Nightmare on Eagle Street

It began with a dream. A revitalized African-American business district that would pay homage to the memory of the one that had somehow managed to thrive there years before in the shadows of segregation. A vibrant, prosperous district that would empower Asheville’s contemporary black community — and, perhaps, help heal the ugly legacy of racism.

After more than a decade of work and planning and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of public and private investment, however, the dream appears to have unraveled. On the heels of months of growing controversy and failed attempts by the warring parties to find a viable compromise, the Asheville City Council derailed an increasingly embattled $6.6 million redevelopment plan for The Block — aka South Pack Square — by a razor-slim 3-4 margin at the Feb. 24 formal session (see “Between The Block and a Hard Place,” March 3 Xpress).

The move left in limbo both the $1.14 million in federal funds already earmarked for the project and the future of The Block itself. Most of the remaining $6.6 million would have come from conventional bank loans.

The Council vote reflected deep divisions within the city’s African-American community, marking a bitter end to an enterprise that had been launched with such a lofty vision:

“The process for creating this South Pack Square Redevelopment Plan,” states this official city planning document adopted in 1993, “has emphasized extensive community input, and the community will continue to be actively involved in its implementation. … This plan is not designed to produce a mere facelift for the South Pack Square area; it is designed to provide the framework on which to rebuild and stimulate the economic pulse of the City of Asheville’s historic African-American commercial community.”

In recent months, an impressive array of prominent figures in Asheville’s black community and beyond lined up on both sides of the debate. But as opposition to the plan claimed center stage, the very dream of community that had appeared to unite all parties became a battleground.

Squaring off on opposite sides of the issue were a pair of Asheville natives, both of whom remembered The Block in its heyday: attorney Eugene Ellison and James Geter, president and board chairman of the nonprofit Eagle Market Streets Development Corporation.

Ellison spearheaded the opposition to the plan, filing a still-pending lawsuit against the city and the EMSDC in mid-December to stop it (see sidebar, “Block of Ages”).

“As the former vice mayor of this city — and having spent my entire adult, professional life volunteering and serving this city — this plan is a selfish plan that only serves the developer’s needs,” an impassioned Ellison declared in an interview with Xpress after Council had postponed a final vote on the issue back in January. He and business partner Howard McGlohon own the Ritz Building on The Block and the restaurant and private club it houses.

Among Ellison’s many objections to the plan was the involvement of Charlotte-based private developer David Rogers of Rogers & Associates, who also played a key role in renovating the historic Grove Arcade.

But Ellison’s vocal opposition to the plan came on the heels of his own unsuccessful negotiations with the EMSDC and the city to obtain substantial concessions from the project (see “Who benefits?” below).

Geter, meanwhile, was pushing hard for Council to approve the transfer of the federal funds (which the city has been sitting on since 2001), enabling a complex public/private/nonprofit partnership to begin renovating five vacant, decaying structures and creating one new infill building.

“We’ve waited years. We need Council to make a decision tonight — either up or down,” a frustrated Geter implored at the Jan. 27 City Council meeting. The EMSDC, formed in 1994 to oversee the area’s redevelopment, was the leading proponent of a plan developed in cooperation with city planning staff and others.

Judging by the rhetoric on both sides, however, far more than just bricks and mortar was and is at stake. Behind all the points of contention — a proposed infill building, the complaints about the EMSDC’s failure to keep Block property owners informed, the questions about the nonprofit’s record keeping — lay a vivid sense of The Block as the collective “inheritance” of the city’s African-American residents.

“It [The Block] is the history and the heritage of the African-American people in Asheville,” Ellison said during the Council postponement.

And sooner or later, someone would come in and reap the potential benefits lying dormant in this dilapidated but strategically situated area.

“All my life, I’ve seen the African-American community go from large to almost nothing,” Geter told Xpress during the four-week Council postponement, “and, businesswise, go from many to … not even a handful.” The South Pack Square area, continued Geter (who came to the EMSDC in 1994), “is the last continuous piece of property owned by African-Americans in the city — and it’s a very valuable piece of property.”

Despite substantial progress in cleaning up The Block in recent years, however, it remains, to a significant extent, a community of empty buildings. At least half of the neighborhood’s roughly 15 structures stand vacant — including all of the ones slated for rehabilitation. At least two of the occupied buildings house nonprofits. Among the few residents are entrepreneurs Jesse and Amy Plaster, who bought the Wilson Building in 2001. But a number of recently established businesses are operating in the midst of the decaying, boarded-up structures, and several more are preparing to open.

In an interview before the final Council vote, another key player in the controversy — the Rev. John Grant of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church (a major Block property owner and a partner in the EMSDC’s redevelopment plan) — summed things up this way: “I don’t think it’s just about [an] infill building; it’s not about [an] audit. I think it’s really about politics — and who’s going to control the development of this Block.”

From blight to new promise

In recent years, The Block’s decay has stood in stark contrast to an otherwise booming downtown Asheville. The much-contested neighborhood sits literally around the corner from both bustling Biltmore Avenue and, in the other direction, City/County Plaza and Pack Square. And despite having the Asheville Police Department headquarters as a near neighbor, The Block remained, until recently, a hotbed of prohibited behaviors.

The Rev. Grant of Mt. Zion, one of Asheville’s oldest houses of worship, recalls those dark days:

“You had people selling drugs and engaging in prostitution. A man was found dead out there in a car; the rats had literally started eating on his body. We had people who actually came in our church door and defecated and urinated, and we had to put a fence up to keep people from coming in there.”

But Grant, a longtime Asheville resident who came to Mt. Zion in 1980 and simultaneously served as the EMSDC’s president and board chairman until Geter came on board, also cites the years of hard work that helped turn the neighborhood around. Besides regular church-sponsored cleanups, Mt. Zion, the EMSDC and the nonprofit YMI Cultural Center (a long-standing presence on The Block) all worked to reach out to the people on the street.

Meanwhile, both Mt. Zion and the EMSDC were gradually acquiring Block property. The church bought its three buildings with its own money, while the EMSDC’s five buildings were bought using mostly federal Community Development Block Grant funds.

The city’s involvement — which began with The Block’s designation as a “blighted area” in 1991 and continued with the adoption of its redevelopment plan — also entailed an increased police presence (the EMSDC’S office building — a mere two blocks from police headquarters — also houses a special “Police/Community Resource Center”).

The hard work paid off. Crime statistics provided to Xpress by city Community Development Director Charlotte Caplan highlight the dramatic improvement in recent years. Between 1998 and 2001, calls to the Asheville Police Department about problems on The Block plummeted. Fight calls fell from 18 in 1998 to just two in 2001, drug calls from 60 to four, and noise-complaint calls from 29 to 0.

Even as the EMSDC was helping some of the few existing businesses relocate as a prelude to renovation efforts, private investors were moving ahead with their own projects on The Block.

Ellison and McGlohon bought the Ritz Building in September 2000 for about $65,000 and subsequently renovated it to house their businesses.

And the Plasters acquired the Wilson Building in April 2001 for $275,000. After extensive renovation, it now houses a number of small businesses.

And though all parties still appeared to be sounding the same rhetoric, their separate agendas increasingly put them on a collision course.

Shifting alliances, clashing plans

Critics maintain that the EMSDC plan conflicted with the original South Pack Square Redevelopment Plan in a number of ways, including the lack of affordable housing.

But EMSDC Executive Director Elizabeth Russell has stressed that The plan voted down by Council represented only the first phase of a long-term redevelopment program — a point largely lost amid all the controversy. The affordable-housing component, she notes, would come later, citing the involvement in the project of Enterprise Real Estate Services, the for-profit arm of the nonprofit Enterprise Foundation, a national advocate for affordable housing.

Grant, meanwhile, observes: “This is not intended to be an affordable-housing project — this is a community-development project. Let’s just be clear about it. This community … needs some mechanism in place to become an income generator. If you really want to talk about providing affordable houses and all that entails, I think the community needs to be in a position where you’re not always going somewhere with your hands out, begging somebody for a grant or donation.”

Another key complaint was that the EMSDC had failed to keep Block property owners informed about its work. Matters came to a head when the nonprofit began circulating the finished plans last fall. All four dissenting owners — whose buildings sit smack in the middle of the area targeted for construction — have said they felt excluded from the final design process, which was completed on Sept. 29. Several of the Plasters’ tenants echoed those sentiments.

Despite the mounting woes, City Council was scheduled to vote on the project at its Jan. 27 formal session. Confronting still more questions, however, Council opted for yet another postponement. Among those concerns were the EMSDC’s lack of an audit for 2002 and the nonprofit’s failure to provide a detailed description of how it planned to buy back the improvements to its properties from developer David Rogers. The latter problem had been highlighted by the Asheville Citizen-Times in its coverage of the unfolding Block saga in the days leading up to the Jan. 27 meeting.

By the time Council revisited the issue on Feb. 24, the EMSDC had supplied the missing information. In the interim, however, still more issues had cropped up, most notably a flap about a whited-out federal form that ran on the front page of the Citizen-Times the day of the final vote.

Meanwhile, the newspaper’s complex role in the unfolding events was itself becoming a point of controversy. President and Publisher Virgil Smith chairs the YMI Cultural Center’s board of directors. And after attempting to serve as a mediator in the dispute early on, Smith removed himself from the process, he later told Xpress (though his paper continued to spotlight the problems). Accordingly, the YMI made Jesse Ray, vice chair of the nonprofit’s board of directors, its official spokesperson on the issue.

For its part, the YMI was positioning itself carefully, calling for progress on The Block without actually endorsing the EMSDC plan. “We’re for the development of Eagle [and] Market Streets, but not involved in the design controversy,” Ray told Xpress during the Council postponement. “But Eagle/Market Streets [Development Corporation] did not follow process in that plan.” Ray also offered the YMI’s help in guiding the embattled parties toward common ground.

The EMSDC, however, felt it wasn’t getting a fair shake. During the postponement period, Geter told Xpress that he saw Smith’s dual role as Citizen-Times publisher and head of the dissenting YMI’s board as a conflict of interest. Geter further characterized the Citizen-Times‘ news coverage and editorial stance on The Block in recent months as “one-sided” and disappointing. And Russell maintained that the Citizen-Times had failed to tell their side of the story.

These charges, Smith later told Xpress, “have no substance whatsoever.” Defending the objectivity of his paper’s news reporting and the legitimacy of its editorial position, Smith added: “Geter is deflecting issues to me. Clearly, he has been arrogant in trying to resolve these differences.”

On Jan. 27, the Citizen-Times ran a lead editorial calling on Council to reconsider the whole project. After the paperwork discrepancies had been laid to rest, a Feb. 21 editorial asked Council to approve the project with the proper oversight. On the actual day of the final Council vote, however, the newspaper ran an op-ed piece by Ellison titled “Council’s History of Flubbed Projects Casts Pall Over Future of The Block,” along with front-page coverage of the dispute about the altered HUD form (which Ellison had known about since October) and a story about a Feb. 23 public meeting at the YMI where Ellison and Plaster had presented hastily assembled alternative plans.

At the Feb. 24 Council meeting, Ray — the YMI’s official spokesperson on the issue — recommended that Council deny funding to the EMSDC. In an interview after the vote, he concluded that “the process wasn’t inclusive, including [for] the YMI” and “the time wasn’t right to move forward.”

John R. Hayes, president of the Asheville chapter of the NAACP, supported the project to the bitter end. But he, too, voiced reservations along the way about both the property owners’ complaints and the EMSDC’s record-keeping practices.

Who benefits?

However sincere Ellison’s feelings about the deeper significance of The Block, he also appears to have had his own interests at heart. And though much of his public comment on the project focused on concerns about community and affordable housing, he didn’t file his lawsuit until after his negotiations to gain significant benefits from the project had collapsed.

Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford‘s report to City Council at the Dec. 9 work session described the EMSDC’s attempts to work with Ellison and included a “list of requested concessions [that] was presented by Mr. Gene Ellison to the City Attorney, on or about October 14, 2003.”

A number of the items on Ellison’s list, reported Shuford, had to do with the infill building planned for the vacant lot adjacent to the Ritz Building. Among Ellison’s requests were various improvements to his building — to be financed by the EMSDC — including a 250-person banquet facility, 20 to 40 new apartments, and two spaces in the proposed new structure’s ground-level parking facility. Other items included “lease the space for elevator from the Ritz, or purchase $200,000 over 10 yrs.” and “let Ritz Bldg. build 10-story building in rear of our building & transfer Jeanette Bldg. to Ritz property plus back lot to 46 S. Market.”

Asked about the list later, Ellison described it as possible options for working together. And whereas his opening salvo in November had focused on affordable housing and concern for The Block, he told Xpress in a later interview: “Once it’s finished, we’re finished! Because we don’t have the finances to be there for three years while they come in and block up Eagle Street.”

Much of Ellison’s public opposition to the project, however, centered on his contention that the infill building was an illegal “substantial modification” of the city’s original plan, rather than on his personal concerns.

Shuford’s Dec. 9 report to Council, meanwhile, went on to recommend that Council approve the transfer of funds to the EMSDC. This proved to be something of a turning point in the evolving controversy.

On Dec. 16, Ellison filed his lawsuit. And several critics blasted Shuford’s recommendation. Virgil Smith later told Xpress he’d been “shocked” by Shuford’s presentation; Jesse Plaster later called the Jan. 27 presentation a “biased sales pitch.”

Over in the EMSDC camp, however, Geter, Russell and Grant all characterized Ellison’s demands as unreasonable and unrealistic. “We’re working for the betterment of the total community,” he continued, “not for one individual, or two individuals.”

Coming soon…

Immediately after City Council voted down the EMSDC funding, an overjoyed Ellison called his friends to his Ritz Building to celebrate. As this reporter stood on the steps of City Hall interviewing the Rev. Charles Mosley of Nazareth First Baptist Church about his disappointment with the vote, Ellison came running past, leaped into the air and gave a victory shout. After apologizing to the flabbergasted Mosley, Ellison gave a second gleeful shout before running off into the night.

Asked about his role in stopping the project, Ellison later said, “I don’t want to take credit for it, but being from Asheville, I feel privileged.”

In any case, the collapse of the plan has left a great many questions about the future of The Block, the EMSDC and the $1.14 million in federal funds the city is still holding. To date, reports Community Development Director Caplan, the city has channeled more than $146,000 in federal CDBG moneys to the EMSDC and its now-halted plan, most of which cannot be recouped. The money was used to pay architectural fees associated with the plan, help existing Block businesses relocate, and obtain appraisals and insurance in connection with the EMSDC’s property acquisitions.

Throughout the months of controversy, city staff — who were among the few people with a detailed grasp of the complex project — have consistently supported it.

But in the wake of the Council vote, the contending parties seem as divided as ever.

Having seen a decade’s worth of work unravel, the EMSDC must now chart a new course amid critics’ calls for a new board of directors for the nonprofit. Nonetheless, the group feels its record of working for The Block speaks for itself.

“Our doors have always been open,” Geter said recently from the nonprofit’s offices on South Market Street, which double as a community resource center for people from the neighborhood. The EMSDC staff remains committed to maintaining the African-American character of The Block.

“We want to do things for our community, and we want to be able to do them ourselves, rather than having to go to someone and always ask,” stresses Geter. The nonprofit, he reports, still believes in its plan and is exploring new alternatives for moving forward.

Ellison, McGlohon, the Plasters and the YMI, however, all seem determined to be more involved in any future plans for the area.

And Council member Terry Bellamy, whose vote to deny the EMSDC its funding dealt a symbolic death blow to the nonprofit’s plan, is meeting with interested parties to discuss what happens now.

In the end, the unraveling of the dream that was The Block appears to have resulted from conflicting visions of what needs to be done, how redevelopment should come about, and whose needs should come first.

“What The Block needs is Eagle/Market Streets [Development Corporation] to … fix up the three buildings they have,” said Ellison in an interview during the Council postponement. “Then they can join the renaissance that’s already going on. The development of The Block has not been waiting on Eagle/Market Streets [Development Corporation], and Johnny-come-lately should not be allowed to upset all of the private small businesses that have invested their time and money [and are] going to be ruined if this project goes through.”

A post-vote telephone interview, however, found Ellison looking ahead. “I’m through tearing down; now is the time to rebuild,” he said.

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