Asheville City Council

  • Pack Square Park on track
  • Horizons urban-village project delayed

As protesters massed outside City Hall on July 15, developer Stewart Coleman told Asheville City Council members about his plans for the controversial Parkside condominium project. It was the first time Coleman had appeared before Council to discuss the project. Slated for the south side of City/County Plaza, Parkside would include a small but hotly contested piece of parkland that the developer bought from Buncombe County.

Greener pastures: After delays and headaches, construction of Pack Square Park has begun in earnest, with completion slated for September 2009. Above, a rendition of how the park is expected to look. Courtesy Pack Square Conservancy

Although a complex series of maneuvers has spared Coleman the need for Council approval of his project, he still needs both City Council and the county Board of Commissioners to sign off on an easement to allow for a road that would run in front of the building.

Because the July 15 meeting was a work session, Council took no action. A hearing on the proposed road easement—which Coleman said is needed to provide adequate space for fire staging and protect the view of the landmark City Hall—will probably be held next month, according to planning staff. Afterward, Council went into closed session for about 45 minutes to discuss a potential deal involving a city-owned parcel on Eagle Street (just south of the Parkside site), as well as a lawsuit against the county by the heirs of benefactor George Pack, who oppose the county’s sale to Coleman of land they claim Pack donated on condition that it be held as parkland or a public commons in perpetuity.

Beneath the magnolia, protesters await answers

by Brian Postelle

The air outside the Asheville City Hall felt hotter than the 85 degrees reported for July 15, but demonstrators found shade in the magnolia tree that has become the focal point in their fight against the controversial Parkside development.

Photo by Liz Mccarthy

“Enjoy the shade while you can—before they cut the tree down,” one participant said in passing.

“They’re not going to cut down this tree!” declared Clare Hanrahan, propped against its trunk. Hanrahan and a few others have been mounting a daily vigil under the tree for the past few weeks, but on this particular Tuesday, she had plenty of company.

About 160 people turned out for the rally—giving speeches, playing music, holding signs and showing solidarity in the fight to reclaim the sliver of Pack Square Park that’s currently included in the Parkside construction plans.

Several activists who have figured prominently in the Parkside battle spoke from a makeshift podium, encouraging the protesters not only to express their opposition but also to take their grievances to the polls in the upcoming Buncombe County Board of Commissioners races.

“If we can’t hold them accountable before then, don’t forget who not to vote for in November,” urged rally organizer Jen Bowen.

Barry Summers, who hosts a radio show on WPVM-FM and has been at the center of the effort to collect documents related to the Parkside issue, reminded the crowd of the Grove Park Inn’s proposed project near the Parkside site, which was scratched a few years ago in the wake of public outcry.

“We need to send the message to our representatives to close this embarrassing spectacle and return our park to us,” Summers proclaimed. “We beat back this type of development before, and we can do it again.”

As the Council meeting continued indoors, several demonstrators bounced back and forth between the lawn and the second-floor Council chamber to relay updates on developments there, but no one seemed surprised when word came down that City Council had decided to smack the Parkside ball back into the county’s court.

Former Council candidate Lindsey Simerly was one of several in attendance who have made bids for public office in recent years. Former Board of Commissioners candidate Cecil Bothwell and former City Council candidate Elaine Lite were also on hand. Referencing Council’s decision, Simerly said it might buy more time to stop the Parkside project. But her optimism at the microphone was lukewarm.

“It’s not super strong, but it’s goodish,” she said. “So, yay! … kinda.”

Summers had a different take, charging that Council was evading its responsibility. “Kicking this back to the county just moves [the project] further down the road,” he said. “Doing nothing is not enough.”

Outside City Hall, anticipation rose when protester Steve Rasmussen, a former Xpress reporter, told the crowd that the closed session might mean the city intended to join the lawsuit (see sidebar). When Council members emerged to a packed chamber and applause, however, Mayor Terry Bellamy made no mention of the two items discussed, indicating that there would be neither decision nor vote that day. “Council really wants to reaffirm that the county should try to reacquire the land,” said Bellamy, adding that if there was a workable land swap “that the city could get behind,” Council would consider it. “But we feel the county should be a significant driver,” she said. That brought more applause from the chamber, though it did little to resolve the issue.

Many of those protesting Parkside want the city to condemn the property under eminent domain, which would require Coleman be reimbursed for the fair market value of the land. But that option could prove costly and get tied up in lengthy litigation.

Coleman, who has said he’d like to break ground on Parkside later this year, doesn’t need Council approval of his project because it involves less than 100,000 square feet. The road is a different matter, however, and Coleman said at the meeting that if he can’t build it in front of his building, construction and fire staging would have to be done behind it on Marjorie Street, which is only 14 feet wide. His proposed Court Plaza frontage road would be at least 20 feet wide.

In making his case, Coleman claimed that if he didn’t get the road he would be forced to move the building footprint 15 feet north. Using illustrations, he showed Council how this would obstruct the view of the 1928 Art Deco City Hall from the adjacent Vance Monument. “That has a tremendous effect on the view corridor,” noted Coleman. The entire area is in the midst of an extensive renovation and redesign that’s partly funded by the city and county (see below).

The quickening

The construction phase of the long-delayed Pack Square Park got under way this month, and the park is slated for completion by September 2009, Pack Square Conservancy board chair Carol King told Council.

That was welcome news to Council members, who also learned that the conservancy is closing in on raising the balance of the $20.5 million it will cost to complete the project. King and accountant Charles Russell said an aggressive fundraising campaign is under way to raise the nearly $5 million that’s needed. This year, the focus is on big donors; a public fundraising phase will begin early next year. Despite the shortfall, caused as costs rose over the past couple of years due to unexpected construction difficulties and price increases for fuel and materials, Russell said, “We’re financially sound and believe we can financially complete this project.”

The conservancy has taken hits for the delays in the project—the result of rising costs, redesigns to cut costs, and protracted contract negotiations with the N.C. Department of Transportation, among other things.

Voicing support for the conservancy, Council member Carl Mumpower said that theirs has “sometimes [been] a thankless job.” He also asked what could be done to help meet the current deadline?

Besides money, said King, “We need support and trust from the public.” The volunteer board, she noted, “has worked long hours and years and often feels kicked in the gut.”

As for Coleman’s development, which would be right next to the new park, King urged: “Do your best with the Parkside project. I really hope we can come up with a way to make everybody feel at peace.”

Other business

In a special request, Council suspended its usual work-session rules and voted 5-0 to postpone consideration of a rezoning request for the Horizons urban-village project until Oct. 28. (Council member Brownie Newman was absent, and Robin Cape arrived after the vote.)

Planned for the former Deal MotorCars site on Merrimon Avenue, the project is encountering financial difficulties, according to the developers.

“This request has become necessary due to the recent economic conditions,” Marty Kocot, an official with a design firm working for the developers, explained in a letter to Council. “The ownership group is currently exhausting opportunities and trying to secure financing and/or additional partners to help with the project economics.”

The proposed infill project would feature twin 10-story towers housing a mix of commercial and residential development. Meant to reduce sprawl, the project has encountered opposition by some who claim the towers are out of scale with the area and would block sunlight from surrounding homes and businesses.

 

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