Asheville City Council

Six months after abandoning a controversial plan to build a high-rise on city property, the Grove Park Inn is turning its attention to another major downtown development project. When the city entered into an agreement with the GPI last May to explore developing two sites adjacent to City/County Plaza, most public attention was focused on parcel No. 1, which took up some of what is now part of Pack Square.

Public outcry over the proposed structure’s location, design and impact soon reached fever pitch, and further limitations on the size of the building were debated and revised by city officials. By December, the GPI had abandoned the project, saying that increased design limitations had made it economically infeasible. Amid all the ruckus, little attention was paid to the second site, next to City Hall and bordered by Eagle and Spruce streets. But at City Council’s June 15 work session, the gears started turning again.

“We have always been interested in development of this site, though there have not been extensive discussions [about design],” said City Attorney Bob Oast as he presented a new development agreement for Council’s approval. Although the 2003 agreement covers both sites, the current document mentions only the second one. The new agreement also acknowledges the potential for further delays in connection with acquiring a privately owned parcel that adjoins the city property.

Whose back yard?

The GPI project faces a potential double whammy: In addition to the risk of the same kind of public backlash seen in the bitter controversy over site No. 1, the new site is also adjacent to The Block, where a separate prolonged and contentious dispute resulted in another stalled redevelopment attempt earlier this year.

In both cases, critics charged that the public — and particularly neighboring property owners — had not been given adequate information and input. And though the GPI agreement calls for two public meetings plus extensive oversight by the city and surrounding stakeholders, Council member Terry Bellamy wanted more interaction with the proposed development’s neighbors in the city’s historically African-American business district. Calling the project a “massive building and a massive undertaking,” Bellamy requested extra effort in negotiating with Block business owners, as well as a provision in the agreement that the project would adhere to the standards of the South Pack Square Revelopment Plan (an official city planning document adopted in 1993).

Oast, however, noted that the building lies just outside the boundaries of the South Pack Square district and therefore isn’t subject to those guidelines. The text of the proposed agreement calls for the design to “be sensitive to the Eagle/Market Street Area and Pack Square/City County Plaza,” and for stakeholders to be involved in the design review. In addition to the two public meetings, the agreement specifies that the plans would be reviewed by the Downtown Commission, the city’s Technical Review Committee and the Pack Square Conservancy (a nonprofit group charged by City Council with overseeing the area’s redevelopment and raising funds to support those efforts).

Bellamy, however, also wanted a meeting with the Eagle/Market Street Business Association. “I think it’s a slap in the face,” she said. “If you are going to meet before one body, you need to go before all of them.”

Oast said that while he could add the business association to the list, it still wouldn’t guarantee that some other group wouldn’t be left out.

Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower, on the other hand, questioned the wisdom of adding more oversight meetings, noting that the city could even choose to exclude the Pack Square Conservancy. “There’s nothing that requires us to seek their review,” he said, arguing that the process should support, not hinder, the developers.

City Council must approve the agreement, however, and Bellamy stood firm in her demand for a meeting with area business owners.

In a later conversation, Oast told Xpress he was working on a provision that would require the developer to solicit input not only from the Eagle/Market Street Business Association, but also from such other stakeholders as the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church and the YMI Cultural Center.

Few details…

At this point, the proposed structure is still very much in the planning stage, though there are some initial guidelines and specifications. According to the draft agreement, the estimated cost is an open-ended “more than $40 million.” In addition, the building could not be taller than the City Building’s primary facade.

Other language in the agreement calls for 15 percent of the building’s residential units to be affordable housing; Oast also said the development would include 200-300 parking spaces (compared to the 120 now available on the site). GPI attorney Louis Bissette confirmed those numbers, and though he noted that they’d originally proposed 10 percent affordable housing, he didn’t see a problem with the city’s numbers. “We really want affordable housing in this project,” Bissette told Council. “And they think they can do 15 percent.”

Nonetheless, Council member Joe Dunn challenged that number, wondering if the city was asking too much. “Are we digging ourselves a hole here?” asked Dunn, wondering if 10 or even 5 percent would be more realistic.

And Mumpower — perhaps remembering the protracted negotiations that had attended the previous failed project — warned the GPI against dragging out the proceedings should they conclude that this project, too, is not viable. “Last time, it could have been figured out early on that it was not economically feasible,” scolded Mumpower.

The forest for the trees…

Despite an unusually large turnout of area residents concerned about protecting local forests, consideration of a forest-management plan for the North Fork and Bee Tree watersheds was delayed due to the absence of Mayor Charles Worley and Council member Brownie Newman.

“I would prefer to delay the discussion until we have a full house,” said Council member Holly Jones. “Those two [Worley and Newman] bring as much as anybody to the discussion.”

And in an earlier e-mail to his fellow Council members, Newman also called for patience, saying: “This is an important decision and one that should not be rushed. … The draft plan that has been presented to us contemplates long-term management of this important property and, therefore, should not be made in haste.”

The management plan, drafted by Wildwood Consulting, was jointly requested by Ashevile and Black Mountain after a 2002 plane crash highlighted the problem of accessibility for rescue and fire crews. The report also addresses fire prevention and preservation of plant and animal species.

But opponents point to omissions and possible ulterior motives. Calling the plan a “Trojan horse” for commercial logging, Monroe Gilmore, coordinator of the Swannanoa Valley Alliance for Beauty and Prosperity, distributed a flier detailing his group’s objections.

“This is not really a plan you could use as a manager,” Gilmore later told Xpress. “I think they are doing this by the seat of their pants.” Alongside recommendations for improving roads and controlling invasive plant and insect species (which Gilmore supports), the plan calls for a series of clear-cuts to stimulate forest growth and regenerate wildlife populations. But Gilmore also chided the plan for a lack of specifics, fearing that the cutting would open the door to commercial logging on the watersheds.

After Council members unanimously agreed to delay the discussion, the assembled activists filed out of the room, seeming both pleased and disappointed. Council will revisit the issue at the July 20 work session.

[Brian Postelle is a regular contributor to Mountain Xpress.]


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