Two weeks before his Parkside project was due to come before City Council in what promised to be a contentious public hearing, developer Stewart Coleman lopped two stories off the design.
In some cases, making a proposed downtown Asheville high-rise shorter might have been expected to quell the outcry by community activists, but this time, it just enraged some folks even more, since it meant that Council—which had been viewed as the final line of defense against the controversial project—would not get a chance to weigh in on it. Height aside, opponents have decried Parkside’s proximity to City/County Plaza (now in the midst of a high-dollar makeover), Buncombe County’s low-profile sale of public parkland to the developer, and a string of questions about how the deal went down.
The building has garnered plenty of attention. Many feel its 11 stories (now reduced to nine) would dominate the new Pack Square Park, which is flanked by the historic City Building and the Buncombe County Courthouse. Even the Pack Square Conservancy—the nonprofit that’s taking the lead role in the park’s $20 million redesign—has protested Parkside’s height and siting. Others complained that placing the structure there would cut off the Eagle/Market streets neighborhood, a historic African-American business district, from the park.
In a redesign submitted May 27, Coleman reduced the square footage to 99,380 square feet—620 square feet below the threshold that triggers a level III review by City Council. Now, Parkside merely needs approval by the Technical Review Committee, which had already signed off on the prior design.
“It is discouraging that our process allows this to happen,” said Elaine Lite of the grass-roots group People Advocating Real Conservancy. “When you cut off just enough to get just under the hairline, that’s pretty lame,” said the former City Council candidate.
Conservancy board Chair Carol King was also dismayed by the developments. “It eliminates all of us from the game—even P&Z,” she said.
By the beginning of May, the original design had cleared both the TRC and the Downtown Commission (the latter with only one dissenting vote)—and split the Planning and Zoning Commission right down the middle. And with the development attracting community activists’ undivided attention, a battle seemed likely at the June 10 public hearing.
City staff had already recommended removing one floor, and although Council members were legally barred from discussing the hearing ahead of time, even Coleman said it looked as though it might be hard to find four votes without trimming the building’s height.
But the developer’s surprise move has left Asheville, Buncombe County and the conservancy wondering what the next move might be even as they put previously discarded options back on the table.
“Fortunately, the City Council will have final say on the appropriateness of any development near the park,” Board of Commissioners Vice Chair David Gantt wrote in a 2007 e-mail to a concerned resident after controversy erupted earlier that year over the county’s sale of the property (see “Pack Square Park Land Sale,” July 25, 2007 Xpress).
Word of Coleman’s decision reached Council members as they were filing into the chamber for their May 27 meeting. At the end of that meeting, Council met in closed session with City Attorney Bob Oast. “We requested our attorney to give us all of our options,” Council member Robin Cape said later.
Those options could include a land swap, with the city giving up a piece of city-owned property on Marjorie Street in exchange for Coleman’s relinquishing his bit of parkland and shifting his building accordingly—a deal the developer has indicated he might accept. The idea has come up before, including during an April 8 closed session, but it was rejected. Now, with Council no longer in line to review the project, it appears that the land-swap idea may be back in play.
At the time, Cape says she saw the land swap as a strong-arm tactic, since the parcel in question was one of those for which the city had been screening development proposals, seeking projects that fit with the city’s goals. “Now [we would] be forced to give him that property, like in a fire sale,” she told Xpress.
In the wake of the latest developments, however, Cape echoes the sentiments of others in the community who feel the ball is back in the county’s court. “I really think they should buy that property back,” she said. At press time, City Council planned to meet with Oast in a special closed session June 3.
“Stewart Coleman has followed the letter of the law,” agrees Gordon Smith, whose blog Scrutiny Hooligans has covered the story extensively, collecting, sorting through and posting public documents handed over by Buncombe County. “The responsibility to correct the situation falls on the county.”
According to Coleman, County Manager Wanda Greene had previously offered him $322,000 (the original sale price) to return the disputed parcel. But he has since spent a good deal of money on the design costs, he says, and he would have to recoup those costs as well. Gantt, meanwhile, said the county had offered $1.6 million for both the parkland and the adjacent Hayes & Hopson Building. Coleman countered with a price of $4.5 million. But state law prohibits the county from spending more than the appraisal price on property, and the deal died, Gantt reports.
That leaves the possibility of reclaiming the property via eminent domain—but while Board of Commissioners Chair Nathan Ramsey has said that “everything’s on the table,” he also notes that no commissioner has actually suggested that the county forcibly buy it back.
The search for a resolution continued during a May 29 meeting attended by several county commissioners, the county manager, King and Coleman. Invitations were also extended to City Manager Gary Jackson and Mayor Terry Bellamy, but neither attended the meeting.
Although the conservancy is relieved by the height reduction, the group still has its sights set on regaining the piece of park that Coleman now owns. “We would love for there to be a way to get that back,” said Communications Director Donna Clark.
Meanwhile, a lawsuit filed by descendants of philanthropist George Willis Pack against Coleman and Buncombe County soldiers on. But while attorney Joe Ferikes acknowledged that the suit aims to keep the piece of parkland in the public domain, he emphasized that it would take an injunction to keep construction from moving forward. That hasn’t happened yet, he said, but if a judge issued such a ruling after a building was erected there, it could make things complicated for Coleman. “That’s their risk if they wish to build there,” said Ferikes.
But Coleman apparently feels confident enough in his chances to start construction. Once the project gets TRC approval, he expects to break ground in four months. Completing the exterior, he says, should take 14 to 16 months. The building, he noted, would also lose one of its three underground parking levels, since the reduction in height means fewer cars on-site.
As for the opposition to the building, Coleman dismisses most of what he hears as the work of a handful of “unpleasant people.”
“I don’t think the crowd’s that big,” he said. “The disapproval crowd, it might not be 20 people deep.”
Cape, however, believes that’s not the case. “I’m hearing from a lot of people and a lot of organizations, and they are very upset,” she said.
And public hearing or no, it seems unlikely that those opposed to the building are going to go quietly away. “I don’t think it is the end, no,” said Smith. “[But] I don’t know what the options are for people to move forward.”
The conservancy isn’t ready to admit defeat yet either, says King. “Above everything else, Mr. Coleman is a businessman,” she notes. “As long as you remember that, there are always options on the table.”