At its meeting tonight, Sept. 11, Asheville City Council will decide an issue that has fueled months of debate: whether or not to sell city property across from the Basilica of St. Lawrence to the McKibbon Hotel Group. The public hearing on the matter is the only major item on Council's agenda.
Back in 2006, Asheville officials decided to assess a number of city properties for possible sale, and if so, for what purposes. The stretch on Haywood Street, currently encompassing an abandoned parking garage, unused commercial space and some surface parking, was high on the list. The city issued a formal Request for Proposal, and in 2007, McKibbon Hotel Group got the go-ahead to put together a more detailed plan for the site.
However, the economic downturn hit shortly afterwards, putting the company's plans on hiatus. Last winter, the Diocese of Charlotte, which owns the Basilica, offered to buy the property to develop it with a plaza space. But city staff claimed that the Basilica's offer was under the $2.5 million fair market value it's legally bound to sell the land at and, due to the RFP, it had to give McKibbon first dibs if the company was still interested. They were, and are offering $2.5 million.
Some Council members, such as Marc Hunt, say the city is obligated to hear the hotelier out, though they've noted that any final project will require strict design standards to protect the landmark building across the street. However, Council member Cecil Bothwell has asserted that too much time has elapsed since RFPs were sought, and the city should go back to the drawing board.
As for McKibbon, in August this year, the hotel company unveiled its plans for a hotel and potential plaza area on the site, and said that the project will be aesthetically pleasing, bringing jobs and economic growth to the area while leaving the Basilica unscathed.
But the public debate over the site's best use continues. The local activist group People Advocating Real Conservancy has been particularly ardent in its opposition to the project, and is organizing a rally before tomorrow's meeting.
PARC also conducted a phone poll, with a majority of respondents wanting a park on the spot. Bothwell touted the poll at a recent Council meeting, adding that he felt PARC represents the citizens of Asheville. However, Council member Jan Davis called the poll biased and misleading.
Davis and Council member Gordon Smith have also noted a desire to see any money the city makes from the sale go, in whole or part, to fund more affordable housing elsewhere in the city.
The meeting begins at 5 p.m. in Council's chambers on the second floor of City Hall.