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When worlds collide: ‘Bums’ 1, Developers 0

Bank of America RS

‘Less vulnerable’ condos to replace hotel plan near DHHS expansion site

Instead, MRK Properties has decided to turn the former Bank of America building at 68 Patton Avenue into condominium units.

Byron Greiner, a broker with Keller-Williams Realty, which represents MRK locally, told Asheville City Council last week that the hotel idea might have to be scrapped because of the presence of “undesirable” people “hanging out” in the vicinity. The Asheville Blade quoted Greiner as saying, “Their [MRK’s] feeling is that if this building is built at this location it will increase the population of some undesirables we deal with every day in terms of the homeless and panhandling.”

But on Tuesday, Greiner told the Tribune that although MRK was “not happy with the idea of a lot of undesirables in the vicinity” of its contemplated hotel, that in itself was not the reason for the change of plans. “There are seven hotels coming out of the ground close by.” he said. “They [MRK] felt that was too much hotel density to be competing with right now.” The neighborhood vagrancy issue, he said, was “totally unrelated” to the change of plans.

However, Greiner said, “Condos are less vulnerable to undesirables in the area than a hotel would be. Condos are permanent, secure residences.” He did not elaborate as to whether a hotel would be relatively insecure.

Nor did Greiner mention how MRK would have failed to be aware, when it put forward its hotel proposal, that seven other hotels are under construction in the vicinity.

MRK announced in mid-February that it had purchased the 40,000 square foot former bank building for $3.2 million. At that time the firm announced it had no definite plans for the manner in which it would develop the building other than “to make it look better.” The hotel plans were advanced later – about the same time, in fact, that public debate began to arise over the county’s plans to spend a total of $48.5 million on additions and renovations to the Department of Health and Human Services.

The county announced those plans at its January 19 meeting; they include a seven-story addition and a new 650-space parking garage; and although the work will be funded by the county, city council had to sign off on the proposal since the site is within the heart of downtown. Greiner flatly told council, at the meeting when the signoff was considered, that the developers might have to withdraw their proposal unless the DHHS plans were abandoned and its campus could be constructed somewhere “out of sight.” He said he had been involved in conversations with individual council members and county commissioners, as well as with representatives of Mission Hospital, about finding another location.

Greiner added that moving the DHHS complex would free up its existing property at 40 Coxe Avenue for commercial development. He estimated the property’s worth at $10 million and called attention to the tax the city would realize from such a move.

But he returned to the issue of MRK’s dissatisfaction with existing downtown conditions which, he said, would only be made worse by concentrating DHHS activity nearby.

“They’re pretty upset; they wanted to invest quite a bit of money in Asheville,” Greiner was quoted as saying. “They’re continually panhandled when they’re in downtown. They brought that up to a number of [council members]. There’s a lot of need for additional growth [in social services space], no question about that, but another location is what they would desire.”

At the same meeting, Greiner’s remarks were followed by comments from Nancy Hayes, who said that although she works with MRK she was appealing to council as a private citizen. She said the city would be “shooting itself in the foot” if it went through with okaying the DHHS project in the face of MRK’s objections.

“I feel for [the homeless and indigent],” Hayes stated, “but you can’t help them this way. You’re not helping them by bringing them downtown, you’re driving out business.”

But assistant city manager Jon Creighton noted that many homeless people are also physically impaired and that the central DHHS location is a boon to them, being also at the “epicenter” of city bus service.

“Ultimately downtown’s not just for the wealthy, downtown’s for everybody, this is where the whole city can come together,” Creighton added. “It’s for all of us. That may make some, or all of us, uncomfortable sometimes, but we don’t need to make an effort to sanitize it.”

In an exclusive statement to the Tribune on Tuesday, councilman Gordon Smith, long a proponent of density and infill as a solution to city expansion, said:

“Buncombe County chose the best possible location for the Health and Human Services building. 100,000 Buncombe County residents utilized those services last year, and there is nowhere more accessible to all of the users. I’ll note that there is a hotel going up directly across the street from the Salvation Army, and there may be another going in next door. If a group chooses not to invest because there are too many Buncombe County citizens in proximity, then they are likely missing an opportunity. The notion that Buncombe County citizens ought to move core services to make way for luxury seeking tourists doesn’t sit right with me.

“I hope you’ll include information regarding the decrease in chronic homelessness, the increases in downtown policing, and the biggest story here: Nearly 20% of Buncombe County citizens live beneath the federal poverty line and 24% of Buncombe County’s children live in poverty. When establishment of a hotel is a bigger story than the plight of Buncombe’s impoverished children, we could stand to get focused on what’s truly important,” Smith said.

Greiner says he estimates the Patton Avenue property will house “about twenty” condos, may comprise additional floors, and would be ready for occupancy “in about eighteen months.”

MRK also owns the landmark art deco S&W Cafeteria building two doors east of the bank building and recently spent several million dollars turning the Windsor Hotel, which had become Asheville’s most notorious flophouse, into a luxury boutique hotel along the same lines it had contemplated for the Patton Avenue property.

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