Developer Tony Fraga has decided to abandon his massive Haywood Park proposal for downtown Asheville, which included a pair of 20-plus-story high-rises. Attorney Lou Bissette delivered the news to the Asheville City Council during its Nov. 11 meeting.
More than a month before, on Sept. 23, Bissette appeared in the Council chamber flanked by Fraga and a team of designers to pitch the plan, but Council members quickly let it be known that they were uncomfortable with the scale of the megaproject, which would have included a 23-story hotel and a 25-story condo tower as well as several smaller structures (see “Asheville City Council,” Oct. 1 Xpress).
This time, however, Bissette was alone, and though a request to delay the project for a year was slated for consideration during the meeting, Mayor Terry Bellamy invited him to speak even before the consent agenda had been addressed.
“My client does not believe the project can be reasonably restructured to meet Council’s concerns that it is out of scale,” said Bissette. Uncertain economic conditions, he added, make waiting any longer a bad gamble. So Fraga has decided to withdraw his proposal.
At the heart of the problem, noted Bissette, was the planned 500-space underground parking garage. Without the revenue from the structures up above, he said, building that garage would not be financially feasible.
Instead, said Bissette, Fraga will turn his attention to revitalizing the existing Haywood Park Hotel and to a mixed-use development intended for the Westgate Mall site.
But while he had the microphone, Bissette had a few more points to make.
“The city’s approval process has cost my client significant time, money and energy,” he said. In his prior appearance before Council, Bissette had criticized them for not giving Fraga advance notice of their concerns. The situation, he said, does not bode well for development in Asheville. “The city of Asheville makes it very difficult for developers to invest in our city,” the former mayor charged.
Meanwhile, he added, Fraga’s Westgate project has its own troubles: The final design is contingent on the outcome of the continuing deliberations concerning the route of the planned I-26 connector.
But Fraga’s retreat did not mark the end of the game for Council member Carl Mumpower, who said that a $3 million donation to the Eblen-Kimmel Charitable Group that was included in Fraga’s original Haywood Park proposal amounted to either “bribery” or “extortion,” depending on who first came up with the idea.
According to the staff report, the donation was included in the proposal to provide the affordable-housing component that has become a pretty standard element of many of the large-scale conditional-use-permit requests that have come before Council in recent years. Developers whose projects don’t include affordable housing on site have typically contributed to local charities working on the issue.
Nonetheless, the inclusion of the donation in Fraga’s proposal didn’t sit well with Mumpower, who declared: “Either he is the greatest humanitarian in history or someone is twisting his arm.”
City Manager Gary Jackson defended his staff, explaining that they often show developers the conditions Council members have attached to other projects they’ve approved to give the developers an idea of what to expect. And the affordable-housing component does show up in those reports, he conceded.
Bellamy, meanwhile, jumped in to support everyone involved, including Fraga, saying Mumpower’s comments amounted to “slander.”
“To say it was considered extortion is wrong,” said the mayor. “I don’t think … Tony Fraga would bribe elected officials. I think that’s wrong, and I think questioning his integrity is wrong.”
For his part, Bissette said that neither he nor Fraga had thought any impropriety was involved. “My client has the highest respect for the staff of this city,” he assured them. But City Council’s habit of asking for support for affordable housing downtown is no secret, added Bissette.
“In the development community, it is known that there needs to be an affordable-housing component,” the attorney noted. “It has grown into part of the process, and that needs to be looked at.”
A hiring conspiracy?
Meanwhile, Mumpower wasn’t finished. Repeating his frequent charge that city contractors hire illegal workers, Mumpower noted that, according to sources reporting to him, most people working on the city’s water-line-repair project “don’t speak English” and that there are “estimates that 75 percent [of the workers] are illegal.”
The allegations came after a presentation by City Attorney Bob Oast on the feasibility of requiring contractors hired by the city to use the E-Verify system, which taps into a federal database to confirm that the documents presented to employers match those on file with the government.
Like all other employers, contractors must have a completed I-9 form for all new hires, which requires them to show two forms of ID. And the E-Verify system, noted Oast, “is only as good as the documentation on file.”
Additionally, he said, false positives generated by the system have sparked some controversy, and a contractor who dismisses someone because of a faulty E-Verify result could be liable to lawsuits for violating the person’s civil rights.
“My job is to determine whether or not that liability could be transferred to us,” Oast explained. He added that he wants to conduct more research concerning the government agencies involved, the business community and what’s happened in other cities that have already implemented such a requirement.
Undeterred, Mumpower made a motion to adopt a policy requiring city contractors to use the system, but it failed for lack of a second.
His colleagues’ stance, charged Mumpower, makes them complicit in a “conspiracy,” and he vowed to keep bringing up the issue. But Council member Holly Jones dismissed Mumpower’s accusations as empty, making a motion to table any further discussion of the E-Verify policy for six months. “Just because someone speaks a foreign language on a work site is not verification that they are illegal,” she observed. Jones’ motion was approved 5-2, with Mumpower Council member Bill Rusell opposed.
Tracking the homeless
In other business, Council members approved the formation of a joint city/county Homeless Initiative Advisory Committee to assist with advancing the city’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness. The Buncombe County Commissioners had unanimously approved the idea at their Nov. 4 meeting.
And in a move that may ultimately prove to be more crucial, City Council also approved a resolution requiring city-funded agencies that assist homeless people to participate in the Homeless Management Information System. The database tracks homeless people in the region and what services they’re provided with. Last month, Amy Sawyer, the city staffer charged with overseeing the Homeless Initiative, told Council that some agencies’ refusal to take part in the data-collection program constituted a weak link in the initiative.
And with the issue now back before Council, it seemed an easy choice to make.
Vice Mayor Jan Davis said the use of the HMIS database had been a key factor in his decision to support the initiative three years ago. “I find it distressing so few [agencies] were in compliance,” he noted.
Both motions were approved 6-1, with Mumpower the odd man out.
On another front, City Council said it wants more information before agreeing to give the city’s Transit Commission a role in dealing with parking issues. The request came from commission co-Chair (and Xpress food columnist) Hanna Raskin, who told Council that no citizen board currently has a voice in decisions concerning parking, which she said is a logical fit with her group’s need to consider the overall transportation picture.
“Rather than invent a new commission—which would require additional staff hours, member recruitment and training—we propose our purview be expanded to include parking,” Raskin explained.
Davis responded that Council’s Boards and Commissions Committee, which he chairs, has already considered and rejected the idea. And though he said they would be happy to look at it again, he added that he isn’t personally interested in expanding the Transit Commission’s role.
Council member Brownie Newman, on the other hand, argued in favor of expanding the commission’s scope to encompass transportation as a whole—including parking.
City staff were instructed to research the topic further and report back to Council at a later date.
Council seat up for grabs
In case you haven’t heard, the Asheville City Council will soon be one member short. Holly Jones is moving over to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, and the process for determining who will serve out the remaining year of her Council term is already under way, noted Bellamy (see “Infill,” Nov. 12 Xpress). Applications, including five essay questions, are available at the city clerk’s office, which must receive the completed forms no later than noon on Wednesday, Nov. 26. (As of Nov. 17, only three applications had been turned in, City Clerk Maggie Burleson reported.)
All applications submitted—including the essay answers—will be available on the city’s Web site once the deadline has passed, noted Bellamy.
“Everything that someone submits will be available for all to see,” said the mayor.
Meanwhile, several Council members said they’d heard complaints from the community about the new selection process being used this year, and Davis felt compelled to defend the system, which he had proposed to begin with.
“I will say to the people who are detractors, this process is a clear and open one,” he asserted, adding, “There are no preconceived candidates.”
And while community concerns were being aired, Bellamy decided to take advantage of the chance to address a rumor that’s been circulating: that she was considering accepting a position in incoming Gov. Bev Purdue‘s office.
“As humbling as that is,” said Bellamy, “I am running for re-election. My goal is to stay here for at least four more years.”