The irregular patch of pavement at the corner of Haywood Street and Page Avenue in downtown Asheville is heating up again, and it’s not just the warmer weather. The city-owned parcel, adjacent to the Civic Center and the Basilica of St. Lawrence, was once earmarked for a parking deck that proved highly controversial and was eventually canceled. Now, however, the site is en route to becoming home to a seven-story hotel, and that prospect has both the Basilica and anti-high-rise activists up in arms.
Asheville is working out a contract to sell the 0.77-acre property to the McKibbon Hotel Group—the next step in a two-year process of finding suitable developers for various city-owned parcels downtown. The Haywood Street property is one of three plots that have been the focus of that effort. The city’s initial request for qualifications—in which interested firms submit a sort of extended resumé displaying past work—resulted in nine companies making the cut for that site. But only McKibbon followed up with a proposal.
The developer is proposing a seven-story, 130-room hotel featuring 9,200 square feet of retail space and 130 parking spaces, some of which would be public. The original proposal called for a 350-space deck, fulfilling a long-held city goal to increase public parking in that part of town. The parking component was scaled back, however, after the city launched talks with AT&T to purchase its parking lot nearby, Economic Development Director Sam Powers reports.
But the prospect of a seven-story building smack across the street has spurred Basilica officials into action. Basilica property manager Bud Hansbury has met with city staff and Council members, asking that the city either develop a park on the site or increase the required setback for any development there. He’s also released a “Save the Basilica” video that’s now making the rounds on the Internet. The proposed structure, he told Xpress, would tower over the 1909-vintage Basilica and completely cut it off from downtown.
Meanwhile, People Advocating Real Conservancy, a local grass-roots group, has gotten in the game, circulating e-mails and likening the plan to the controversial Parkside condominium project that’s the focus of a protracted legal battle.
This isn’t the first time the area around the Basilica has sparked outcry by activist groups. In 2005, the city scrapped a six-story parking deck planned for the area after the Basilica’s owner, the Diocese of Charlotte, backed out of an agreement to sell the city property needed for the project. The deck, which would have backed up up to the neighboring Battery Park Apartments, also prompted protest demonstrations by sign-wielding tenants there. Canceling the project proved costly for the city, which had already invested $4 million to acquire adjacent parcels and design the deck. McKibbon’s initial bid for the property was $2.3 million.
Powers, meanwhile, points out that the whole process of seeking proposals has been “extensive and transparent,” with regular Council updates since 2007. Both the hotel project and the land sale will still require Council approval before construction can begin.