In limbo since 2008 due to a faltering economy, the 51 Biltmore project took a couple of steps forward at the Asheville City Council's Dec. 14 meeting. If the hotel/parking deck/retail development is approved, the target site — a large parking lot on Biltmore Avenue — could change dramatically.
On a pair of 4-2 votes with Council members Cecil Bothwell and Gordon Smith opposed, Council approved leasing space on South Lexington Avenue to Public Interest Projects for use during construction and set a Jan. 11 public hearing to consider issuing $15.5 million in revenue bonds for the city’s share of the project, a 422-space parking deck.
Under the terms of the complex deal, Asheville would build the deck on land purchased from Public Interest Projects; the McKibbon Hotel Group would build and manage an Aloft Hotel and retail space atop the deck.
Proponents, including Vice Mayor Brownie Newman, say it’s a golden opportunity for the city to secure the downtown property and add much-needed parking while spurring economic development in the area.
“This is a big commitment of resources, sure,” conceded Newman. “But when I think about public parking in downtown, if we're going to build one more project in the foreseeable future, this is the one to do: It's the area of downtown that needs it the most.”
According to staff reports, the city’s overall parking revenues are projected to cover the cost of the bond debt. In the long run, owning the facility would be cheaper than leasing it, even though the city would be paying $130 per square foot rather than the current appraised value (about $95 per square foot).
Some on Council were skeptical, however. “For $14 million, we could build a four-mile trolley system,” asserted Bothwell, a vocal critic of the project. Staff's assessments, he noted, had failed to consider other forms of transportation that could provide access to the area without increasing traffic problems.
“It seems to me like we're acting on a plan developed in a different economic situation,” said Bothwell. “The parking study didn't consider at all changing automobile use. … The best estimates say we're going to reach peak oil within the next decade. Transit is changing; putting all of our eggs in one basket is a serious problem.”
Smith voiced similar concerns, saying the city needs a “multitiered approach” and that “We can't just do parking and solve the problem.” He queried consultant Fred Burchette, who conducted the 51 Biltmore parking studies, concerning his analysis.
“Our study was based on existing land use” and the demand it creates, as well as the fact that new transit and shuttle systems would increase the city’s annual operating costs, Burchette replied. “At peak times, it's hard to find parking on Biltmore. You don't have parking, people won't come downtown.”
And for my annexed trick…
At a pre-meeting work session, Council members revisited their annexation policy, peering at a big map of areas the city might absorb. Because state legislation aimed exclusively at Asheville prohibits the city from making annexation a precondition for access to the water system, and Council has traditionally been cautious about taking in new areas, Asheville barely makes the top 20 North Carolina cities in terms of total area annexed, city staff explained.
And with newly minted Republican majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, several Council members noted that Republican state Sen. Tom Apodaca, who will head the powerful Rules and Operations Committee, has declared his intent to do away with involuntary annexation.
“It's easier to negotiate with someone when you're not pissing them off,” Council member Esther Manheimer observed. “We have to prepare for a future without forced annexation.”
Council member Jan Davis expressed some optimism, opining that Apodaca “wouldn't want to cut the legs out from the biggest city in his district.”
City Manager Gary Jackson advised Council that, off the record, the N.C. League of Municipalities is advising towns and cities to take a cautious approach to annexation until the legislative dust settles.
But Bothwell pointed out that if forced annexation is on the way out, this could be the city's last chance to take corrective action. The current situation, he added, allows surrounding urbanized areas to use city services without helping pay for them.
“We need to find ways to tax people from outside the city for being here,” said Bothwell, citing such examples as cheaper parking rates for city residents.
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at email@example.com.