A recent request for qualifications by the city of Asheville could lead to the sale and/or development of several strategically located downtown properties the city owns. More than 50 people showed up at the Public Works Building for a Sept. 6 open house designed to inform city residents about the areas in question.
The attendees made their way around the room, asking questions of city staffers at separate tables set up for each of the major areas under consideration: adjacent to the Civic Center, around Eagle and Market streets, and a Parks and Recreation maintenance yard on Hilliard Street.
Among the city’s goals for the targeted areas are increasing the supply of affordable housing and expanding the tax base downtown.
Developers with an interest in any of those areas were asked to submit evidence that they’re qualified to handle projects of this magnitude. In October, City Council will issue a request for proposals, asking those developers who’ve made the cut to describe their proposed projects.
Reactions from members of the public ranged from optimism to concern to outright cynicism.
The Rev. John Grant, pastor of downtown’s Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, said he’d come to see the possibilities for Eagle and Market streets. The church is located in the heart of The Block, Asheville’s historic African-American neighborhood, and Grant—who has a long history of involvement in attempts to redevelop the area—wasn’t pleased with what he saw.
“This is a shame; we’ve been through this so many times,” said Grant, shaking his head. “This is pathetic—it’s a waste of our time.” Mt. Zion, which owns a number of buildings in the historic area, is pursuing its own redevelopment plans.
Asheville resident Adam Pittman, on the other hand, called the open house “a wonderful thing. I think it’s great that the city is asking the public what we think should be done.”
Joyce Door, president of the Asheville Area Center for the Performing Arts, was also optimistic. The group, which has waged a long campaign for a new performing-arts facility, seemed particularly interested in the property across from the Civic Center.
“We’re here to look at the sites, schmooze a bit, and talk with those who care about the future of Asheville,” said Door. “There’s a lot of potential on this site, and we’re very hopeful about this.”
But they’re far from the only ones interested in that area’s future. Glazer, a local architectural firm, is teaming up with Boston-based developer RCG on a proposal for the Civic Center site.
“We’d like to make it a mixed-use development, more of a live/work/play kind of environment,” said RCG Manager Nick Bayne. “We’d integrate it all in with the Civic Center and help to boost the vibrancy of downtown’s commerce. We want to have reasonable housing and provide opportunities for entrepreneurs. Our key strength is sustainability.”
Their project will “really look at the long term,” noted architect Patti Glazer.
But all this has city resident Greg Sills concerned. Having followed the whole RFQ process, he feels it raises some serious questions about whether the city will get fair value if it sells the properties and how much control it will have over what happens to them.
“Right now these are public lands, taxpayer-owned, but if they’re sold off for residential or commercial development, at some point in the future they’re going to be sold again—and the developer will make a very significant profit,” said Sills. “There needs to be a policy on this.”
But Sam Powers, director of the city’s Economic Development office, says there will be an extensive process before any development is approved.
“Once the city requests specific proposals and negotiates with the developer, what we’ll do is have a contract, and [the property] won’t be sold until they fulfill very specific requirements,” Powers said. “Once they’ve done all those, it won’t really matter if they resell it, because they’ll have done everything the city requires. In some cases, we might decide to pursue a long-term lease instead of a sale. We’re not just going to say, ‘We like you, now write us a check.’”
Larry Holt, who serves on the board of local nonprofit Quality Forward, also feels the city needs to proceed with caution.
“Where are we going from here?” he asks. “You’ve got to look at the whole picture, not just these small pieces. A lot of money was put into acquiring these assets, so we need to be real careful what we do with them. We’ve accomplished a lot of the goals we set for downtown 25 years ago. But what about the next 25 years? The city needs to plan where downtown is going before it goes forward with this.”
Funds have already been budgeted for updating the city’s master plan for downtown, notes Powers, and while the developers of these projects are making their own plans, the city “will work hand in hand to make sure one doesn’t get too far ahead of the other.”
Two City Council candidates—Asheville Downtown Association President Dwight Butner and accountant Selina Sullivan—also attended the open house. Sullivan said the process is taking too long and that downtown businesses, especially in The Block, need to see some action soon.
“Our businesses are not getting the support they need,” she said. “The city has not moved forward with a lot of promises they’ve made to business owners. … They’ve been talking and talking and talking, but we need to get something put in place with The Block. People are frustrated, they’re upset, and we need to see some progress.”
Sullivan also said the city needs to provide more parking for businesses throughout downtown and help steer foot traffic to Market Street, “because businesses are hurting there.”
Butner, meanwhile, praised Council’s “very nice job of trying to get public feedback,” but he wants to make sure that future development fits with the Downtown Association’s own plans.
“We’re doing this a bit in a vacuum,” said Butner. “The Downtown Association is in the process of creating a master plan for downtown, [and] I would like to see these projects evaluated in the context of this master plan. I would hate to see this getting ahead of that.”
Overall, Powers said he’s “very pleased with the response. There’s a lot of community interest. All 14 firms that have submitted their qualifications have good levels of experience. We’re excited.”
But for Mt. Zion member Evelyn Herron, who said she’d come to the open house in support of Grant, the whole input process came “a little too late for the average person to understand what’s going on.”
The open-house format also left a lot to be desired, she told Xpress. “No one really got up there and explained what was going on. They just put some slides on, and you’re supposed to walk around and look around whatever area you’re interested in.” Herron added that the process had confused some elderly city residents.
“Really, this was too late for them to present it to the community, because they’ve already decided what they want to do.”