Amid packed chambers and a contentious public debate, Asheville City Council voted 4-2 earlier tonight, Sept. 11, to approve the $2.5 million sale of property on Haywood Street to the McKibbon Hotel Group, who plan to build a 140-room hotel on the site.
After an hour-and-a-half public hearing, Council members voted 4-2 in favor of the project. However, they added requirements for a second appraisal of the land’s value, mitigating shadows on the Basilica, seismic monitoring to protect the historic structures nearby, a traffic-management study, and following the Downtown Master Plan’s design guidelines.
“This process has been going on for nearly a decade,” Council member Gordon Smith noted. “It’s time to pull the trigger.” He and Council member Jan Davis later added that they wanted to see the funds from the sale go towards affordable housing efforts.
In 2006, the city decided to sell off some of its property to promote economic development. The Haywood Street property — currently occupied by abandoned parking and commercial space — was a key to that effort, given its desirable location, and in 2008, McKibbon emerged at the top of the heap of all the applicants seeking to develop the property. However, the economic downturn left the fate of the project uncertain. Late last year, the Diocese of Charlotte, which runs the Basilica, offered to buy the property for $2 million and develop a plaza/residential/retail space on it. However, city staff have asserted that they were obligated to follow the process out with McKibbon, and that they must sell the site at fair market value, estimated at $2.5 million.
People Advocating Real Conservancy, an activist group that often opposes development it feels detrimental to the city, lobbied hard against the McKibbon plan, organizing opponents and even conducted a poll that found a majority opposed to the deal. Supporters of the Basilica’s plan and others concerned about the project also showed up in force, filling Council’s chambers.
Many speakers opposed the McKibbon plan because they didn’t want a hotel on the site (a park or public space was a popular alternative) or felt the Basilica would do a better job of developing the area. However, some speakers endorsed McKibbon’s plan, feeling it will bring much-needed activity to an abandoned area. For its part, the company promised to build a development set back from the Basilica and in keeping with the area’s architecture, as well as claiming that it’s open to future cooperation with the Basilica and other organizations on a plaza space.
Council member Cecil Bothwell (who works with the PARC political action committee) and Mayor Terry Bellamy voted against the sale. Bothwell said that the city should wait, redo the nearby intersection and then start the process of finding a potential developer over, asserting that too much had changed since McKibbon’s initial proposal. Bellamy also criticized the process, and felt the public’s feelings weren’t properly taken into account.
Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer was recused from the meeting because her law firm, Van Winkle, was hired to represent McKibbon. The company still has to get approval from the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission and city staff, a process that will take roughly a year.