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McKibbon folds; what now for Haywood Street?

basilica RS

The Basilica of St. Lawence as seen from the derelict Haywood Street lot where McKibbon Hotels intended to erect a hotel and space for shops. McKibbon last week withdrew its offer rather than fight a lawsuit brought by neighboring hotels.

Everything’s back on the table for property fronting basilica. Well, almost.

By Roger McCredie-Last week McKibbon Hotel Group, a major player in the Monopoly game of downtown development, moved its token off of upper Haywood Street without building a hotel there.

The decision brought expressions of relief from parishioners of the historic St. Lawrence Basilica, which faces the site of McKibbon’s intended project, as well as from local preservationists. Both groups had been concerned about the possible stressful effects of extensive construction might have on the 108-year-old structure, which is home to the largest freestanding elliptical dome in North America.

But McKibbon’s decision to abandon its plans had nothing to do with aesthetics. Instead, the hotel group struck its colors rather than fight a lawsuit brought against it by three neighboring hotels: the relatively new Indigo, about a block away; and the long-established Renaissance Asheville and Four Points Sheraton hotels, which face each other across Woodfin Street, about five blocks away.

“We’re not going to develop the property on Haywood Street because of the lawsuit filed in March of this year by the Asheville Renaissance Hotel, the Four Points by Sheraton Asheville and the Indigo Hotel Asheville,” John McKibbon, chairman of the hotel development group, said in a statement released the same time the city council was informed of the decision. However, “we would have proceeded with the project had the lawsuit not been filed,” McKibbon said.

“We have asked the hoteliers to reimburse us and the city for the legal fees we each accrued in dealing with the lawsuit, but they have refused to do so. We have also asked them for a letter explaining why they filed the lawsuit and have received no response. We will continue along these legal avenues independent of our decision regarding the Haywood Street property,” McKibbon added.

“We’re not seeking damages here,” McKibbon spokesman Dave Tomsky told the Tribune, “and the legal expenses we incurred in connection with the preliminaries of the suit are not significant in and of themselves. We just feel it’s appropriate under the circumstances that we should be reimbursed.”

The Tribune attempted to contact management of the three plaintiff hotels for comment as to whether they intend to continue to refuse McKibbon’s demands for reimbursement, as well as whether they intend to respond to the letter, but none of the hoteliers had responded as of late Monday.

The property in question is a triangular shaped lot located where Haywood Street curves into O. Henry Avenue, slightly less than an acre in size and with its apex pointing directly towards the front of the Basilica. Presently it is occupied by a shuttered building that latterly housed the Flying Frog Café, the remains of a parking garage, and an open space used as an ad hoc parking lot.

The city began acquiring the Haywood Avenue 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 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. By 2007, no firm plan had been adopted and the city sent out a call for proposals to develop the site. McKibbon responded at once, proposing a 143-unit hostelry on the Haywood Street site, which it offered to purchase for $1.7 million.

Then the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte, which includes Asheville, put $1 million on the table and proposed building low-profile apartments and a green space across the way. Eventually the diocese was able to add another million to its proposal, but city council it was honor-bound to continue negotiations with McKibbon and the diocese had to fold its hand. Thus, in September of 2012, council held a public meeting to consider McKibbon’s latest version of its proposal and to receive public input. 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).

In the end, council voted 4-2 to approve sale of the property to McKibbon for development of a seven-story hotel, provided that plans include a nominal green space and that the building be at least 170 feet from the Basilica. The approval infuriated councilman Cecil Bothwell, who had voted against it and who lambasted fellow Hunt and Pelly for their “yea” votes, saying they had sold out PARC.

All of which, some observers say, should make for interesting discussion when council takes up the matter of what to do with the property now that McKibbon has backed out.

Hunt told the Tribune last week that “if we just sell [the property] to the first person to come along, the best interests of the basilica would certainly not be served. On the other hand, he said, “just razing those derelict buildings and keeping the place as long-term parking would be disastrous. And devoting it entirely to a city park would be counterproductive; it would take the parcel off the tax base.

“Whatever we do, our guide will have to be the Downtown Master Plan,” he said, referring to the 114-page document created by a special task force in 2009 as a combination collective vision of what Asheville, as a city should be like and a blueprint for making it happen.

Bill Wescott, owner of a consulting structural engineering firm and a past president of the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County, told the Tribune he would be “completely in favor” of ultimately having a multi-use installation anchored by a suitably scaled hotel on the Haywood Street property. Such a complex, which essentially is what McKibbon’s final proposal envisioned, would pose no threat to the basilica in terms of potential structural damage. “There was a downtown group that was basically against everything except a park there,” he said, apparently referring to PARC, “but that’s not feasible and it’s really not desirable. It’s possible to have the best of two worlds – commercial structure and a parklike area.”

Wescott agreed that the Master Plan should govern council’s deliberations, and added that council should consider all relevant development strategies in resuming deliberations about the property. “It’s time to get their attention again,” he said.

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