By Leslee Kulba-Asheville City Council agreed to take action to remediate what former Mayor Terry Bellamy referred to as an “eyesore” on prime real estate across from the US Cellular Center. Cecil Bothwell, long an advocate of turning the area into a downtown park, cast the lone vote against reopening the property in an RFQ/RFP process.
Economic Development Director Sam Powers reviewed the history of the double-decker open brick building. The city had acquired it for use as a staging area for a parking deck that was never built. In 2006, it was included among surplus municipal properties opened for an RFQ/RFP process. The intent was to sell off the properties to private interests that would further city council’s strategic goals of “(1) consistency with city plans or policies, including Smart Growth and environmentally friendly/green building development practices, (2) place-making design that complements our unique downtown business and residential communities and takes constructive public input into consideration, (3) provision of strategically-sited public parking, (4) ability to accommodate all modes of transportation, (5) potential for significant tax base enhancement, and (6) potential to promote new or revitalized entertainment venues.”
McKibbon Hotel Group was the only developer to respond. They proposed a 140-rom hotel. Following a subsequent offer from the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte to purchase the property out from under McKibbon, and a lawsuit filed against the city and McKibbon by a group of local hoteliers; McKibbon decided it could put its money to more constructive and immediate use building hotels than fighting lawsuits over that parcel. They took advantage of the exit clause in their agreement with the city.
Earlier this month, Council’s Planning and Economic Development Committee decided to reopen the RFQ/RFP process. The city could sell the property outright, but general statutes allow it to control what happens by selling to whosoever it “deems” to be “the most responsive” developer. When using the RFQ/RFP process, the statutes require the city to sell the property at fair market value and hold a public hearing before closing on any deal. The FMV of the property is currently $2.6 million.
Vice Mayor Marc Hunt made a motion to approve restarting the RFQ/RFP process for the property at 68-76 Haywood Street, but with conditions. He wanted applicants to be clear about city council’s expectations that the project (1) conform to the Downtown Master Plan, (2) expand the city’s tax base, (3) design its street level for pedestrian engagement, (4) enhance the use of the US Cellular Center, (5) protect and respect the Basilica of St. Lawrence, and (6) provide a plaza open to the public in some portion of the design.
Bothwell, thinly veiling an insinuation, said he didn’t see why staff was in such a hurry to restart the RFQ/RFP process. After all, the last process produced only one bidder, and that developer backed out. Bothwell argued the timing was too early, as the construction industry had only begun to rebound. He further argued studies have shown that urban parks can increase nearby property values by as much as 8-20 percent. He asked Powers if staff had analyzed the difference between revenues that could be collected from the higher property values and those collected from improving the property.
Powers said that kind of analysis would be challenging, and none such had been undertaken to date. However, the city did conduct an inventory of property available for park space. It found several within a twenty-minute walk of the property in question. Hunt pooh-poohed Bothwell’s claim, saying the urban Aston Park had not served to stimulate redevelopment in the area. He wagered studies could be found to support either side of the argument.
When the floor was opened for public comment, Rebecca Hecht, referencing her affiliation with the Asheville Downtown Commission, listed arguments against developing the property. She suspected a hotel would likely be built, and said the city did not need another hotel. A hotel did not represent the parcel’s highest and best use, and it would not be profitable in a city that does not have a hotel tax. The city has two new hotels in the works and five more proposed. Hotels provide low-wage jobs, and there is nowhere for new low-income families to live downtown. She asked what happened to the city’s priorities for workforce housing, and how this project would contribute to that end. She was also concerned about the traffic maelstrom in front of the Civic Center before and after events.
Jonathan Wainscott suggested the city do some problem matching. He said the city should use the $2 million they wanted to give the Asheville Art Museum to renovate the space and make it the new digs for the art museum. That would assuage the murmurings of Pack Place’s other tenants, the Coburn Earth Science Museum and the Diana Wortham Theatre; and it would create a cultural mecca across from the US Cellular Center. Who knows, asked he, maybe even the Health Adventure could find new life somewhere in the mix.