“I’m afraid that what has happened to our community will happen again.”
— EMSDC supporter Althea Goode
“Basically, this is a routine budget amendment,” observed Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford as he introduced the evening’s main event. But then, after a pause, he added, “As if anything about this project could be routine.”
Shuford’s words were prophetic: The Asheville City Council’s Jan. 27 formal meeting proved to be anything but routine. At stake that evening was the future of The Block — the city’s historically African-American business district — long targeted by city leaders for redevelopment. But when presented with a plan by the Eagle/Market Street Streets Development Corporation (a nonprofit agency that has worked for the past decade to revitalize the area), Council members proceeded with caution, raising a host of questions about both the project and the nonprofit itself.
At issue was a $1.14 million budget amendment acknowledging the receipt of both a loan and an economic-development grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. If approved by City Council, the money would be used to help implement the EMSDC’s proposal for The Block, which calls for renovating five historic structures and erecting an infill building. According to Shuford’s presentation, the project would create 8,000 square feet of new retail space and 14 residential units. In pulling together its proposal, the EMSDC has partnered with both David Rogers (a Charlotte-based private developer who was also a key player in the Grove Arcade renovation) and the Enterprise Foundation, a nationally known nonprofit that works to improve urban areas and provide affordable housing.
The EMSDC plan, said Shuford, would also leverage additional monies slated to be spent as part of a separate but complementary redevelopment plan spearheaded by the Mt. Zion Baptist Church. Together, the two plans would create 12,000 square feet of new retail space and 47 residential units, dramatically transforming a strategically positioned part of downtown that has long sat idle.
Shuford was quick to point out that although the residential units aren’t classified as affordable housing per se, they would be priced so that service workers and city employees could afford them. Rogers later told Council that he expects the rents to range from $600 to $800 per month, depending on the size of the unit.
Ultimately, said Shuford, the EMSDC plan would “preserve and revitalize a unique, historic African-American neighborhood.” What’s more, he noted, the project has the backing not only of his own staff but also of the EMSDC, the Mt. Zion Baptist Church, the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County, and “particularly, African-Americans who remember The Block in its heyday.” Further bolstering his argument, Shuford stressed that “no local tax dollars will be involved. … These are federal tax dollars — that’s a really important aspect of this project.”
“A sense of urgency”
Controversy has surrounded the proposal ever since property owners Gene Ellison and Howard McGlohon filed a restraining order on Dec. 16 to prevent the project from moving forward. The two business partners, who bought the historic Ritz Building in 2000 and renovated it, maintain that the EMSDC violated the 1994 South Pack Square Redevelopment Plan (which spells out the parameters for redevelopment on The Block). According to the lawsuit, the decision to include an infill building next to the Ritz Building constitutes a change in the the official city plan requiring input from the affected property owners. Instead, the two men say they were illegally excluded from the decision-making process. Investors Jesse and Amy Plaster — who own another Block property, the Wilson Building — later joined the suit. The restraining order has since been lifted, allowing the city to move forward, but the case is ongoing.
Ellison and McGlohon have also criticized both city staff and the EMSDC for limiting public input on the current redevelopment proposal.
And when it was time for the public to speak at the Council meeting, the deep passions that seem to underlie the entire project quickly became evident.
“There is a sense of urgency surrounding the project,” EMSDC Assistant Treasurer Marvin Chambers told Council. “The gentrification of Eagle/Market Street is just around the corner, knocking at the door.” Chambers also explained that the complex mix of public and private funds reflects the unusual nature of the project. If development on The Block were easy, he noted, it “would have been more attractive to the private sector.”
After Chambers spoke, EMSDC supporter Althea Goode implored Council members to approve the plan. the idea of revitalizing The Block, she said, has been around for 26 years, and it’s time to take action. “I’m afraid that what has happened to our community will happen again,” she noted, adding, “Twenty-six years … after we were first on the City Council’s agenda, we’re back on it again.”
But two of the dozen or so members of the public who spoke — property owners Jesse and Amy Plaster — urged Council to deny the request. Jesse Plaster decried what he called “a series of violations to the redevelopment plan.” The EMSDC, he said, was required to issue progress reports every three months. “There have been no updates in three years,” noted Plaster. “That’s 36 updates they’ve missed.” He also said there hasn’t been a design charette that was open to the public in 10 years.
Continuing his barrage of criticism, Plaster said the public has been told it should trust the developer. “But our trust has been met with misrepresentation and fabrication,” he charged. Fourteen business owners on The Block, said Plaster, have signed an agreement asserting that the “Eagle/Market Streets Development Corporation has failed the community.” The group, he concluded, “should not be given a license to proceed, given their failures.”
But the tone of the proceedings shifted dramatically when the next speaker, the Rev. John Grant, approached the lectern. Grant, who is pastor of Mt. Zion and also serves on the EMSDC board, maintained that there has been adequate public input on the project. Members of the public, he added, “share in the responsibility of public input or the lack thereof.” And while conceding that the plan is complicated, he argued, “If we wanted a perfect plan, 20 years from now we’d still be talking.” The bottom line, concluded Grant, is that “the majority of the public wants this.” He added, “The public good must not be held hostage.”
James Geter, who chairs the EMSDC’s board of directors, admitted that his group had made mistakes in the past while asking Council to consider both past and present. “We may have not done everything correctly, but that’s because we started out with a learning curve, and we’ve learned from our mistakes.” Geter spoke about the years of planning that have gone into the long-running project and the frustrations that have surrounded those plans. He closed by invoking none other than the Rev. Martin Luther King, reminding one and all that the Council meeting was being held on the “heels of MLK Day” and that “there’s a dream that’s still alive — and we want it enacted.”
That rhetorical tone was continued by the next speaker, the Rev. Charles Mosley of Nazareth First Baptist Church. Mosley’s arrival in the chamber caused quite a stir: Hands were extended to greet him, doors were opened for him; all eyes were upon him. And the solemn silence that accompanied his trip to the lectern made it clear that Mosley is regarded as a pillar of the city’s African-American community.
He spoke with the quiet conviction of a man seasoned by a life of Sunday sermons, his words spiked by the occasional pause as he recounted the heyday of The Block and its sad slide into blight. “We remember when there was much activity, recreation and wholesomeness on The Block for our people,” Mosley intoned, adding: “The Block was our outlet, our refuge. It was our shelter.” He spoke of how the African-American community has been “forsaken,” and how too much time has passed discussing plans instead of acting on them.
City Council, however, opted for more discussion. It was clear that all seven had questions, and they wanted answers.
First out of the chute was Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower. He questioned the developer, David Rogers, about the financial arrangements and projections.
One potential sticking point seemed to be that the plan, as structured, calls for Rogers and his companies — Rogers & Associates Inc. and Historical Acquisitions LLC — to enter into a complex ownership agreement with the EMSDC and the Enterprise Foundation. Rogers would receive the tax credits that are a key part of most historic-preservation projects. And after a specified period of years, Rogers explained, the EMSDC would buy back the buildings using the profits from its share of the rents and leases.
Leaning forward in his seat, Mumpower began by noting, “I am not hostile toward the project, but concerned about the dollars.” He hinted that he wasn’t comfortable with some of the financial projections and asked for clarification about how the tax credits would be structured. Rogers’ lengthy answer left Mumpower looking puzzled.
Later in the evening, Mumpower called Rogers back to the lectern. This time the Vice Mayor leaned forward and spoke directly to him, observing: “It’s hard to tell if you’re the savior in this process or another kind of guy. … You’re a central player in this. The benefits you’ll reap are dramatic. I don’t have a problem with a man making money, but there is a point of balance.” Mumpower also asked Rogers about his success rate as a developer. Rogers replied that in 30 years, he’s never had a project come in over budget.
Mumpower then turned his attention to Rogers’ work on the Grove Arcade, saying the project is “struggling” and that the projections made for it were overly optimistic. Rogers quickly distanced himself from the public-market portion of the Grove Arcade, noting that his involvement was strictly with the tax credits and the apartments, which he said are “100 percent leased.” The developer added, “If [the public market] is failing, it’s because of marketing, and I have nothing to do with that.”
Then it was Council member Holly Jones‘ turn to address a decision that she called the “most difficult I’ve faced in the two-and-a-half years I’ve served.
“It seems like we’re being put on the spot — like we’re trying to stop progress on The Block after 25 years,” added Jones, saying she didn’t feel comfortable supporting the proposal because the EMSDC, a city-funded nonprofit funded, hadn’t filed an audit for 2002.
At that point, Mayor Charles Worley, perhaps sensing that the nay votes were piling up, called on his colleagues to approve the proposal. “This is a difficult project and a difficult decision. There are flaws, but no legal impediments. … The project will be good for The Block; it’ll restore it to a wonderful condition and bring about economic development. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” the mayor urged. By way of compromise, Worley suggested that Council make its approval conditional on the nonprofit’s filing a satisfactory audit and drafting a document detailing a process for increased public involvement.
Then a frustrated-sounding Council member Terry Bellamy jumped in, declaring: “If there are concerns on the table, we should address them first. We all want to see this happen, and if we want to see this go through, we may need to hold some hands. … We need to get these people at the table and deal with these issues, rather than simply voting yea or nay.”
In that vein, Jones suggested tabling the issue for four weeks.
Council member Joe Dunn, meanwhile, was a little more blunt: “My patience is running thin with both sides. If you folks can’t get it together, we’ll give this money to someone else.”
But Geter, the EMSDC’s board chairman, was plainly unhappy about the idea of either putting off a vote or adding conditions.
“We’ve waited years,” Geter said coolly. “We need Council to make a decision tonight — either up or down.”
At the same time, however, Geter also took issue with the expectation that “the black community” would necessarily ever speak with one voice on this issue.
“African-Americans can think for themselves,” he declared. “It’s wrong to think that all of the community must have 100 percent accord. People aren’t always on the same page; we all don’t think alike.”
Bellamy shot back: “We’re trying to make this go through. Inclusion is only one thing: Where’s the audit from 2002? You’re asking us to stick our neck out, and we’re just asking for four weeks.”
But Geter held his ground, continuing to insist on a vote.
Finally, a frustrated Jones exclaimed, “We’re really throwing you a lifeline here, and you keep throwing it back.”
Then the two remaining Council members weighed in. Jan Davis said he was “bothered by the intangibles.” And Brownie Newman observed that the issues of trust might take more than four weeks to work through.
By this time, it was clear that if Geter wanted to push for a vote, he’d be pushing his luck.
Joe Dunn made a motion not to approve the budget amendment that would launch the proposal. The motion failed on a 4-3 vote, with Mumpower and Davis joining Dunn. After that, Council voted unanimously to table the issue until Feb. 24.
In the hallway after the meeting, an obviously unhappy Geter told Xpress: “It’s all delays, delays, delays. Every time we try to address an issue, there’s another issue.”