Asheville City Council

“From what I’ve heard tonight, everybody can do better than we can.”

— Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford

One by one, the seven members of the Asheville City Council leaned into their microphones and spoke their piece.

The issue before them was clear: Whether to approve a multimillion-dollar redevelopment plan for The Block — the strategically situated but long-neglected heart of what was once a bustling African-American business district mere steps from city hall. The members of the public packed into the cramped chamber sat in silence, hanging on every word and searching for subtle clues to the final tally. It was nerve-racking; it was high drama. And judging by the looks on the asssembled faces, the end result stunned both audience and Council members.

The public hearing on the matter at Council’s Feb. 24 formal session saw stinging accusations fly and tempers flare — culminating in a vote that one audience member described as nothing less than a referendum on the history and future of this city. All the major players in a saga that’s been unfolding for more than a decade were on hand: The Eagle/Market Streets Development Corporation (the nonprofit agency created by the city to oversee the redevelopment of The Block, and the chief proponent of the project now under consideration); David Rogers (the Charlotte-based developer brought in by the EMSDC); the YMI Cultural Center (the nonprofit custodian of the local African-American community’s cultural heritage — and one of the oldest residents on The Block); former Asheville Vice Mayor (and current Block property owner) Gene Ellison (an attorney who led the charge to stop the project, including filing suit against the city and the EMSDC); plus a host of ministers, property owners, activists, city staffers and concerned residents.

The hearing was actually the continuation of one that began on Jan. 27. After confronting the depth of the chasm dividing the two factions, however, Council voted to table the issue to give both sides another chance to work things out. In the interim, Council member Terry Bellamy held several meetings with the warring parties, during which (among other things) project opponents presented two alternative proposals that they maintained would redevelop the block, provide affordable housing, preserve the area’s historic character — and be far less dependent on public funds or the support of an outside developer. Architectural drawings representing both proposals were presented at the Feb. 24 meeting. Ellison showcased the ideas of Asheville architect Crawford Murphy, whom he’d hired to produce a redevelopment plan that would focus on renovating existing buildings and creating a park next to Ellison’s building (instead of the controversial infill building that the EMSDC plan calls for constructing there — a key point in Ellison’s opposition to the project).

“These aren’t magical designs; this plan will make the quality of life better and preserve the value of the buildings,” Murphy told Council. He added that he’d toured the buildings and felt confident that other designs could also be created. “I did this in four days,” noted Murphy, adding, “We’ve got alternatives coming out of our ears.”

Meanwhile, local developer Jesse Plaster — who’s in the process of renovating another building on The Block, and who joined Ellison in opposing the EMSDC plan — had his own proposal. Plaster suggested focusing solely on renovation and avoiding any new construction. “Renovation is much more economical,” he asserted, adding, “And it can be done with money that is already in hand.” This approach, noted Plaster, could include “truly affordable housing” — in contrast to the EMSDC’s plan to build apartments that don’t meet federal affordable-housing guidelines, he reminded Council. Plaster also characterized the financial structure of the Development Corporation’s plan as an “unrealistic” and “precarious arrangement.”

Another bit of controversy involving the EMSDC reared its head the very day of the vote. On Feb. 24, the Asheville Citizen-Times ran a story reporting that an EMSDC employee had inappropriately altered a grant application form to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development after it had been signed.

EMSDC board member Marvin Chambers rose to defend the group. “No one is denying that figures were changed,” he said, adding that it had occurred “through the zeal of an employee. … We admit that it shouldn’t have happened.” He also lamented that “everyone is beating up on Eagle/Market Street for what they’ve done. … We’re receiving the lashes that are not ours.”

But the assault on the EMSDC had only just begun. Later in the public hearing, YMI spokesman Jessie Ray Jr. rose to give his organization’s take on the matter. Ray echoed a complaint that has dogged the EMSDC plan for several months: “It is apparent that the process was not open and inclusive. … If you vote yes, you are rejecting stakeholder input. … In essence, you are not following the South Pack Square Redevelopment Plan [a big-picture planning document for the block adopted by the city in 1994] — if you were, YMI would have been part of the plan. …The YMI continues to be concerned about the process, and the process continues to be flawed.”

Trust and patience

After the public had finished its remarks, it was Council’s turn to take the stage.

Council member Terry Bellamy immediately grabbed the microphone. “I’d asked for a delay [during the last Council hearing on the matter] to find compromise,” she began, saying, “I want us to vote up or down tonight.” Bellamy then noted that she’d facilitated meetings between the rival camps and that the participants had “listened and talked to everybody; people moved from positions.”

At that point, however, her tone shifted. “But consistently, Eagle/Market Streets didn’t move. … There were some people who didn’t have the decency to attend these meetings.” Bellamy added that the unnamed EMSDC representatives “hid behind” the excuse that because of the opposition’s lawsuit, their attorney had recommended that they not attend the meetings. Her voice now raised, an exasperated Bellamy pointed out that the city of Asheville is in “litigation all the time, but that doesn’t stop us from doing due diligence.”

The audience, hanging on her every word, began to stir; but Bellamy had only just begun launching barbs. “It’s hard for me to entrust this amount of money to an organization that won’t listen, that won’t come. … If we’re choosing someone to do this job for us, it’s an extension of what we want to be. … I don’t see it in the lead organization that we are to entrust this money to. … My concern is: Can I get over the hurdles of the organization’s capacity?”

After a brief pause, Bellamy answered her own question: “I’d have to see a lot of changes in the board and the staff.”

Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower was next up. He peppered city staff members (who have been among the EMSDC plan’s staunchest supporters) with questions about the financial arrangements. When Mumpower questioned the low vacancy rates predicted for the proposed new retail space — which proponents have said are crucial to the plan’s success — city Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford explained that the plan includes a reserve fund that could allow for a vacancy rate of up to 20 percent per year for nine years.

Mumpower, looking perplexed, queried, “How can we do that?” Shuford explained that the bank financing the deal had required such a buffer. Again, Mumpower asked, “But how are we able to do that?” adding that he was “worried about what is hidden,” particularly in light of “the proposed occupancy rate.”

He added, “Why is it we’re able to do it so much better?”

A haggard-looking Shuford replied, “From what I’ve heard tonight, everybody can do better than we can.” It was a an abrupt shift in tone and direction — and a not-too-subtle dig at the fact that project opponents claimed to be able to revitalize The Block with plans they’d drafted in mere days, compared to the months of work his staff had spent on the EMSDC proposal.

Then Mumpower told Shuford flat out that he was concerned about “hidden” costs in the plan, asking, “Are there any more dollars outside of this?” And as Shuford appeared ever more frustrated by the line of questioning, Mumpower commented, “I appreciate you being patient with me.” But Shuford immediately shot back, “I appreciate you being patient with me, because I’m losing mine.”

At that point, a scowling Mumpower suggested that Shuford “sit down.” The highly unusual exchange tried the tensile strength of the chamber’s already strained decorum.

Council continued to poke and probe the plan, each member chiming in with questions. But all seven held their cards close, giving nary a hint of how the coming vote would unfold. And when the questions ended, voices in the audience could be heard speculating in hushed tones on the likely tally. “It’s a done deal,” one person predicted. “It still looks good,” murmured another. And the ambiguity of those comments upped the ante even further, ratcheting up the anticipation level that much more.

Council members’ pre-vote comments, on the other hand, were anything but ambiguous, as these excerpts suggest:

Brownie Newman: “The city has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in this project. Council has already voted to postpone a decision twice. If we postpone it again, it could lead to the collapse of the project. … I move that we approve the plan.”

Jan Davis: “Part of me is almost sick to second this motion. … But despite the ill handling of the public input, we have a lot of money on the table. If this falls through, I don’t see the private sector stepping in.”

Charles Worley: “We are between a rock and a hard place. … A couple of hundred thousand dollars has been spent so far. … Council has postponed a decision twice. … If we postpone the decision again, we will, in effect, be turning it down. … When you weigh the alternatives, the only choice is to approve and move forward.”

Holly Jones: “Last month, I questioned the [Eagle/Market Streets Development Corporation’s] organizational capacity, and the homework is getting done. They’re on a path of tightening up, and I want to publicly thank the board for that. … I do believe that if we have a shot at affordability [for the proposed residential units], then we must take it. … I must vote no. I understand what we are giving up, but we must see what we can salvage in order to move forward.”

Joe Dunn: “This is the hardest decision that I’ve ever had to make as a Councilman. But to say that we must move on because of money already spent — to continue headlong in this journey — is a cop-out. This isn’t a black or white issue: It involves common sense. … Sometimes, the best deal you can make is one where you walk away from the deal. … There are too many uncertainties.”

Carl Mumpower: “I believe that this is federally funded gentrification. … The [South Pack Square Redevelopment] Plan calls for long-term affordable housing: This [proposal] doesn’t do that.”

With six positions stated and the vote clearly split 3-3, it was time for the lone African-American Council member to weigh in.

Terry Bellamy: “I’ve got to stand for what is right, and by supporting this project, I wouldn’t be doing that. I’d be saying that it’s OK to change forms, that it’s OK to not have everyone at the table. I will not support this.”

Mayor Worley then called for the vote. The measure failed 3-4, Bellamy joining Jones, Dunn and Mumpower in rejecting the EMSDC proposal. Worley, Davis and Newman supported it.

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