The city of Asheville will examine an offer from McKibbon hotel group for property near the Basilica of St. Lawrence, city staff said at a meeting of City Council’s Planning and Economic Development Committee today, and bring forward more information in March. However, Council members are far from set on the hotel plans: one called the city’s approach “testing the waters.”
The city’s sought to sell the properties — including some derelict buildings and pavement — since 2007. McKibbon came out on top of a request for proposal (RFP) in which it was the only applicant, but financial troubles caused its negotiations with the city to lay fallow until the Diocese of Charlotte (who run the Basilica) made a $2 million offer for the city property, citing concerns about the damage future construction might have on the historic landmark.
According to staff, the city can’t legally take the diocese’s offer, as McKibbon won the RFP, though if the deal doesn’t pan out, it could issue a new RFP and the diocese could submit a proposal. Claiming due diligence, city staff have resumed talks with McKibbon about plans for the site.
Today marked the first public discussion of these developments by Council members and staff, though Council member Marc Hunt did express his thoughts on the matter in an open letter. City Manager Gary Jackson said that McKibbon would have a proposal ready in March for a closer look by the committee.
“We’ll need staff review of the plan itself, so we understand how it matches up against the RFP,” Jackson noted. City Attorney Bob Oast observed that the city will have considerable control over the nature of the development, a concern to protect the Basilica.
“Whether it’s McKibbon, the Diocese, whoever we end up engaging as a partner here, it’s such a critical piece of property,” Hunt said today. “It seems really important that City Council take on the role of making sure any project is entirely compatible with the area. There should be specifics here that go well beyond just what our zoning ordinances and the downtown master plan say.”
Council member Cecil Bothwell asserted that “I don’t think we should allow the Basilica to drive Council to make a decision suddenly,” but that he felt the time for McKibbon’s offer had run out and the city should issue a new RFP after thinking about new possibilities.
“They [McKibbon] said they would do it within two to three years: that has expired,” he said. “I think the city could do a lot better on the deal. I don’t see why we’re being pushed now just because the Basilica made an offer, which we simply can’t take.”
“By moving forward in negotiation with McKibbon, there’s a chance we could get a great design,” Hunt replied. “I see very little downside in taking that down the road. I’m very willing to step away from McKibbon, I have no allegiance to any developer.”
Hunt said the current process is “testing the waters” and didn’t commit the city to McKibbon.
During the meeting’s public comment portion, Anne Fitzgerald-Smith told the committee she was against a hotel on the site, concerned that if it failed, it could become Section 8 housing.
Photo by Bill Rhodes