spectacularly well from an urban standpoint, we’ve got a lot of blessings but our curse is we’re not replicating that. We should be building mini-downtowns, like smaller versions, if you think of West Asheville. Haywood in West Asheville feels like a mini-downtown but it’s also very productive from a taxable standpoint.”

That’s a concept he says Asheville should consider as it gives the mall redevelopment plan a second look.