The Back Story
Asheville’s Haywood Street is a long, irregular J turned on its side. It begins on Patton Avenue in front of the art deco S & W Building and runs northward uphill until it curves westward, making the J’s shank as it parallels I-240. Then it dips southward, crossing Patton again and finally petering out among the warren-like lanes of Chicken Hill.
If you start walking north from the S & W, you pass Pritchard Park (its street preachers long since replaced by drum circles) and the revamped Woolworth’s, the boutique Haywood Park Hotel (once Bon Marche and later Ivey’s) and then a block lined on both sides with thriving, trendy shops and expensive second-floor condos. At the first curve, though, across from what is now called the U.S. Cellular Center, Haywood comes to a point with Page Avenue, which runs a block behind. Here, in the midst of the glitz, is the last remnant of the downtown blight that pockmarked the area up until the late 80’s: several vacant storefronts ending at an abandoned parking garage and capped by a triangle of deserted pavement which points directly toward the front yard of one of Asheville’s greatest architectural treasures, the Basilica of St. Lawrence – masterpiece of Spanish architect Rafael Guastavino, home of the largest freestanding elliptical dome in the United States, spiritual center of Asheville’s growing Roman Catholic population …and recently an unsuccessful player in the ongoing Monopoly game to determine who gets – and gets to do what with – the derelict property directly across from its massive double oaken doors.
The city began acquiring the Haywood Street property parcel by parcel in 2001, with the stated intention of building a parking lot there – an idea that was met with immediate opposition from several quarters. Local residents and community activists objected on grounds that there are already two massive parking decks within feet of each other nearby and that a third would aggravate an already severe traffic congestion problem, while friends and parishioners of the Basilica were alarmed that vibrations from construction and the additional traffic might very well cause structural damage to the 105-year-old Basilica, especially its mammoth, unsupported dome.
Wrangling over exactly what to do with the property continued for several years. A groundswell of popular sentiment grew in favor of turning the entire area into a park which would serve as both a pedestrian gathering place and as a green link to the Basilica. In 2007, no firm plan having been adopted, the city sent out a call for proposals to develop the site. McKibbon Hotel Group of Gainesville, Georgia, leapt into the breach and proposed a 143-unit hostelry on the Haywood Street site, which it offered to purchase for $1.7 million. The Diocese of Charlotte, which embraces Asheville, put $1 million on the table and proposed building low-profile apartments and a green space across the way. Council, however, said it was honor-bound to continue negotiations with McKibbon. (McKibbon had already gained a toehold at the other end of downtown; it was constructing its Aloft Hotel, which was already drawing fire for its boxy, ultramodern layout, viewed by many as completely at odds with its neighborhood.)
In late 2011, the Catholic Diocese saw and raised McKibbon’s original bid, scraping up $2 million as a new offer, and there the matter rested for awhile. Then, last summer, things began to move. The city announced it had to continue good-faith negotiations with McKibbon, stating with a straight face and after all the previous price negotiations that the property’s fair market value was $2.5 million. At that point the Diocese had to fold its hand, and on September 21, 2012, Council met to consider McKibbon’s latest proposal. They were greeted by a substantial delegation from People Advocating Real Conservancy (PARC), an Asheville activist group which said the public, according to a petition and a phone survey PARC had conducted, overwhelmingly favored a park – and no building construction at all – at the Haywood Street site. (Council members Cecil Bothwell, Mark Hunt and Chris Pelly had all been elected with PARC’s help and endorsement).
But the fix was in. Council voted 4-2 to approve sale of the property to McKibbon for development of its seven-story hotel, provided that plans include a nominal green space and that the building be at least 170 feet from the Basilica. Bothwell and Mayor Terry Bellamy voted against the plan. Bothwell’s progressive stablemate Gordon Smith voted for it, saying, “This process has been going on for a decade; it’s time to pull the trigger.” Smith also added – this would later be significant – that proceeds from the sale could, should, and if he had his way, would be used for new affordable community housing. (Smith, a champion of the concept of “increased density” as a means of city growth, was fresh off a successful push for the construction of massive low-income apartment buildings on East Larchmont Road, just off highly congested Merrimon Avenue, despite organized, hard-fought opposition from neighborhood residents.)
Bothwell, for one, was enraged by the Council vote. He lambasted Smith about Smith’s affordable housing carrot, saying there could be no such guarantee and that “Gordon evaded the truth on this one.” He then turned with cold fury on his protégé, Hunt, who had voted for McKibbon. In an e-mail that somehow went public, he told Hunt, “You make me want to puke. I am so totally embarrassed that I endorsed you. What a total loser on matters that concern Asheville citizens. Are your ears totally plugged with developmental money?”
Which brings us to …
… the latest volley fired in the Battle of Haywood Street: a lawsuit filed March 8 by three downtown hotels against McKibbon Hotel Group and also against the City of Asheville. The three plaintiff hotels are the Renaissance and the Sheraton Four Points, which were both built in the 1970’s and face each other across Woodfin Street about three-tenths of a mile from Haywood Street; and the Indigo, completed in 2009, just around the corner at the intersection of Haywood Street and O. Henry Avenue.
The object of the suit is to void the city’s private sale of the property to McKibbon, in effect creating a clean slate that could even put the property back on the market on a public-bid basis. The sale price — $2.56 million less a $225,000 allowance for demolition of the vacant buildings – is below fair market value and therefore violates state law, the suit contends. Moreover, it claims, the wage and salary structure outlined by McKibbon is below the county average and would fail to stimulate the local economy.
As to Councilman Smith’s pot-sweetener that proceeds from the McKibbon sale could be used to fund affordable housing, Councilman Bothwell sent the Tribune an email quoting what was apparently a passage from the lawsuit: “The Haywood Street properties were purchased with transit [department] funds. At the time, the City planned to build a parking garage on the site. The proceeds from the sale must be used for transit projects and cannot, under any circumstances, be diverted to affordable housing.”
At press time, Councilman Smith had not responded to an email from the Tribune asking for his comments.