The Asheville Downtown Commission, in a potentially precedent-setting decision, gave the go-ahead Friday morning for a plan to add three stories atop a one-story building stretching along South French Broad Avenue just west of the city’s central business district.
Following a detailed discussion of the development plans, the Downtown Commission voted unanimously to approved a variance from the city’s rules as outlined in the Unified Development Ordinance. Those rules require the project applicant to show hardships that justify the variance, city planners told commission members Friday. The commission’s role is an advisory one, and it’s decision will be forwarded to the Buncombe County Board of Adjustment, which will make the final decision.
The building at 45 South French Broad Ave. was purchased by Charlie and Troy Ball and their children three years ago and is now home to the city’s only downtown grocery store in Hopey & Co., as well as the independent movie theater Grail Moviehouse, the co-working space Hatchworks, the Thai restaurant Little Bee Thai, a film school and a small business incubator which is home to several start-ups, Charlie Ball explained.
The broader vision, and future plans for the building, is in that business incubator, dubbed Hatch Asheville, according to Ball. The building is a key physical home to Asheville’s start-up scene, and the plan is to grow the space and grow the start-up scene there, he said. The additional three stories would provide space for condos and additional commercial businesses.
All the existing businesses would remain, and keep them open during construction.
Ball had a full presentation ready regarding that vision. After his introductory remarks, he introduced George Glackin, president of the the Hatch nonprofit foundation. Glackin, who moved to Asheville three years ago, said he had a hard time finding the city’s start-up scene and has been a proponent of Ball’s vision ever since. It’s been successful, Glackin said. “We need more space.”
Ball then introduced two owners of two incubator businesses to speak. But after the presentation by Meg Ragland of Plum Print, which turns piles of children’s artwork into coffee table books, city planner Shannon Tuch stepped in to keep the Downtown Commission on track.
By state law, Tuch told commissioners, the variance request must meet statutory findings based on physical hardships the development project faces. The applicant’s presentation should be focused on those hardships only, Tuch said.
Commission members, who were clearly supportive of the project, began working out just what those hardships were. Tuch again urged them to be specific, noting that if a variance is eventually granted, a legal document will be drawn up explaining why, and any justifications.
According to the existing city development rules, construction on the building would require a two-story wall along the front of the building (which is built right up to the sidewalk). But Ball and his architect, Robert Todd of Red House Architecture, proposed something different. They explained that the building’s bones could not support a tall front facade without major reconstruction. Thus, to get around that difficulty, they proposed setting back the three-story addition and constructing it straight up from there, above the rear half of the existing building.
Commission members noted the practical challenges of building a taller front facade posed by the existing above-ground power lines, which run close by. Downtown Commission Chairman Michael McDonough said he saw a hardship in the UDO guidelines themselves, which he said were written more for new construction rather than a renovation/addition project like the one before them. And commission members agreed not to include mention of the structural difficulties of building along the front facade as a hardship because of the bad precedent that would set. (With that precedent, nearly any developer could walk in and claim some sort of structural hardship, commission member Brent Campbell argued.)
Finally, Downtown Commission members referred back to the city staff report that recommended approval of the variance as part of their argument for approval. With that, McDonough made the motion and the board voted unanimously in favor.