What now?

Two weeks before his Parkside project was due to come before City Council in what promised to be a contentious public hearing, developer Stewart Coleman lopped two stories off the design.

Beneath the bar: Originally planned as an 11-story condominium building (above), the developer now proposes a nine-story design (below) — a move that reduces it to a size that will not require City Council approval. Illustrations Courtesy Parkside LLC

In some cases, making a proposed downtown Asheville high-rise shorter might have been expected to quell the outcry by community activists, but this time, it just enraged some folks even more, since it meant that Council—which had been viewed as the final line of defense against the controversial project—would not get a chance to weigh in on it. Height aside, opponents have decried Parkside’s proximity to City/County Plaza (now in the midst of a high-dollar makeover), Buncombe County’s low-profile sale of public parkland to the developer, and a string of questions about how the deal went down.

The building has garnered plenty of attention. Many feel its 11 stories (now reduced to nine) would dominate the new Pack Square Park, which is flanked by the historic City Building and the Buncombe County Courthouse. Even the Pack Square Conservancy—the nonprofit that’s taking the lead role in the park’s $20 million redesign—has protested Parkside’s height and siting. Others complained that placing the structure there would cut off the Eagle/Market streets neighborhood, a historic African-American business district, from the park.

In a redesign submitted May 27, Coleman reduced the square footage to 99,380 square feet—620 square feet below the threshold that triggers a level III review by City Council. Now, Parkside merely needs approval by the Technical Review Committee, which had already signed off on the prior design.

“It is discouraging that our process allows this to happen,” said Elaine Lite of the grass-roots group People Advocating Real Conservancy. “When you cut off just enough to get just under the hairline, that’s pretty lame,” said the former City Council candidate.

Conservancy board Chair Carol King was also dismayed by the developments. “It eliminates all of us from the game—even P&Z,” she said.

By the beginning of May, the original design had cleared both the TRC and the Downtown Commission (the latter with only one dissenting vote)—and split the Planning and Zoning Commission right down the middle. And with the development attracting community activists’ undivided attention, a battle seemed likely at the June 10 public hearing.

City staff had already recommended removing one floor, and although Council members were legally barred from discussing the hearing ahead of time, even Coleman said it looked as though it might be hard to find four votes without trimming the building’s height.

But the developer’s surprise move has left Asheville, Buncombe County and the conservancy wondering what the next move might be even as they put previously discarded options back on the table.

“Fortunately, the City Council will have final say on the appropriateness of any development near the park,” Board of Commissioners Vice Chair David Gantt wrote in a 2007 e-mail to a concerned resident after controversy erupted earlier that year over the county’s sale of the property (see “Pack Square Park Land Sale,” July 25, 2007 Xpress).

Word of Coleman’s decision reached Council members as they were filing into the chamber for their May 27 meeting. At the end of that meeting, Council met in closed session with City Attorney Bob Oast. “We requested our attorney to give us all of our options,” Council member Robin Cape said later.

Those options could include a land swap, with the city giving up a piece of city-owned property on Marjorie Street in exchange for Coleman’s relinquishing his bit of parkland and shifting his building accordingly—a deal the developer has indicated he might accept. The idea has come up before, including during an April 8 closed session, but it was rejected. Now, with Council no longer in line to review the project, it appears that the land-swap idea may be back in play.

At the time, Cape says she saw the land swap as a strong-arm tactic, since the parcel in question was one of those for which the city had been screening development proposals, seeking projects that fit with the city’s goals. “Now [we would] be forced to give him that property, like in a fire sale,” she told Xpress.

In the wake of the latest developments, however, Cape echoes the sentiments of others in the community who feel the ball is back in the county’s court. “I really think they should buy that property back,” she said. At press time, City Council planned to meet with Oast in a special closed session June 3.

The blogger: Gordon Smith, of the Scrutiny Hooligans blog, vehemently opposes the Parkside condo project and has called for an investigation of the land deal.

“Stewart Coleman has followed the letter of the law,” agrees Gordon Smith, whose blog Scrutiny Hooligans has covered the story extensively, collecting, sorting through and posting public documents handed over by Buncombe County. “The responsibility to correct the situation falls on the county.”

Return policy

According to Coleman, County Manager Wanda Greene had previously offered him $322,000 (the original sale price) to return the disputed parcel. But he has since spent a good deal of money on the design costs, he says, and he would have to recoup those costs as well. Gantt, meanwhile, said the county had offered $1.6 million for both the parkland and the adjacent Hayes & Hopson Building. Coleman countered with a price of $4.5 million. But state law prohibits the county from spending more than the appraisal price on property, and the deal died, Gantt reports.

That leaves the possibility of reclaiming the property via eminent domain—but while Board of Commissioners Chair Nathan Ramsey has said that “everything’s on the table,” he also notes that no commissioner has actually suggested that the county forcibly buy it back.

The search for a resolution continued during a May 29 meeting attended by several county commissioners, the county manager, King and Coleman. Invitations were also extended to City Manager Gary Jackson and Mayor Terry Bellamy, but neither attended the meeting.

Although the conservancy is relieved by the height reduction, the group still has its sights set on regaining the piece of park that Coleman now owns. “We would love for there to be a way to get that back,” said Communications Director Donna Clark.

Meanwhile, a lawsuit filed by descendants of philanthropist George Willis Pack against Coleman and Buncombe County soldiers on. But while attorney Joe Ferikes acknowledged that the suit aims to keep the piece of parkland in the public domain, he emphasized that it would take an injunction to keep construction from moving forward. That hasn’t happened yet, he said, but if a judge issued such a ruling after a building was erected there, it could make things complicated for Coleman. “That’s their risk if they wish to build there,” said Ferikes.

The developer: Stewart Coleman plans to move ahead with a nine-story, mixed-use building close to City Hall on property that some contend is public parkland. Photos By Jonathan Welch

But Coleman apparently feels confident enough in his chances to start construction. Once the project gets TRC approval, he expects to break ground in four months. Completing the exterior, he says, should take 14 to 16 months. The building, he noted, would also lose one of its three underground parking levels, since the reduction in height means fewer cars on-site.

As for the opposition to the building, Coleman dismisses most of what he hears as the work of a handful of “unpleasant people.”

“I don’t think the crowd’s that big,” he said. “The disapproval crowd, it might not be 20 people deep.”

Cape, however, believes that’s not the case. “I’m hearing from a lot of people and a lot of organizations, and they are very upset,” she said.

And public hearing or no, it seems unlikely that those opposed to the building are going to go quietly away. “I don’t think it is the end, no,” said Smith. “[But] I don’t know what the options are for people to move forward.”

The conservancy isn’t ready to admit defeat yet either, says King. “Above everything else, Mr. Coleman is a businessman,” she notes. “As long as you remember that, there are always options on the table.”

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15 thoughts on “What now?

  1. Becky

    20 people object? Sorry Mr. Coleman. That is the most arrogant, incorrect statement I’ve ever heard. I don’t even know any of the ‘players’ who’ve been active in opposing it, but my family thanks them. That land was meant to be for the people, not private development. The city screwed up, and now we find out his big ‘concession’ (lowering the height) was done to remove it from further review. If he is following the law, fine, but don’t insult people who would prefer land dedicated for the people, to remain in the park. Don’t tell us, oh, you don’t matter, and it’s only 20 of you. So condescending, so typical of rich developers like the Coleman family.

  2. Becky

    Yes, check out scrutiny hooligans web site listed by Gordon, for all the facts. The City sold it almost “under cover of darkness,” or at least with their eyes totally off the ball. The land was NEVER meant to be sold to private developers, it is in the deed (the heirs are suing).

  3. Barry Summers

    The City Council has announced that they will address Parkside next week, June 10th. They are still contemplating how to respond to the Coleman/County end-run around their approval process. We need to show up & let them know we want them to use every available means to stop this travesty.

  4. Barry Summers

    “The city screwed up”…

    I believe that statement actually refers to the County having “screwed up” by selling this park land for development.

    We now know, however, that this was no screw-up. One or two of the Commissioners may have been unaware of exactly what they were selling, but the staff clearly knew. We have their emails showing that they intended to sell this park land all the way back in 2005, long before Stewart Coleman came along. And since then, they have worked dilligently, not to fix their “screw up”, but to push forward Coleman’s building, up to and including threatening the Pack Square Conservancy’s funding to make them come out in support of it. It’s all in writing, in the Express Files.

    Now, the County is moving towards enabling Coleman to side-step Council, on a giant building jammed right onto their doorstep. I tell you, this is embarrassing. I travel a lot for my job, and people around the state are following this, and they’re laughing their pants off at us like we’re The Three Stooges of NC cities.

  5. Becky

    Why does the County want this project so much, and why did they sell it? What is the motivation? We dealt with the County on flood plain issues and it did seem like they are pro-development, without balance, and you have Ramsey ardently anti-zoning or planning. (Now maybe we understand why, with his millions made on selling land to the Cliffs)

  6. Richard

    Do you publish any differing viewpoints or just Gordon and Barry and their friends?

  7. Barry Summers

    Richard, I think you’re seeing the evidence: not many people are fans of this plan to put condominiums in the park. Insinuating that MountainX is censoring supporters of the condos is, well, pretty weak. The truth is simpler. The vast majority hates this & wants it stopped.

    Becky, the first thing you have to understand is that in any large organization, there are factions. One faction within the “County” is the group that believe in privatizing everything they can, including public-owned park land. They are on record, in emails released under pressure, as saying they intended to sell that piece of park for development, long before Stewart Coleman came along. There is also a general disdain for “tree-huggers”, the long-simmering hostility between the City and County, and whatever friendship exists between Commissioners & staff, and Stewart Coleman, a local fixture & source of campaign money.

  8. Becky

    Richard, I don’t know Barry or Gordon. Just a mom with kids living on the outskirts of the city.

    Thanks for explaining Barry. I think I’ve run across that attitude with the County before. Some of the officials do seem almost angry about any kind of planning issue or environmental issue (in our case it was floodways and the trout stream buffer). You could tell that the soils and water guy who visited our neighborhood thought people should be able to do whatever they want right smack up to the water’s edge, even when we (taxpayers) had just spent millions of dollars repairing after Frances and Ivan. He kept stressing the odds were that it would never happen again. We hope not, that’s for sure. But it was OUR houses that we had bought at a risk, sitting on that water, and we kept thinking, why is this guy not encouraging us to educate ourselves, and wanting to work with us? Why is he so crabby? We were being very polite, reasonable, nobody got excited. I remember thinking that perhaps the hurricanes brought focus on the County’s lack of planning and weak ordinance, and this guy wasn’t happy about it.

    I’ve driven by Ramseys NO ZONING sign for years. I understand the resistance to govt regulation, and know you have to balance prop rights against the common good, but I don’t trust him to be balanced, not when he has made millions of dollars himself in real estate. Fairview will look like Leicester Highway soon, it’s just a little sad. You can have development, businesses, thriving economy, and still have regulations that protect our water and the beauty we all love about this place. You can have things like sign ordinances, buffers, and the like, without placing an undue burden on businesses. In fact, businesses do better, when not surrounded by acres of pavement. Ramsey and his cronies are stuck in the past.

    The idea that land deeded as public land, would be earmarked for private sale because of some political philosophy, is unfair to the taxpayers who own it.

  9. Richard

    Becky,

    The first of many things you need to understand is that the County sold the .14 acres that some claim to be part of the park. The city had nothing to do with it.

    I am correct about this Gordon and Barry?

  10. Barry Summers

    You are correct that the County sold the land, and that as far as we know, the City had nothing to do with it, although there have been some rumors (spread partly by Stewart Coleman) that then-City Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford may have had something to do with it. Not sure what to believe, personally. Coleman may have been spreading that to make his predicament look more sympathetic.

    What is not correct is the insinuation that this is not park land. Everyone agrees that the huge magnolia tree in front of City Hall that generations have sat under, played old-time music under, etc. is in fact, in the park.

  11. Barry Summers

    Check out A C-T article just posted today. Council will discuss options to stop Parkside. Even Carl Mumpower comes out solidly: “I will work to assure the Pack property remains in the hands of the public. I am open to helping the County resolve their error in selling this property.”

    Show up at Council 5 pm this Tuesday!

  12. Prospective-Resident-Richard

    I’m following this a bit, though I live in Fort Lauderdale. Why? We’re planning a move to Asheville. I hope the public prevails on this issue.

    Becky, or anyone, please, feel free to enlighten me on the following: On June 5th, Becky wrote “Fairview will look like Leicester Highway soon, it’s just a little sad.” I’m just wondering what causes would bring such a comment. Something I don’t know? This caught my attention because I’ve been looking a possible houses along Leicester Highway. So feel free to give any information regarding Leicester and/or Fairview. Thanks

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