“People who are interested need to get involved now.”
— Council member Brian Peterson
If a tentative plan by the Grove Park Inn takes shape, Asheville’s skyline could soon be dramatically transformed. The historic inn is considering erecting a pair of high-rise towers (containing a mix of condominiums, stores and offices) smack in the middle of Asheville’s premier public space — Pack Square. First, however, the luxury hotel would have to acquire two valuable pieces of downtown property. And getting the owners to agree to the sale could prove challenging, given that the property is owned by the 69,000 citizens of Asheville.
At the Asheville City Council’s March 25 formal meeting, Grove Park Inn representatives — armed with a conceptual plan for the Pack Square proposal — asked Council for a “downtown development agreement” in accordance with North Carolina statute 160A-458.3 (which governs the transfer of public property to private entities). An attorney representing the inn, former Asheville Mayor Lou Bissette, said the agreement would merely indicate the city’s interest in exploring such a project. Bissette, however, repeatedly stressed that the downtown-development agreement would in no way commit either the city or the inn to any course of action. Instead, this preliminary step would give the Grove Park Inn’s investors the confidence to pursue an in-depth analysis of the project’s feasibility and cost. In other words, the investors first want to know if the city would even entertain such an idea before they spend money on developing a proposal.
In the end, Council unanimously approved the downtown-development agreement, indicating a willingness to at least consider selling chunks of Pack Square to make way for what could be the tallest structures erected in the city center since the completion of the 17-story BB&T Building in 1967. But the preceding discussion revealed significant disagreement. Council members Brian Peterson and Carl Mumpower forged a rare alliance, with both initially balking when they realized that the “informal” agreement ran 16 pages long and included language detailing financial penalties if the city backed out.
Peterson, noting that he’d only received the document from City Attorney Bob Oast that morning, said he hadn’t had enough time to review it. “How can I be expected to vote on something I haven’t even read?” he asked. Mumpower, meanwhile, said he hadn’t received the document at all.
(The next day, Mumpower sent an apologetic e-mail to his Council colleagues, Oast and members of the press, explaining that he had indeed received an e-mail from Oast containing a draft of the agreement the evening before the meeting but, not realizing what it was, hadn’t downloaded it.)
Peterson proceeded to pepper Oast with questions about the agreement, including concerns about whether the city might have to sell a section of Patton Avenue to accommodate the project. At one point, Council members Jim Ellis and Joe Dunn accused Peterson of trying to “micromanage” the proposal. Mumpower, however, rose to Peterson’s defense, saying his questions and concerns were justified considering the length and complexity of the draft agreement.
Members of the audience had questions as well, and while it wasn’t officially listed as a public hearing on the evening’s agenda, the mayor did invite public comment on the matter. Asheville resident Christopher Fielden decried any effort by the city to sell public property for private use, asking why the city would consider selling parkland to a private corporation.
Fielden also reminded Council members of their recent efforts to crack down on panhandling and loitering in the city, which he said had targeted the homeless population. If Council wants to develop public land, he suggested, the development should serve the public good — such as a homeless shelter or affordable housing. Fielden then inquired: “This is part of the rejuvenation of downtown? But for whom — the tourists?”
Several others also spoke, questioning the rush to approve such a potentially weighty document.
No one else on Council voiced any concerns about the document, however, and when Ellis made a motion to approve it, Peterson joined his colleagues in approving it. Later in the meeting, Mumpower observed that the proposed project could be a huge boost to the local tax base — which helps fund social programs and parks.
The parcels in question sit on opposite sides of Pack Square. The first proposed structure would occupy what’s now a grass traffic island adjacent to the Biltmore Building and across from the Cottonwood Cafe. According to a report by Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford, that tower could be built “up to the same height as the Jackson Building,” a historic, 15-story skyscraper directly across from it. The second high-rise would be right next to City Hall; according to a drawing provided by Oast at the meeting, this tower would fill the space between the City Building and the newly renovated Public Safety Building (including the city-owned parking area behind and below both structures). This second tower, reported Oast, could be as tall as City Hall. Shuford acknowledged that height would certainly be an issue in future deliberations on the project; the city, he said, wants to maintain a downtown that is “aesthetically pleasing.”
In a later interview with Xpress, Peterson highlighted some potential concerns. “Once the city sells the options, we may limit our rights to [have] control over design and traffic issues. Our hands might be tied. People who are interested need to get involved now.
“I think it’s OK to build on the site, but it has to be the right building. We could be looking at a slightly smaller BB&T Building.”
During the meeting, Oast also noted that the city would have to involve two other parties in its decision-making process: the Pack Square Conservancy (a Council-appointed board that’s overseeing a multimillion-dollar redesign of the downtown public space) and the general public.
And given the recent rise in local interest in development issues, that public input could prove to be as towering as the buildings proposed.
Christopher Fielden didn’t leave after commenting on the Grove Park Inn proposal; on this Tuesday evening, he had a twofold mission. His second purpose was to speak out against the Asheville Police Department’s handling of recent anti-war protests. That, however, meant waiting for the public-comment portion of the meeting. During his second trip to the lectern, however, Fielden was noticeably nervous. He said he’d attended a March 21 protest at which the APD had made more than 20 arrests, which Fielden characterized as excessive and brutal. He said he was afraid to speak out against the APD because he didn’t want “to be profiled by the police.” Fielden was emphatic that he isn’t “against the APD” and that he has a friendly relationship with several officers.
In a halting, shaky voice, however, Fielden went on to describe how he’d seen officers who appeared to “be out of control” and who “used excessive force,” adding that he’d seen several officers dragging protesters from the sidewalk (where they were legally allowed to be) into the street — and then arresting them. Protesters who objected to such treatment, he said, were also targeted for arrest.
After Fielden had finished speaking, Council members Mumpower and Dunn defended the APD’s behavior. Mumpower, noting that there was another side to the story, said he’d looked into similar accusations and was willing to meet with Fielden or anyone else concerned about police behavior to dialogue about the issues surrounding protests and arrests. Dunn, meanwhile, said, “We live in exceptional times,” adding that “laws were broken during the protest.”
Fielden, fighting back tears, took a deep breath and noted that he’d spoken up to ensure that his accusations were entered into the public record. As he spoke, City Clerk Maggie Burleson quietly did just that.