Asheville City Council

“This smells like the Water Agreement. There are a lot of unanswered questions here. Everybody knows that you don’t get a mail-order bride without first looking at a picture. … The city has done a lousy job getting information to the public.”

— Buncombe County resident Don Yelton

You know you’re in for a tough public hearing when the first member of the public to speak up compares the subject in question to both the troubled Regional Water Agreement and a mail-order bride. At the Asheville City Council’s Aug 19 formal meeting, Buncombe County resident (and Asheville property owner) Don Yelton queried Council about the proposed sale of his land; it was clear that Yelton had more questions than the city had answers, and he wanted more information.

But Yelton wasn’t the only concerned property owner on hand. Later in the hearing, Haw Creek resident Fred English went right for the jugular, declaring: “This is my land! And my land is not for sale at any price!” What got English’s Irish up was the city’s willingness to consider selling his land. Yelton, on the other hand, seemed more concerned about the way the city was going about it: His comparisons of such a sale to both the Water Agreement and a mail-order bride imply deals made while the details remain nebulous.

The two men, however, are only partial owners of the property in question. And together with their 69,000 co-owners — the residents of Asheville — they’re being asked to wed a bride that (to borrow an image from Yelton) is a beauty in the eyes of some and a beast to others.

At issue is the Grove Park Inn’s proposal to build a luxury high-rise on publicly owned land around Pack Square. And the city’s apparent willingness to consider selling that property to a private corporation for $656,000 has sparked a firestorm of debate among Asheville and Buncombe County residents.

Further complicating the matter is the site’s location in the heart of downtown Asheville’s Pack Square, a park characterized by the Pack Square Conservancy (a nonprofit quasi-governmental agency) as “the city’s living room.” Together, these issues have prompted a land-use debate whose outcome could help shape the face of Asheville for generations to come. And that’s without even considering a second, even larger high-rise the GPI has talked about building on public land across the square, adjacent to City Hall. That proposal, however, has been put on hold for now.

Rumors and innuendo have dogged the Grove Park Inn project for months, with opponents accusing city leaders of favoritism and backroom dealmaking. But at the Aug. 19 meeting — a continuation of the Aug. 12 formal session, whose lengthy agenda went mostly unaddressed after Council bogged down on the first controversial item, revamping the city’s housing code — the public finally had its say, along with GPI representatives and city officials. The resulting four-hour public hearing, however, did little to assuage project opponents’ concerns. And though city staffers did try to deflate several of the more prominent rumors, in the end, their explanations may have raised as many questions as they answered.

One controversy had to do with conflicting sets of drawings depicting how the redesigned square would look; the documents in question were displayed by the Pack Square Conservancy at separate public-information meetings. The first set showed a high-rise structure on the city-owned parcel. But at a second meeting several months later, the building had been deleted and the plot was shown as green space. Some viewed this as a deceptive bit of now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t. Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford explained that the conservancy had originally included the building out of a desire to see that parcel developed. They removed it before the second meeting, he said, because the GPI had not yet approached the city with its offer. Some critics, however, saw the disappearing building as part of a strategy for reducing opposition to redeveloping the square.

Another key concern was whether the parcel in question is protected by the terms of a land swap negotiated by philanthropist George W. Pack with Buncombe County in 1901. Pack, one of Asheville’s greatest benefactors, proposed the deal to give the county a site for a new courthouse. In return, he received county-owned property around what was then called the public square, including the site of the existing county courthouse (built in 1876). The legal agreement specified that the land Pack received in the swap would be held “by him and his heirs … in trust for public use as a public square, park or place forever, and … no building shall ever be erected on the land hereby conveyed, and no part thereof shall ever be sold, rented or leased.”

In his presentation to Council, however, City Attorney Bob Oast dismissed the idea that the parcel in question — a half-acre grassy parcel bordered by College and Spruce streets that includes a section of Patton Avenue — was part of the property protected by Pack. To prove his point, Oast displayed photos from the late 19th to the mid-20th century showing privately owned buildings occupying the site. During the city’s urban-renewal efforts in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he said, most of those buildings (including a bakery, retail shops and a pool hall) were condemned via eminent domain. “It’s important to describe what used to be here,” noted Oast, adding that the land was “clearly occupied by something other than parkland.”

Oast’s explanation was even supported by an attorney representing what could prove to be the GPI’s most formidable foe on this project — the Biltmore Company, the other major player in the local tourism industry. Patsy Brison Meldrum, a former city staffer now representing the Biltmore camp, agreed that the land had been privately owned and acquired by the city mostly through eminent domain. But after diplomatically prefacing her remarks by noting that “We don’t have a quarrel with the Grove Park Inn,” Meldrum added, “We do have questions about the sale.” Any such structure, she said, would interfere with the sightlines from both the Biltmore Building and the square’s focal point, the Vance Monument. Meldrum later told Xpress that the Biltmore Company, whose headquarters are next to the targeted parcel, opposes building anything on the site.

Meldrum also challenged Oast’s contention that the sale of the land wouldn’t violate the conditions spelled out by a redevelopment plan implemented by the city in the early 1960s. Oast had explained that the restriction that the condemned land be used solely for parks and streets had expired on Dec. 31, 1987. Meldrum, however, questioned whether that rationale violated the spirit of the law. She further observed that the citizens of Asheville had approved the bond issue in a referendum that gave the city both the authority and the means to condemn and acquire the parcels in the first place. In a later interview with Xpress, Meldrum said the proposed sale of the property could be seen as a violation of the will of the people, as expressed in their vote. The bond referendum, she explained, was based on the promise that the land would be used solely for parks and streets.

“A vested interest”

“Mega projects change history.”

— AdvantageWest Executive Director Dale Carroll

Grove Park Inn CEO/President Craig Madison began his presentation by telling Council, “The question is not if downtown will grow, but how and who.” Emphasizing the inn’s 90-year role in the economic fabric of Asheville, he pointed out that the GPI had only 50 full-time employees in 1984, compared to 1,000 today. Madison went on to explain that the Grove Park has a “vested interest in the quality of downtown. We need more reasons for people to visit. … We sell a total experience. … The most precious aspect we have is our brand.”

Detailing the potential economic impact of the $225 million project, Madison said the half-acre site to be occupied by the first proposed tower (which, under newly adopted city guidelines, could be as tall as the neighboring 14-story Jackson Building) would generate some $1.5 million in annual property taxes. And if both high-rises were built, he noted, they could generate an estimated $1.6 million in annual sales taxes, since they would be mixed-use structures with retail stores at ground level. The projects would also create 500 new jobs, reported Madison.

“Capital follows capital,” he proclaimed on several occasions, promising that the proposed structures would “expose this region to new levels of investment.”

The importance of the issue at hand was further underscored when Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chairman Nathan Ramsey approached the lectern during the public hearing to give his opinion. Noting that he was speaking solely as a county resident and not in his official capacity, Ramsey urged Council members to support the GPI project. “This proposal can increase [economic] potential and provide jobs. Most communities would be desperate to get this kind of investment,” said Ramsey.

But the prospect of more retail- and service-sector jobs didn’t sit well with Asheville resident Walter Plaue, who fired off a series of questions: “Five hundred jobs? How many will be minimum wage? Are we really helping the city with these types of jobs?” Plaue, a local real-estate investor, also asserted that the deal smelled a little bit incestuous, noting that the inn is represented by attorney Lou Bissette (a former Asheville mayor) and development consultant Gerald Greene (a former Asheville city planner). Furthering his point, Plaue wondered why, if the city is so interested in selling land, it didn’t hold an open bidding process or put out a request for proposals.

Later in the evening, Oast explained that the Grove Park Inn had originally approached the city with the offer, and given the hostelry’s established reputation, the city felt it could limit the deal to the inn only. Oast also asserted that the state Downtown Development Act, passed during the late 1970s when municipalities needed help to stem the exodus of urban businesses to suburban malls, gives the city the authority to do so.

A steady stream of citizens — split fairly evenly between supporters and opponents — weighed in on the proposals as well. Some worried about the new building’s impact on the sightlines at Pack Square, particularly given that the Pack Square Conservancy is already working on a significant redesign of the park. Others voiced more utilitarian concerns, such as whether the development would obstruct police and fire vehicles, whose headquarters is adjacent to the proposed building site.

Dale Carroll, executive director of AdvantageWest (a state-funded regional economic-development organization), gave the inn’s plans a ringing endorsement. “Mega projects change history,” he proclaimed, adding that the proposal has “tremendous potential for Western North Carolina.”

Asheville business owner Janice Nash, on the other hand, exclaimed that she is “sick and tired of the rich and wealthy running everything.” To the surprise of many, however, her comment turned out to be directed not at the Grove Park Inn but at the Biltmore Company, for trying to halt the project. “Biltmore Estate took our racetrack,” she charged, adding, “They make most of their property tax-exempt anyways.”

Asheville resident Julie Brandt, meanwhile, called the square Asheville’s “crown jewel,” arguing that the plans are too vague and that the city doesn’t even know how big the proposed building’s footprint would be. She also took issue with the Pack Square Conservancy’s ability to grant developers design variances on all new buildings constructed around the square. “This is absurd,” she declared.

In the end, City Council took no formal action. At the outset of the meeting, Mayor Charles Worley had explained that due to the proposal’s complexity, Council would dedicate the evening solely to gathering information and hearing comments. The issue will raise its head again on Sept. 16 when the city’s seven elected officials vote on whether to give the Grove Park Inn an option to purchase the property.

The conservancy

Even as the city is considering the Grove Park Inn’s high-rise dreams, it has endorsed a master plan for overhauling the entire Pack Square area.

The Pack Square Renaissance site, as it’s called, encompasses 6.5 acres in the heart of downtown — and if Pack Square dreamers can raise enough money, the city of Asheville could be looking at a dramatically redesigned public space. The driving force behind those plans is the Pack Square Conservancy, a nonprofit agency formed in 2001 that’s leading both the redesign initiative and the campaign to raise the estimated $6.5 million needed to fund the project. To date, about $500,000 has been raised, according to board of trustees member Karen Tessier.

Design guidelines proposed by the conservancy call for “the reconfiguration of downtown’s streets and public open spaces to better serve the needs of the citizens of and visitors to Asheville, as well as to provide an appropriate space for special events being held in these significant civic spaces.”

At the Asheville City Council’s Aug. 19 formal meeting, conservancy representatives presented those guidelines, which detail how the space should be reconfigured and how new buildings in the area should look.

But there’s more than aesthetics at stake; according to the conservancy, “these public improvements will also create development opportunities that are part of the strategy to bring new life and activity to the perimeter of both Pack Square and City/County Plaza. The plan creates new blocks for development that did not previously exist. … The addition of new buildings in this area will complete the enclosure of the public spaces with attractive buildings designed to be sympathetic and compatible with the existing architecture.

Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford told Council that part of the reason the conservancy wanted design guidelines is to reassure potential private donors that there will be a measure of control over the square’s appearance in the future.

Some critics, however, have taken issue with the fact that the conservancy will be able to grant variances to the mandatory guidelines. (One such restriction is a 2-inch setback requirement on all windows in any new construction.) Others have criticized the fact that the conservancy, a quasi-governmental agency, appoints its own board of directors. In a later interview, board Chair Carol King pointed out that all 501(C)(3) nonprofits choose their own boards. But she also noted that three of the board’s 11 members are appointed by local government agencies: Mayor Charles Worley (city of Asheville), Commissioner Bill Stanley (Buncombe County Board of Commissioners), and Frank Fishburne (Asheville Parks and Recreation Advisory Board).

On Aug. 19, City Council voted 6-1 to adopt the design guidelines, with Council member Brian Peterson opposed. Peterson expressed concern over the conservancy’s authority to grant variances when the nonprofit organization isn’t a Council-appointed board. Council member Joe Dunn, who supported adopting the guidelines, said, “These people [the conservancy] are our experts, and I think we should listen to them.”

The guidelines will now have to go before the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners for approval.

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