Trio of New Development Projects Pushes Asheville’s Boom into New Year
Outside firms eye historic neighborhood, Sears property, smaller shopping center.
A rezoning approval in a landmark neighborhood, a radical repurposing of a longtime big box store, and the purchase of an aging shopping center will provide additional thrust to carry Asheville’s headlong development boom well into 2018 and beyond.
The three projects have all come onstream in just the two and a half weeks since Christmas.
Asheville’s Planning and Zoning Commission approved a request by Barwick Associates of Charlotte to rezone a parcel of land at Beacham’s Curve in West Asheville from “RM8” – “Medium Density Multi-Family” – to “HR4,” – “Haywood Road Traditional” – a designation that embraces the form-based building code now in place in that area.
Fifth Avenue-based Seritage Growth Properties, a real estate investment trust whose holdings include 230 Sears and K-mart stores, submitted plans to turn the Asheville Mall Sears into a mixed-use property that would include retail units, a movie theater multiplex, and a six-story apartment complex.
And GBT Realty, Inc., of Brentwood, Tennessee, has purchased 30-year-old Overlook Village just down the street from Asheville Mall.
The Great Awakening of Beacham’s Curve
The rezoned property at Beacham’s Curve prepares the way for the last – or latest – element of an operation begun by Bryan Barwick and his Charlotte company together with local developer Jim Diaz. In 2016 the two acquired five parcels there and began repurposing them. The area is now home to a bakery, a brewery, and a pizzeria; the newly rezoned lot is earmarked for construction of a project city planners acknowledge will be “primarily residential.”
Beacham’s Curve is not a curve at all. It’s the point at which Haywood Road, after coasting southward downhill from Patton Avenue, crossing the French Broad and ascending another hill, makes a sharp right-angle turn. (The elbow was named, in fact, for a streetcar conductor known for his ability to navigate it.) Proceeding west, Haywood Road then becomes the main drag of West Asheville.
The corner lagged behind the headlong “gold rush” along the rest of Haywood Road, which began about 2011. But between the work that the Diaz-Barwick team has already done and the news that they’re bringing the first residential complex to the area, old Tom Beacham’s turnaround spot is already being heralded as “hot” by the arbiters of what’s in, in Asheville.
By seeking the HR-4 zoning classification, Barwick is committing to conform to the restrictions set out in the form-based code adopted by the city for the Haywood Road corridor. The designation specifies that “ … new infill buildings should respect the traditional form and context. Height requirements are set to ensure that existing buildings can compete successfully with new infill buildings. Buildings … are [to be] pulled up to the sidewalk to encourage pedestrian activity in the area. Mixed use is encouraged, and a variety of commercial uses are allowed on the ground floor.”
The developers have not yet released details of the type of housing the complex will offer: apartments, condos, or a mixture; or the number of units and their total area. The project is rated a “Level II,” which means it could contain between 20 and 50 units occupying between 35,000 and 100,000 feet of space.
“Life Well Spent”?
Since 2010 that’s been the official slogan of Sears, Roebuck & Co., although few people are aware of it because that’s about the time America’s most iconic retail brand morphed into something called “Sears Holdings.”
Seritage Properties has not had a good two years. Its move to acquire and lease all those Sears Holdings properties was not greeted with enthusiasm in the marketplace; in fact, pundits such as Warren Buffet himself have warned that the New York REIT is “set to fail” and its stock dropped more than 20% in 2016-17. Despite the market crepe-hanging – or maybe in defiance of it – Seritage wants to spend $45 million on its transformation of the Asheville Sears.
The mall opened in 1971 with Sears as one of its anchors. The two-story, 230,000-square-foot store occupies the western end of the mall complex and about one-fourth of its total area. Seritage’s plan to multi-purpose the Asheville store is part of a rearguard action to forestall the decline of the mall concept nationwide, thanks to Internet shopping and a resurgence in boutique retailing. This is particularly true in cities like Asheville, where courting tourism equals downtown gentrification.
So Seritage is taking a calculated risk that it can offer enough enticements to persuade renters to live in part of a million-square-foot shopping mall surrounded by 32 acres of asphalt parking lot that raises the temperature there an additional 4 degrees in summer, turns into a skating rink in wintry weather, and is a city block’s distance from the nearest thoroughfare.
Meanwhile, local Sears management says it has not been apprised of the Seritage plan and the store is carrying on business as usual.
And meanwhile, just down the street …
Two traffic lights down from Sears, on the other side of the road, is Overlook Village, built in 1989, a strip mall whose most recent anchor was appliance/home furnishings retailer HHGregg. Early last year HHGregg announced the Asheville property was one of 88 low-performance outlets it would be closing.
Even so, says GBT, the 153,820 square feet of retail and office space will still be 80 per cent occupied. The suburban Nashville developer, which boasts recent project completions in 27 states, indicated it should have no trouble filling the HHGregg space due to “high demand” for “junior” size box stores in this area.
GBT’s reputation as a community interactor appears spotty. Two of five Google reviewers awarded the company five stars, with one calling it a “great family owned business”; the other three gave it one star each and were sharp in their criticism. One said the firm was “very difficult to work with,” calling it “patronizing, condescending, [and] dismissive” and adding, “intimidates by insulting the intelligence of project opponents.”
Another reviewer said GBT was “insulting to small towns that they want to move into and pollute with their inferior products,” while another criticized “cheap construction of box stores thrown up in towns where they are not wanted.”
The beat goes on.
The Asheville Citizen-Times reported in 2015 that forecasters were estimating the city will see development investment in the area top $1 billion by 2020. The local Chamber of Commerce points out that the trend is driven in part by Asheville’s emergence as a year-round, rather than seasonal, tourist destination. And media buzz about Asheville’s beauty/trendiness/diversity/sophistication/progressiveness continues to attract a spate of incomers. (In 2017 alone, Asheville made 16 “best of” or “number one” lists of places to visit or settle; most recently Forbes ranked it among the 15 “coolest places to go” on Earth for 2018.)
As the adulation cooks along, Asheville’s ironic stew of problems – chiefly a dearth of affordable housing, skyrocketing real estate prices, and scarce-as-hen’s-teeth living wage jobs – simmers alongside it. Nor will projects such as the three examined here do much, either while in progress or after completion, to improve that situation, analysts say.
Few if any Ashevillians are still alive who were directly affected by the 1930 crash that ended the city’s decade-long real estate boom, but there are plenty who personally inherited the financial consequences of it and heard firsthand of how it happened: overbuilding, overpricing and rampant speculative investment. As the Blitz was to World War II Londoners, so the crash and its aftermath still are to many locals: a combination of tragic epic and cautionary tale. To these folks, and to local fiscal conservatives in general, three major development projects coming onstream in a two-week period is not an automatic cause for celebration; it’s a blast of creepy-cold air on the back on the neck.
“It wouldn’t take another 1930 to bring Asheville to its knees again,” says former city risk manager John Miall. “All it would take is another 2008.”
“… on all sides we hear talk, talk, talk in a single chorus, speculation in real estate. Along our streets and town, the ownership of land is constantly changing. A spirit of waste and destructiveness is everywhere. The best places in town are being mutilated … they’ve built stores and garages and office buildings – all raw. And they’re putting up a new hotel. It will be 16 stories of steel and concrete and pressed brick, stamped out of the same mold as if by some gigantic biscuit cutter of hotels that has produced a thousand others like it all over the country.”
–Thomas Wolfe: Letter to his brother Fred, 1927