- City agrees to sell Reid Center to Housing Authority
- Civic Center renovations planned
A political battle that had been brewing for months came to a head at the Asheville City Council’s Jan. 25 meeting. At issue was the city's use of parking revenues to fund the 51 Biltmore project — a complex deal involving the city, developer Public Interest Projects and the McKibbon Hotel Group that would put a parking deck where a 100-space surface lot now stands.
The city's end of that would be $14.1 million in borrowed money — $4.56 million to purchase two parcels from Public Interest Projects plus an estimated $9.54 million to build the deck. McKibbon will then build a hotel and retail space on top of the deck.
The second parcel is the site of the Hot Dog King restaurant.
In the weeks leading up to the vote, a heated public debate emerged. In an e-mail, the grass-roots group People Advocating Real Conservancy branded the project a “boondoggle” and sharply criticized the developer, seeking to rally the project's opponents. Council members reported being flooded with e-mails, many opposing 51 Biltmore. The city's approach was outdated, opponents said, the price (which is higher than the land’s current estimated market value of $4.4 million) was too high, and the city parking revenue that would be used to service the debt would be better spent on new sidewalks or improved transit.
But 51 Biltmore had no lack of supporters, either, and to them — particularly people owning businesses in the area — the project represented a long-overdue boost to downtown’s density and economic vitality.
When the fateful night arrived, the Council chamber was packed, with still more folks relegated to an overflow room downstairs.
Administrative Services Director Lauren Bradley made city staff's case for the project: According to their estimates (which assumed that the city decks would continue to be used at their current levels), total city parking revenues would be sufficient to pay off the debt and leave more than $400,000 per year available for other projects. Bradley also touted the economic impact of the estimated 405 temporary construction jobs and 118 permanent hotel jobs 51 Biltmore would create.
Bradley also defended paying a premium for the land — a major sore point for critics — by asserting that the city will save $800,000 in construction costs by acquiring the Hot Dog King parcel, and an overall site they felt was too ideal for this project to pass up.
“We can't run a city on make-believe,” declared Pat Whalen, president of Public Interest Projects. Parking decks, he pointed out, played a major role in downtown's revitalization in the 1980s and ’90s. “This project costs zero tax dollars, pays for itself over time, creates badly needed jobs both in construction and in the future, increases density and tax revenue, and will create more tax revenue around it,” Whalen maintained.
He also criticized opponents who dismiss staff estimates that the deck will turn a profit at the 25- and 50-year marks, yet believe that “saying no one will drive cars in the future is not too long-term. They're so sure that instead of switching to hybrid and electric cars, we'll all be riding the bus.”
“We've needed this for 16 years,” asserted Barley's Taproom owner Jimi Rentz, one of a number of Biltmore Avenue business owners to voice support for the project. John Ellis, managing director of the Diana Wortham Theatre, maintained that the performance venue has lost potential customers due to inadequate parking nearby. John Cram, who owns the neighboring Fine Arts Theatre, also endorsed the project, as did the Asheville Downtown Association.
On the other side, however, Asheville resident Robert Eidus accused the city of “looking at old stats to do a new project. What our progressive city needs is a solution outside of the standard old box.” Instead, he suggested placing “fringe parking” at interstate exits, where people could catch a shuttle into downtown.
“We are not opposed to parking decks; we are opposed to this parking deck,” resident Linda Brown explained in urging Council to vote against 51 Biltmore. “Is this a moneymaking proposition? It is for Mr. Whalen; it is for Mr. Marriott; it is not for the city. Don't use public money for private property: The city could build many wonderful things with this revenue stream.”
Resident Kimberly Kambicki predicted that “Parking will be an infinite problem as long as we keep adhering to the view that more cars is more profit. These resources would be better spent on improving [mass] transit, bike lanes and rewards for the people that use them. Do we really need another hotel downtown? It's going to create jobs cleaning toilets and waiting on tourists. Are those really the kind of jobs we want to attract?”
Chris Pelly, president of the Haw Creek Community Association, argued: “The reason we most often hear for why there aren't more sidewalks is that there's not adequate funding available. Our concern with this proposal is that the city of Asheville, by taking on $14.1 million [in debt], takes us years down the road before any meaningful sidewalk construction is possible.” He added that he wished Council would pay similar attention to infrastructure needs outside of downtown.
Those arguments found some traction among the city's elected leaders, as Council member Cecil Bothwell — who’s made no secret of his opposition to the project — questioned staff at length about the details of the deal.
“The only things anyone seems to agree on are that it will cost $14.1 million and there will be 412 parking spaces; everything else relies on assumptions or points of view,” said Bothwell. “The truth is, if we're paying $1 million a year in debt service, that's $1 million that could be spent somewhere else.
“In these very uncertain financial times, it seems the best option is to hold off: Don't borrow the money,” he continued. “The Great Recession is still reverberating throughout our economy: Banks are failing; one in 12 homes in Buncombe is in foreclosure; the General Assembly is about to cut jobs across Western North Carolina. Making assumptions about the next 25 years based on the last 25 years seems, to my mind, not a really bright thing to do.” According to a study by the nonprofit N.C. Justice Center, however, one in 79 Buncombe County homes was in foreclosure last year.
Vice Mayor Brownie Newman, meanwhile, made the case that the project is a necessary component of creating a more sustainable city.
“I believe the single greatest threat we have to the environmental integrity of Buncombe and our region is the pattern of sprawl development that is rapidly consuming the forestlands and farmlands of our mountain region,” Newman declared. “I believe the single most powerful solution to that is promoting the successful pattern of development we have in our downtown.”
Newman added that he also supports greater investment in mass transit and sidewalks, asserting that the city will still have parking revenue left over to devote to other purposes. “It seems clear to me the project will not just pay for itself but be a significant asset to the city of Asheville,” he observed.
The dispute over projected revenues seems to hinge on whether one believes individual car (and, thus, parking deck) use will decline, as Bothwell predicts, or remain more or less steady, as proponents of 51 Biltmore assert.
Council member Esther Manheimer also shot back at critics, arguing, “It's not through inaction that downtown has become a vibrant place — it's through action, development and investment.” Failing to approve the deck, she warned, could endanger related contracts while harming the city's reputation.
A somewhat frustrated-sounding Mayor Terry Bellamy emphasized that the 51 Biltmore location was chosen, in part, because prior attempts to site decks downtown had triggered public backlash.
“We haven't made it a secret that there's a desire to put a deck on this lot,” the mayor pointed out. “We heard, 'We don't want a deck where we know it's a deck,' so we wrapped this project with development. We heard, 'Go down instead of up’ — this deck goes down. We stopped on decks before because some of the same people said it didn't fit their core values. So we put together a deck that would.”
“There are no property-tax funds, in any scenario, that go to this deck,” she stressed, adding that one of the reasons the vast majority of the city's parking revenue comes from downtown is that Council has honored residents’ requests to keep on-street parking free elsewhere in Asheville.
Council member Gordon Smith joined Bothwell in opposing the deck, but for different reasons. If the city had dedicated funding streams for sidewalks and mass transit, said Smith, he would probably have supported this project.
In the end, the parking deck was approved 5-2, with Bothwell and Smith on the short end of the vote. The deal will go before the state's Local Government Commission in late February; if approved, construction will start in March.
Getting and spending
In other business, Council:
• Unanimously approved selling the W.C. Reid Center to the Asheville Housing Authority for $254,500. While the deal is contingent on the agency’s receiving a federal grant, it would enable the Authority to convert the facility into a training, education and green-jobs center housing multiple nonprofits under one roof. The city plans to build a new recreation center in the area in the coming years.
• Approved $480,000 in capital-project funds for Civic Center renovations, including scoreboards, increased meeting space, better locker rooms and more concession stands. The improvements are part of a deal to bring the Southern Conference basketball tournament to Asheville for the 2012-14 seasons.
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at email@example.com.