Jeff Bezos was a hot topic of discussion at last week’s Asheville City Council meeting.
No, Bezos doesn’t live in Asheville. Be he does own Amazon, which owns Whole Foods, which in turn owns Greenlife grocery store on Merrimon Avenue just north of downtown. Bezos is also the richest man alive. His vast business empire is valued at about $142 billion, give or take a stock market dip or two.
So how does Bezos factor into the City Council discussion? His name came up several times during a discussion of city resident Reid Thompson’s request for a rezoning so that he could use two residential properties he owns as short-term rentals. Thompson’s houses face the back side of Greenlife, where a narrow residential street separates his property from the busy grocery store loading dock area.
A couple of factors complicated Thompson’s request. First, he’s been warring with city officials over the Greenlife grocery store development since it was built 14 years ago. He’s been relentless in calling and (sometimes angrily) emailing city officials over the noise and truck traffic issues generated by loading dock activity that spills into the city street right in front of his property. At one point a few years ago, the city manager banned Thompson from entering City Hall without an escort, noting that some city staffers feared for their safety.
The other issue is that Thompson has been illegally renting out rooms in the two houses as short-term rentals. In so doing, he’s racked up nearly $1 million in city fines. City officials have cracked down on illegal short-term rentals over the past couple of years as they’ve struggled to alleviate a severe lack of affordable housing in town.
In making his plea for for the rezoning, Thompson turned the issue into a referendum on Greenlife and its nuisance of a loading dock. Thompson’s representative, urban planner Joe Minnicozzi, offered City Council a compelling presentation, complete with photos and video clips, showing both how the city violated its own rules in allowing the loading dock to be built as it is, and how the city then failed to enforce traffic and noise regulations around it.
All of that brings us back to Bezos.
During the public comment section of the discussion over Thompson’s request, resident Peter Landis stood and invoked the business titan’s name in suggesting that some public pressure be brought to bear.
“Greenlife is owned by the world’s richest person. Let me say that again. He’s the world’s richest person,” Landis said.
“We’re talking about Jeff Bezos. He’s worth $150 billion,” Landis continued. “You would think that perhaps, he, for the reputation of his company, would be willing perhaps to shed a few thousand dollars to try to work up a solution to make this happen.”
“I mean, there’s such a thing as public pressure, which I think that this council, this city, could put on Greenlife, on Whole Foods and on Jeff Bezos to come up with a solution,” he said.
Other speakers picked up on Landis’ sentiment.
“As someone mentioned about Jeff Bezos’ ownership of Whole Foods, please consider that, for many well-educated well-meaning citizens both in Asheville and beyond, one of the most painful and dire realities of life in this era is how the 99 percent get stepped on by the 1 percent,” resident Ben Huxley said. “I realize that’s kind of a cliche talking point, but we’re talking about a large, powerful company.”
Resident Joshua Comacho echoed earlier comments by stating simply: “I think people are more important than companies, flat out.”
Councilwoman Julie Mayfield weighed in with her summation, noting that decisions the city made regarding the construction of Greenlife’s loading dock “were wrong,” and she said she was “puzzled” as to why the issues around it had never been addressed. The city’s actions have “harmed,” to some degree, everyone on Maxwell Street, Mayfield said, and “that has caused distress and real damage. I will apologize for that. It is inexcusable.”
But Mayfield continued, saying that rezoning the area to allow short-term rentals of residential property doesn’t solve the real issue.
“What we need to do, in my view, is focus on Greenlife and focus on Whole Foods and focus on the richest man in the world and I’m happy to share that those conversations have opened,” Mayfield said.
“Our city staff is in conversations already with Whole Foods about them coming to look at this problem and find a solution,” she said.
Jeff Bezos, Asheville is calling. We look forward to hosting you here in our fair mountain metropolis and working out a solution to your very annoying loading dock.
Asheville City Council ultimately voted 4-1 to deny Thompson’s rezoning request. Mayor Esther Manheimer had recused herself from the vote, stating that her law firm had once represented Thompson, and Councilman Vijay Kapoor was absent. Councilman Brian Haynes was the lone no vote.