The Asheville Planning & Zoning Commission on Sept. 4 voted 4-3 against approving plans to build a restaurant on the banks of the French Broad River. The vote capped a long night of debate over the controversial proposal for a seafood restaurant called Jettie Rae’s Fish n’ Such. The next stop for the project is an appearance at Asheville City Council, which will make the final decision.
The two-story restaurant is proposed for a 1.29-acre lot across Riverside Drive from the Cotton Mill Studios in the heart of the River Arts District. Plans include a pavilion and spaces for Airstreams and food trucks, as well as restrooms that would be open to the public. A parking lot with 34 to 36 spaces is included, with a handful of spaces marked for use by the general public, not just restaurant patrons.
The property is owned by RiverLink, a nonprofit organization founded some three decades ago to promote the environmental and economic vitality of the French Broad River and its watershed. The restaurant would be built alongside the new greenway that winds through the property and along the river. The greenway has been under construction as part of an overall $50 million transportation improvement plan for the River Arts District that has brought new roundabouts, sidewalks, drainage and road realignment to the old industrial area. The project should be complete sometime next year.
Asheville developer Jim Diaz teamed up with Asheville restauranteur Eric Scheffer, owner of Vinnie’s Neighborhood Italian restaurant (formerly Savoy) for the Jettie Rae’s concept of quality seafood and locally sourced fresh food and produce. They noted that they had the complete support of the RiverLink board, and that they planned to partner with the nonprofit to help it raise money. They asked for approval of the conditional zoning they sought.
City planner Jessica Bernstein, in laying out the project, said the Jettie Rae’s bar/restaurant was the only project piece that’s not allowed under the current zoning. A pavilion, a parking lot, outside dining and a parking lot would all be allowed as things stand right now, she said. Bernsein noted that city staff reviewed the various planning documents conducted over the years for the area, including the Wilma Dykeman RiverWay Plan and the Riverside Drive Redevelopment Plan, as well as the new form-based code of zoning regulations, and determined that none of those plans call for the lot in question to remain undeveloped, or left alone as a public park. “They all anticipate active, public uses,” she said. For that reason, and because of the developer’s plans to include public restrooms and some public parking, city staff were recommending approval, Bernstein said.
Members of the development team stood to emphasize various points. Asheville attorney Derek Allen of Ward and Smith positioned the restaurant project as a concession and an amenity for the public “that happens to be owned by a private entity.” Landscape architect Jason Gilliland of Site Design Studio pointed out that the location included an existing, 10,000-square-foot concrete pad and a separate, small asphalt pad. Architect Robert Todd of Red House Architecture said his design featured two shipping containers stacked atop one another with lots of windows and semi-closed porches. The building was designed to handle floodwaters, he added.
P&Z Chairwoman Laura Hudson opened the floor to public comment.
Shelley Schenker, owner of EcoDepot on Depot Street, was first up. She read a letter from River Arts District artist Wendy Whitson in opposition to the restaurant plan. “How can this be pushed through by the same people who wanted to preserve the land,” the letter-writer asked. The greenway stands as an “emerald necklace” that should go unbroken. Speaking for herself, Schenker said she leaned toward keeping the space undeveloped.
Jim Stokely approached the podium next and introduced himself. “My mother was Wilma Dykeman,” the trailblazing writer and environmentalist who called out the polluted devastation of the French Broad River and helped bring it back. A number of groups, including RiverLink, have worked hard over the last three decades to balance economic development with environmental preservation along the river, he said, but the original vision for the strip of land considered for Jettie Rae’s has long been one of open, undeveloped space for public use, Stokely said. There are other location options for a restaurant, he said as he urged the commission to deny the rezoning.
Karen Cragnolin, the founder of RiverLink, followed. Cragnolin befriended Dykeman those many years ago, and the two went on to champion the French Broad River. She gave a brief history of the property and its industrial past. “I have no problem with a restaurant on the river,” she said, but “I am vehemently opposed to this location” because of its proximity to the greenway. The consensus built through the Wilma Dykeman RiverWay Plan calls for the area to the west of Riverside Drive to be greenway only, Cragnolin said. The greenway is the “binding melting pot of the community” and should remain open and free of development, she said.
Ginny Hunneke, the first volunteer coordinator for RiverLink, said she’s remained a part of the organization until recently. She called the Jettie Rae’s proposal a violation of the trust that hundreds of people had invested in the Dykeman RiverWay Plan. Maintain the integrity of that plan by keeping the space undeveloped, she said.
Bryan King, owner of the popular 12 Bones barbecue restaurant, told the commission that he was asked in 2016 to relocate his restaurant, “via eminent domain,” from its riverfront location. (The transportation improvement project mentioned earlier brought a realigned road right through his restaurant. ) “I’m curious why we are now adding a restaurant in a greenway space. To me, it seem counterintuitive,” he said.
Jane Mathews, an Asheville architect and member of the Asheville Riverfront Redevelopment Commission, expressed her opposition to the restaurant plan as a private citizen, she said. She pointed to her involvement in riverfront redevelopment as both a volunteer and architect for 32 years. She said a “clear community vision,” articulated though planning documents, called for a protected riparian ridge along the side of the French Broad in question. The proposed development is in the wrong place, she stressed.
Lynn Hall, president of the West End/Clingman Avenue Neighborhood Association, said his organization was split on the Jettie Rae’s project. The group’s first choice was to have a park, but not many people showed up to a community meeting, so Hall read that as approval of restaurant, he said. Speaking as a private citizen, Hall said, “I hate to see the greenway interrupted, but I would support this project.”
Catherine Morris, a member of the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods, said “I strongly believe this is the wrong place” for a restaurant. Andy Brockmeyer, who described himself as an active user of the river, said he supported the restaurant project, noting that it will be developed by locals and run by locals. “You need a lot of entrepreneurial vision to make a city an exciting place,” he said. Volker Frank said he, too, supported Jettie Rae’s. The lot in question is not pristine space, and it’s not owned by the public, he said. “This project will not prevent the public from using the area,” he said. Rachel Larson, a past president of WECAN, complimented the restaurant design, but said the land had been long described to neighborhood residents as space for a greenway, and only a greenway.
With public comment closed, the Planning & Zoning Commission members began making their positions clear.
Karl Koon said he felt caught between the public and RiverLink. “I’m really uncomfortable that I have to take a position,” he said. He noted his long involvement in riverfront redevelopment and pointed to the irony of working toward bringing economic activity to a distressed area, but facing opposition to a plan to do just that. “I’m supporting” the project, he said.
Hudson, the commission chair, said she thought Jettie Rae’s was thoughtfully and beautifully designed. But thinking long-term, “I think this is an opportunity to preserve a little bit of breathing room” as more and more development comes into the River Arts District, she said. She would not be supporting the project.
Jim Edmonds said he would fall on the side of protecting a private property owner’s rights to develop land. He stood in favor of Jettie Rae’s.
Joe Archibald said the current zoning should stick, once again noting that a number of uses other than a restaurant/bar would be allowed under that existing zoning. “I’m pushing aside any of the discussion of what was promised or may have been promised,” he said, and still would be voting to deny the conditional zoning request.
Tony Hauser, an avid bicyclist, said “this is a tough one” and then fell back on a point of opposition that he often cites with development projects – the public subsidization of private parking. He would vote “no” on the restaurant.
Guillermo Rodriguez said he would “rather keep the integrity of the greenway.” He, too, would be a “no” on the restaurant.
Sandra Kilgore said she favored Jettie Rae’s. Change is good, she said, and so is some public parking for that area along Riverside Drive. The restaurant will draw more people down to the river, and that’s good, too, she said.