An empty lot that was once home to an old ice house on Riverside Drive has been identified as a top location for a mixed-use development that could be home to 80 units of affordable housing.

The lot was singled out after the Asheville-based Center for Craft (formerly known as the Center for Craft, Creativity and Design) and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce teamed up in 2015 to commission the Minneapolis-based nonprofit Artspace to do a study the feasibility of developing affordable housing for artists. Artspace, established in 1979, is nationally known as a nonprofit real estate developer that specializes in creating, owning, and operating affordable housing and studio space for artists and creative sector businesses.

Construction is at least a couple of years away, and the size of the final development could change. But the identification of the city-owned land at 81 through 91 Riverside Drive – the long-time heart of the city’s artist community known as the River Arts District – comes at a critical time. There’s ongoing concern about a shortage of affordable housing in Asheville. The worry is particularly acute in the River Arts District, which is seeing accelerating growth and development. (Most recently, Asheville City Council approved a 133-unit apartment complex in a former stone yard in the River Arts District, with no units deemed “affordable.”)

That development is being further fueled by a multi-million dollar infrastructure project that’s just getting underway. The infrastructure project will bring greenways, bike paths and road improvements to the RAD.

Mike Marcus, the Center for Craft’s assistant director for property development, says Artspace representatives met with about 200 community leaders, artists and others back in March. They also considered 10 properties before settling on the Riverside Drive location as its top pick and the recommendation of an 80-unit development. (The runner-up site identified was Murray Hill Park, a city-owned park off Bartlett Street.)

(What’s considered affordable? The income requirements haven’t been defined yet because this project is still early in the process, but people who will qualify to live in this development will have to have an income that falls within 30 to 60 percent (or possibly 30 to 80 percent) of area median income. The federal government calculates area median income through census data, and for a family of four, the latest number I saw from 2015 was just under $45,000. So a family with an annual income of between $13,500 and $36,000 could potentially qualify in this theoretical example.)

The next step in the process is an arts market survey, says Marcus. The survey will collect data similar to the data collected by a private developer doing a market analysis, according to Marcus. Results of the arts market survey will be shared so that other developers interested in similar projects can use it, he added. (Marcus credits Kitty Love, former director of the Asheville Area Arts Council, with putting Artspace on the radar of local officials, as well as trying to get a cultural asset survey funded. He also notes that the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina has been a key philanthropic partner in getting the survey funded.)

It’s critical that local residents participate, Marcus said. Earlier this week, Kit Cramer, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce, said public kick-off for the arts market survey would be held Jan. 25. It will be open to respondents for about eight weeks.

“The survey gives everyone a chance to be counted. I think it’s hugely important,” Marcus said. Anyone who considers themselves an artist or who works in the creative sector should take part, he added: “Poetry, culinary, theater, musicians; we’re really looking to reflect a broad spectrum.”

Anyone involved with businesses or other organizations in creative sectors should fill out the survey, too, Marcus said, adding that answers to survey questions are confidential and will be handled by a third-party research company.

In a press release, Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer, an early advocate of the project and member of the project’s core leadership group said “Artspace’s preliminary recommendation for an affordable housing development for artists in the River Arts District is exciting. I look forward working with our community partners to move this project forward.”

Other funding partners: City of Asheville, Ted and Senator Terry Van Duyn, Duke Energy Foundation, HomeTrust Bank, Dana and Jana Stonestreet, and Diamond Brand Gear.

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