The going price for the airspace off of the First Union building on Patton Avenue now stands at $4,775. That’s the bid placed July 2 by People Advocating Real Conservancy, the group trying to put an end to the city’s policy of selling air rights to the highest bidder. A bidding war for this particular patch of air has gone on week to week, since May, between developer Urban Capital and PARC.
Urban Capital, a group of investors including Chuck Tessier and architect John Rogers, is renovating the building into an office-condominium complex called the Capital Center. Part of their design calls for balconies that extend about 3 1/2 feet over the sidewalk. Asheville’s current policy has been to take bids on the airspace based on appraisals by city staff—in this case $3,800—which Urban Capital met. Then PARC stepped up with a higher sum, and now the price rises every 10 days as the two trade upset bids.
PARC organizer Elaine Lite continues to maintain that this fight is not about this particular project, but about the city policy, which she has compared to a corporate subsidy.
“I appreciate their situation,” she says of Urban Capital’s unexpected tug-of-war with PARC. “I have no problem with what they are doing with that building. I have a problem with the city selling the air rights.” (Late last month, Lite announced her candidacy for City Council, based, she says, on the city’s development attitudes she has encountered in both PARC and Mountain Voices Alliance. “There is this mindset of grow or die, and I don’t believe that,” she told Xpress.)
Downtown balconies sometimes raise hackles for extending into public space, obscuring views and blocking sunshine from reaching trees. The Urban Capital project, though, is in a wide section of road near Pritchard Park, and even Lite admits the planned balconies won’t intrude much.
“It would in no way inhibit tree growth,” insists Rogers, who says he’s surprised to be drawn into this debate. The renovation, he notes, is in full swing, but it will still be months before the balconies are put in. In the meantime, he’s hoping for some mediation to resolve the issue, and says he has tried to meet with Lite to discuss it.
Lite, meanwhile, recently met with City Attorney Bob Oast to look at other options for regulating air rights, such as encroachment rights, which allow intrusion over the public right of way but do not permanently deed away the space. “My issue is not with John [Rogers], it is with the city,” she says of the prospect of sitting down with Urban Capital. She says it’s more important not to let the city establish a precedent of selling air rights.
Oast told Xpress that such encroachment arrangements are usually used for structures like awnings that can be removed, rather than fixed balconies. But, he said, city staff has begun looking seriously at the alternatives.