An Asheville developer, a restauranteur and a local nonprofit are doubling down on a partnership to build a new restaurant on the banks of the French Broad River, a proposal that has met opposition from some residents concerned about development along the river. In a press release, the group says it plans to move forward its plans.
Developer Jim Diaz, who currently has a residential project going up on Haywood Road in West Asheville, in partnership with local restauranteur Eric Scheffer, owner of Vinnie’s Italian Neighborhood Restaurant in North Asheville, have teamed up with the nonprofit RiverLink, which promotes the economic and environmental vitality of the river. They want to open Jettie Rae’s Fish n’ Such on a 1.29-acre site at 144 Riverside Dr., a spot across Riverside Drive from the Cotton Mill Studios. The location is a vacant lot with a ribbon of greenway cutting through it. For a few years, it was the site of regular riverside music concerts that drew hundreds of people and raised money for RiverLink. The restaurant plans to serve high-quality seafood and locally sourced fresh food and produce.
The developers are ultimately seeking a conditional zoning from Asheville City Council to build their restaurant. Their next stop is the Asheville Planning & Zoning Commission, which could come as early as next month.
A the June meeting of the Asheville Riverfront Redevelopment Commission, the development team presented its plans to build a two-story, 5,500-square-foot building with a 1,100-square-foot open-air pavilion, two Airstreams on site for additional food and beverage service, and 36 parking spaces. The commission, an advisory board to City Council that reviews building plans in the River Arts District, voted 5-4 that Jettie Rae’s did not meet its design guidelines. Three members of the commission were absent from the meeting, and a fourth recused himself from the vote.
The outline of arguments both in opposition to, and in favor of, the restaurant were drawn at that meeting. The key figure in opposition has been Karen Cragnolin, the river crusader who founded RiverLink in the 1980s and retired in 2016. The crux of Cragnolin’s opposition is that a number of city planning documents, namely the Wilma Dykeman RiverWay plan, call for the site to remain undeveloped. The Jettie Rae’s site would be built on land that “was solicited from donors as greenway space” and it should remain that, she argues. Commentators on social media forums have excoriated the development team for its plans to build along the greenway.
RiverLink’s response as articulated by Garrett Artz, the group’s executive director, has been that RiverLink’s board is united in its passion to both protect and revitalize Asheville’s riverfront through a mix of uses that include open spaces like parks and “activated” spaces like the proposed restaurant. A timeline of development plans for the Asheville riverfront provided by the development team emphasis that guiding plans and development rules have long called for a mix of development that calls for active recreation and other development, rather than simply passive open space.
The development team says they’re ready to keep moving forward. Diaz, a life-long paddler, says in the release that he’s passionate about the proposal. “Eric is a long-time friend, and when he came to me with the concept of Jettie Rae’s, I was so inspired, and I knew it had to be on the French Broad River.” Scheffer stresses the community benefits of having an active community spot where people together to enjoy great food. “Our goal for Jettie Rae’s is to be great stewards of the land and give back to the community,” Scheffer says in the release.
And Artz, the RiverLink director, says in the release that his organization remains firmly behind the restaurant plans. “The executive committee and the full board of RiverLink unanimously support the project.”