The option play

Only three of the 22 residents who spoke at the hearing supported the measure.

It wasn’t even close.

Meeting in the Council chamber immediately after the Sept. 16 work session, the Asheville City Council voted 6-1 to approve an option agreement with the Grove Park Inn governing the potential sale of publicly owned land in Pack Square. The special session was round three of a public hearing, begun last month, that had already been continued once before. Council member Holly Jones cast the lone dissenting vote.

The decision — which gives the GPI until next summer to buy the property for a specified minimum price and with certain restrictions on its use — advances the inn’s plan to develop a mixed-use, high-rise structure on the 18,715-square-foot parcel in the heart of Asheville’s premier public space. The plan calls for a 130-foot-tall tower housing both luxury condominiums and stores. With the option in place, the inn will now hire an architectural firm to devise a building that would fit both the constricted space and the design guidelines developed by the Pack Square Conservancy. This will enable the developer to test the plan’s financial feasibility. GPI Director of Development Troy Honeycutt assured Council that there’s a high likelihood of the plan’s proving feasible. If the inn decides to go forward with the project, GPI and the city would close on the sale of the property next summer, according to city staff.

Before the Council vote, the public was given one last chance to weigh in on the controversial proposal, and an overwhelming majority of those who rose to speak urged the seven elected officials to vote against it. Only three of the 22 residents who spoke supported the measure.

A presentation by Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford kicked off the proceedings. Over the past two years, he noted, there has been a “fair amount of public involvement” in the broader redesign proposal now being promoted by the nonprofit Pack Square Conservancy, whose design guidelines will apply to any new construction around the square. That proposal envisions four new buildings on or near Pack Square, including both the structure at the center of the option debate and a much larger project proposed by the Grove Park Inn for a parcel of land adjacent to City Hall. Shuford’s comment was clearly aimed at accusations by opponents of the high-rise option that it was a backroom deal that would transfer prime public land to a private developer with minimal public involvement.

To further assuage opponents’ fears — and those of any Council member still straddling the fence — Shuford said that while the high-rise would be built on what is now a mix of green space and a portion of Patton Avenue (which would be rerouted), the resulting reconfiguration proposed by the Pack Square Conservancy would provide a net gain of 15,000 square feet of parkland around the square. And at the request of City Council and members of the public, Shuford’s staff had secured an updated appraisal of the property in question. The new appraisal came in $50,000 higher than the previous one, raising the city’s minimum asking price (as stipulated by the state Downtown Development Act) to $702,000.

City Attorney Bob Oast followed Shuford, armed with answers to other questions raised about the proposed sale. In response to the city’s recent revelation that it wasn’t sure it even owned the entire parcel, Oast said, “Obviously, we can’t sell the Grove Park Inn property we don’t own.” But the one-year option period would allow enough time for further title research to resolve the issue, he explained.

The public, however, seemed unsatisfied for the most part. Asheville resident Brad Burns took issue with the proposed structure’s maximum height, which has been set by the city and the conservancy (a quasi-governmental committee overseeing the square’s redesign). All along, the city has been using the adjacent 14-story Jackson Building to determine the maximum height of new construction in the area. “A conservancy group that bases height on the Jackson Building is not a conservancy group,” Burns declared.

Bill Hussey, also of Asheville, argued that there’s still a great deal of confusion among members of the public over many aspects of the proposal. A primary point lost on the public, asserted Hussey, is that the proposed high-rise wouldn’t be limited to the grassy triangle just east of the Biltmore Building. In fact, the property offered for sale extends across Patton Avenue to the section of the park where the Energy Sculpture now sits. If the sale is finalized, that part of Patton Avenue will be closed, and traffic will have to be redirected through other parts of the city. “The average Asheville citizen doesn’t understand that streets will be reconfigured,” noted Hussey. He also pointed out that four current Council members had been elected on a pro-business platform. “What kind of business is condo sales?” he inquired, adding, “What happens if the market collapses?”

But former Council member Gene Ellison, representing the Eagle Street Redevelopment Corporation, urged City Council to approve the option. Ellison said he found it amusing that Eagle Street (Pack Square’s closest neighbor) had become a factor in the opposition’s arguments. “Since when did people start worrying about Eagle Street [the city’s traditionally black business district]?” he asked with a grin. “This is the best thing that could happen to Eagle Street,” Ellison declared.

The Council of Independent Business owners also weighed in on the issue. CIBO member Albert Sneed, an Asheville attorney, presented Council with a resolution his group had adopted on Sept. 12. The resolution said the GPI project would “provide jobs for area residents; provide more green space for Asheville; provide a boost for the area economy; provide a significant tax base for the city; and spotlight to the world the vibrant city of Asheville that wishes to nurture development, not stifle it.”

Nelda Holder, representing the Asheville/Buncombe League of Women Voters, said her organization has grave concerns about both the proposal itself and the way the city has dealt with it. Arguing that the process hasn’t been “transparent” and that the public is still confused about the details, Holder urged Council to at least delay the vote to allow for more public input.

As soon as the hearing was over, however, City Council was ready to act. The hearing was followed by a brief break; immediately afterward, Council member Joe Dunn made a motion to adopt the option, seconded by Council member Carl Mumpower.

But colleague Holly Jones took issue with the abrupt move to vote. Dunn tried to reassure her that he wasn’t attempting to force the vote and “squash debate” among the seven, saying he simply wanted to get a motion on the table.

Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy, however, jumped in and said, “It appears that you are.”

Dunn responded: “We’ve had public hearings on this. I’ve learned all that I can learn.”

At that point, Jones went on the offensive, questioning whether the GPI fully intended to follow through with its announced plans for the second, larger structure. Both during the hearing and at previous meetings, GPI President/CEO Craig Madison had told Council that the first high-rise, representing a projected investment of $30 million, is a way of “testing the waters” for development in Asheville. If all went well, the GPI could then move forward with its second building — a $250 million investment. All along, both Madison and city staffers have highlighted the combined impact the two buildings would have on tax revenues. Jones, however, asked City Manager Jim Westbrook what the impact would be if only the first high-rise were built. Westbrook immediately replied “$1.5 million,” prompting some members of the audience to groan in disbelief. Jones restated her question, and Westbrook — apparently realizing that he’d given the figure for both buildings — corrected himself, replying, “$150,000 per year to the city.”

Council member Brian Peterson then made a motion to reduce the height of the proposed structure by one floor, so it would not be higher than the gargoyles on the Jackson Building. The inn’s attorney, former Asheville Mayor Lou Bissette, had apparently already agreed to Peterson’s suggestion. “We can try to live with this. I think we can make it work,” Bissette commented at the meeting. Dunn, however, took issue with the reduction, even though the inn appeared willing to go along with it in order to secure Peterson’s vote. When questioned about how the reduction might affect the proposal’s feasibility, Troy Honeycutt initially seemed optimistic, though he cautioned, “The economic window is closing.”

Council adopted Peterson’s gargoyle amendment on a 6-1 vote, with Joe Dunn opposed. And with Peterson appeased, Council moved on to Dunn’s original motion concerning the option.

In her statement before voting, Jones compared the GPI deal to a prior Council’s 1998 decision to accept RiverLink’s donation of the Asheville Motor Speedway property (with the stipulation that the famous racetrack be converted into a park). In both cases, noted Jones, the public had leveled accusations of backroom dealmaking. “The names are different now,” she said, adding, “but the feeling is the same. The people have good reason to think that.”

Jones backed up her argument by voting to oppose Dunn’s motion. But in the end, she stood alone.

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