If you offer it, they will come

“Sometimes it’s kind of organic.”

The statement may sound like quintessential Asheville, but the speaker isn’t referring to a new tofu dish or the latest additions to the produce section. Instead, Economic Development Director Sam Powers is talking about Asheville’s efforts to stir developers’ interest in city-owned properties while advancing some of City Council’s stated goals.

The idea, says Powers, grew out of discussions on how to encourage developers to build work-force housing in Asheville. A key sticking point in achieving things on City Council’s wish list, such as affordable housing, has often been the availability and rising cost of suitable land. So at Council’s request, city staff produced a list of city-owned parcels around town, ranging from vacant lots to such highly developed properties as the Public Works Building on South Charlotte Street — the site of many public meetings concerning, among other things, development.

“Developers all the time talk about how the biggest problem they have building affordable housing is the availability of land — especially land that is affordable,” notes Council member Brownie Newman, an early supporter of this approach. “Maybe one of the best things to do is look at the land we own.”

Accordingly, staff was instructed to look for “low-hanging fruit”: property the city could make available for development if it chose to. The Housing Trust Fund already provides money for affordable-housing projects, but this initiative offers another option.

The city was already negotiating with the nonprofit Mountain Housing Opportunities, Mayor Terry Bellamy‘s employer, concerning parcels on Ralph and Choctaw streets in the East Riverside neighborhood.

But the list’s kitchen-sink-and-all nature sparked alarm in some quarters, and during the Nov. 21 work session, Council pared it down, removing the Civic Center, the Asheville Transit Center on Coxe Avenue, and several downtown parking decks from consideration.

The presence of such high-profile properties on the list produced rumors that the Civic Center was up for grabs. A Nov. 26 Asheville Citizen-Times article raised the possibility that the much-discussed facility might be sold, provoking an avalanche of e-mails that ranged from the curious to the irate, reports Council member Jan Davis, who chaired the now-dormant Civic Center Task Force.

“We’re not selling land,” Davis proclaims. “We are looking for an idea.”

The next step is inviting developers to suggest potential uses for specific parcels, which Powers says could happen as soon as mid-January; responses would be due by sometime in March. And by asking developers to come up with ideas, staff “opens up the possibility of creative responses that maybe we haven’t thought about,” he explains. “Let’s see what’s out there, and see if someone can find a way to leverage that.”

Once the city hears from a developer, it can consider whether it wants to give up the property in question and look at the various options — such as selling or leasing — for doing so.

Another key area of interest (for the city, anyway) is The Block, the historic African-American neighborhood on the edge of downtown that’s been awaiting redevelopment for decades. City-owned parking lots on Marjorie Street, for instance, could help realize that goal, long desired by both the city and private-property owners there. Council recently held off on a more modest development plan for The Block in hopes that a larger-scale proposal might emerge that could bring the district back to life.

“It is our best chance of success down there,” maintains former Council member Eugene Ellison. “For the first time, we are on the same page with a common goal.” Ellison, who owns property in the neighborhood, played a key role in derailing a major redevelopment plan for The Block several years ago (see “Nightmare on Eagle Street,” March 24, 2004 Xpress).

Some Council members also hope the city’s fishing expedition might open the door to another long-sought goal: a new-performing arts center. Davis, for one, is enthusiastic about that prospect.

“That’s the jewel in the crown,” he says.

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