Development booms in Asheville River Arts District and surroundings, with 230 new apartments, a new campground, a Black-owned business center, a boutique hotel and more
All the growth begs a critical question: will artists get pushed out of arts district?
This story sponsored by Citizens Fuel Co., a family-owned Asheville company.
Asheville River Arts District projects that will bring 237 new apartments, a new campground, a boutique hotel and a one-stop shop featuring local Black-owned businesses to the area were featured in a development update last week sponsored by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and Allen Stahl + Kilbourne law firm of Asheville.
A chatty crowd filled the Cloud Room of Wedge at Foundation’s brewery last week (March 24) to hear a panel of speakers deliver the updates, a talk that also included some back-and-forth about another critical question: what’s the city doing to make sure artists can afford to live and work in the River Arts District?
Last spring, city officials celebrated the end of a multi-million dollar infrastructure project that took about 5 years and $50 million to complete. The result - greenways, sidewalks, bike lanes and stormwater management improvements making the 2-mile stretch of Riverside Drive and Lyman Street running along the French Broad River a more inviting destination for riverfront redevelopment. The area, once home to major industrial uses, saw those businesses gradually die. Working artists started moving in, and new development has followed.
Now the River Arts District is poised to take off. Here’s a look at the development spotlighted at the Wedge gathering:
River Arts Apartments, 146 Roberts St.
This big mixed-use project was known as RAD Lofts when developer Harry Pilos first sought city approval for it in 2013. Pilos received Asheville City Council’s approval, then returned a handful of times seeking amendments as he struggled to put together financing. Pilos ended up selling the project to Raleigh-based Woodfield Development in December 2021. The developer is now preparing the site, known locally as the old Dave Steel Co. property.
Here are the development basics, from a story I wrote last year: The development calls for between 230 and 245 residential units, with 14,000 to 20,000 square feet of retail space and a 358-space parking deck. (A surface parking lot on Roberts Street would add up to another 40 parking spaces.) There will be parking deck entrances off both Roberts and Clingman. An “urban open space plaza” is part of the design, with ground-level retail space along Roberts and residential uses along Clingman. The streetscape will include public art attached to the building, as well as benches, signage and creative screening on the parking deck openings.
In previous meetings with River Arts District groups, Brian Schick of Woodfield Development has said the project would have 237 units and 16,000 square feet of retail space along Roberts Street. The parking deck will contain at least 80 spaces for public use, he has said, with the parking entrance for the public coming off Roberts Street, which will be raised up during the construction process. South Carolina-based CF Evans Construction is the general contractor on the project, he said.
The first phase of construction will be to replace an older sewer pipe running underneath the construction site with a new 72-inch pipe, Schick told the Wedge crowd. That work will take about a year to complete. The rest of the construction will take about another year, he said.
Schick said he’s heard from a number of River Arts District artists and businesses concerned about road closures during construction. He told the Asheville Area Riverfront Redevelopment Commission recently that his company had come up with a plan that would keep traffic moving one way along Roberts Street. Traffic would flow downhill (from north to south), according to the plan.
A key to the construction staging is Woodfield Development’s plan to buy the old stone yard property nearby at 175 Lyman St., Schick said. About five years ago, Asheville City Council approved a different developer’s plan for about 130 apartments and commercial space there, but the developer never moved forward.
Schick told the Wedge crowd that Woodfield Development is under contract to buy the stone yard property and would seek a new conditional use zoning permit to develop it. The plan: build double the number of apartments initially approved - 260 units - on top of two full levels of parking, with retail space. Woodfield Development plans to seek city land use incentive grants to provide affordable units on the site, Schick said. He didn’t specify how many units would be deemed affordable, or at what level of affordability. (The previous development plan was approved with no affordable units.)
In response to a question about the future of a large, derelict building on the stone yard property, Schick said it’s probably going to be demolished. The building is already falling down, and demolition would help facilitate construction staging for the River Arts Apartments project, he said.
Black Wall Street AVL, 8 River Arts Place
Last fall, Asheville City Council awarded business partners J. Hackett and Bruce Waller a lease ($1 a year) for the 1930s-era building at 8 River Arts Place to showcase local Black-owned businesses, an effort dubbed Black Wall Street AVL. The building was renovated by the city in 2017 with a vision for it to become an “arts and culture information portal,” according to a city press release announcing the lease agreement. The new plan is for the building to be home to a retail shop that will sell the products and services offered by Black-owned businesses. The space will also be home to interactive displays highlighting Asheville’s Black business history. The space will be available to rent for events, according to the press release.
Hackett, who opened Grind AVL coffee shop on nearby Depot St. in 2020, told the Wedge group that Black Wall Street AVL had 74 local Black-owned businesses signed up to participate. He punctuated his talk by reminding listeners of the hundreds of African-American homes and businesses in the nearby Southside neighborhood lost to the city’s so-called “urban renewal” process. “Urban renewal is what we’re overcoming,” he said.
Wrong Way River Lodge and Cabins, Amboy Road
Shelton Steele, co-founder of Wrong Way River Lodge and Cabins, told the Wedge crowd that the new campground featuring 16 A-frame cabins and a lodge under construction along Amboy Road is on track to open this summer. I detailed his plans in a story last year. With the campground right across Amboy Road from a city greenway and the French Broad River, the idea is to give people a place to stay but point them to recreational activities and other places in the area to “activate people that come to town in a different way,” Steele said.
The Radical hotel, 95 Roberts St. and 109 Roberts St.
Amy Kelly of the Atlanta-based commercial real estate development firm Hatteras Sky, hit the highlights of this project, which will encompass the massive building at 95 Roberts St., known as the Kent Building, as well as the adjacent Phil Mechanic Building at 109 Roberts St. She spiced up her presentation with a series of colorful architectural renderings.
A 70-room boutique hotel called The Radical is coming together at 95 Roberts St., Kelly said. The idea is to make the space inviting to visitors and locals alike by having the hotel rooms feel “incidental to the site” and locate the hotel reception area off in a corner. The project includes retail space and three restaurants. The restaurants, including an Israeli street-food eatery, are all being programmed by Asheville restauranteur Jacob Sessoms of Table restaurant.
A green roof with active spaces is also planned, Kelly said. Green space between the two buildings will be developed, too, she said.
At the Phil Mechanic Building, plans call for a “wellness-oriented” use on the bottom level, with event space, a restaurant, and other space designated with a use that’s yet to be determined, Kelly said. One level of the building could be devoted to artists, Kelly said.
Note: Hatteras Sky is also building a boutique hotel along Biltmore Avenue in downtown Asheville that encompasses three old buildings that are being restored and renovated. The hotel is called Zelda Dearest, a nod to author, artist and Roaring ‘20s icon Zelda Fitzgerald and her husband, author F. Scott Fitzgerald. The local connection to Zelda Fitzgerald is grim: she was a psychiatric patient of Asheville’s Highland Hospital over a 12-year period and died there along with eight others when a fire ripped through the facility in March 1948.
Odds and ends
The panel discussion included Stephanie Monson Dahl, the city of Asheville’s urban design and place strategies manager and former riverfront development manager, who spoke about a couple of specific projects in the River Arts District area, as well as long-range prospects for the area.
First, a couple of specifics:
The North Carolina Department of Transportation plans to install a guardrail along the small, aging bridge at the corner of Amboy Road and where Lyman Street and Meadow Road meet to protect pedestrians from traffic, Monson Dahl said to a round of applause. As it is now, the narrow walkway is dangerous for pedestrians.
At nearby French Broad River Park, the Buncombe County Metropolitan Sewerage District plans to replace the pump station there next year. The pump station simply isn’t big enough to handle all the wastewater headed its way, Monson Dahl said. “That construction will hurt a little bit.”
Construction on the greenway on the west side of the French Broad River that will connect French Broad River Park to New Belgium Brewing continues, said Monson Dahl, who also took a moment to note that it has been 10 years since Colorado-based New Belgium picked Asheville as the site for its second brewing operation. It went unmentioned in this meeting, but New Belgium is growing: it is building out an expansion its riverfront deck and outdoor beer garden, and it is significantly expanding its brewing capacity.
Kit Cramer, president and CEO of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and Wedge event moderator, asked Monson Dahl to talk a bit about the future of riverfront revitalization. Monson Dahl responded with three topics:
Water quality: The community will come together to do more to improve and protect the French Broad River’s water quality, Monson Dahl said. Water quality will be a new emphasis for the Asheville Area Riverfront Redevelopment Commission, she said.
Swannanoa River Road greenway project: Monson Dahl issued a “call to action” regarding plans to build a greenway along Swannanoa River Road. The corridor is constrained by existing development and “we will have to make tough choices” about the project, she said. Swannanoa River Road itself will need significant repair work to keep it from being undercut by river erosion. The call to action, she expounded, is for the community to decide whether the city should spend public dollars on a greenway here when it is facing other pressing issues, such as increasing affordable housing and attracting jobs, Monson Dahl said.
What’s next: The type of growth and development happening in the River Arts District will spread out through the community, Monson Dahl said, as residents embrace “creative commerce, riverfront recreation and equitable commerce.” In 20 years time, the development that essentially ends at the White Duck Taco restaurant location and Salvage Station music venue will extend at least all the way north to the Metropolitan Sewerage District plant location in Woodfin, she said. Looking southward, Monson Dahl posited that “Norfolk Southern Railroad might not be here in 20 years,” which could open up the Biltmore Estate to new growth and an entirely new entrance. Development will also keep building south as Buncombe County officials continue plans to build a greenway that stretches all the way to Lake Julian. In addition, Monson Dahl envisioned a civically engaged populace that would make sure all the outdoor recreation and riverfront development happening now would remain protected as the N.C. Department of Transportation finally starts work on the massive road project known as the Interstate 26 Connector.
The future of artists in the River Arts District
After their presentations, the panelists took questions. The most pointed queries centered on questions of affordability and prospects for artists. As one woman put it: “Are there still going to be artists here in 20 years?”
Schick of Woodfied Development said that in other developments he’s worked on, he’s made of point of trying to make sure there’s housing for artists, as well as “micro-retail” opportunities for artists. The goal is the same in Asheville, he said.
Kelly of Hatteras Sky said her company, which is focused on historic preservation, is working with local artists to include them in elements of The Radical hotel. “We don’t want to erase the arts focus of this neighborhood.”
Monson Dahl said, “There are more artists in the RAD than there ever have been.” She added that more artists than ever own their own buildings in the district. There needs to be some thought now toward solutions that would keep those buildings artist-owned as current owners get older and start thinking about selling, she added.
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