Fire and brimstone

A Nov. 17 gathering in downtown Asheville’s Public Works Building had all the conflict and passion of an old-time town hall meeting as city residents came together to hear about — and comment on — redevelopment plans for the South Pack Square area.

The packed public meeting began with a presentation by representatives of the nonprofit Eagle/Market Streets Development Corporation on the long-awaited project to revitalize The Block (historically, the cultural epicenter for the city’s African-American community). The plan calls for renovating six buildings along Eagle and Market streets, plus new construction on South Market Street, at an estimated cost of $6 million. The bulk of the money would come from a pair of nonprofits: the Mt. Zion Community Development Corporation ($3.4 million) and the EMSDC ($1.5 million in cash and loans). The city would be responsible for an additional $1.1 million in federal grants and loans.

According to projections by the EMSDC, the project will create 72 jobs (including construction jobs) and raise the value of the affected properties from $1.2 million to $7 million. The long-neglected but strategically located neighborhood is around the corner from bustling Biltmore Avenue and one block from City/County Plaza.

Standing behind the proposed neighborhood face-lift is a complex web of partnerships involving the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church (a major property owner), the two nonprofits and for-profit developers.

Affordable housing has been a priority of the South Pack Development Plan since its inception, according to Gerald Green, the city’s former chief planner. The current proposal entails creating 47 one- and two-bedroom apartments, plus retail space. The one-bedroom units are expected to rent for $600 a month. For that rent to be considered affordable, however, a tenant would have to be earning at least $12 an hour, according to socialserve.com, a nonprofit Web site advocating for affordable housing.

A solid majority of those who spoke during the public-comment portion of the meeting seemed to support the project. They included former Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick and YMI Cultural Center board member Jessie Ray, as well as a number of community residents — some of whom stressed how many years it has taken to get rid of the prostitution and drug trafficking that plagued the area. EMSDC representatives emphasized how many years of hard work it had taken to find a developer willing to come into The Block and do anything at all.

But some in attendance seemed less impressed with the plan, voicing concerns about displacing minority-owned businesses and about the amount of taxpayer dollars going into the deal. They also questioned how affordable the proposed housing would actually be. Leading the charge was local attorney (and former City Council member) Gene Ellison, who owns property in the area.

Even the fire and brimstone of Mt. Zion Pastor John Grant (a strong supporter of the plan) paled before Ellison’s antagonistic rhetoric. Ellison came armed with a handout of his own, which outlined his skepticism about the project: “The so-called ‘Block’ is prime for stealing. This is all in the name of preserving our heritage and providing affordable housing for a group of people who will never, ever, ever be able to afford to rent or own them!!”

Toward the end of the meeting, longtime Asheville resident (and Block alumnus) Bennie Lake tried to put the issue in perspective, emphasizing how long it had taken to clean up the area enough to make any new development feasible.

“Let’s be real. We need to move forward with the project, and I don’t care who builds it!”

Nonetheless, enough confusion and even derision still seemed to remain at the meeting’s end that Ray proposed holding a second public forum on the issue at the YMI Cultural Center (at the corner of Eagle and Market streets) in the near future. And judging by the tone of this gathering, such a meeting could well spawn another round of lively verbal pingpong.

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