After years of planning and months of heated public debate, the future of a prime piece of city-owned property finally came before Asheville City Council Sept. 11. By that time, a prominent activist group, a local religious institution and an expanding hotel company had all joined the fray.
Totaling just under an acre, the several parcels at the end of Haywood Street contain surface parking, a vacant parking garage and commercial space. Adjacent to the Grove Arcade, the site sits directly across from the landmark Basilica of St. Lawrence. In 2006, the city sent out a request for proposals to develop the property. The McKibbon Hotel Group’s proposal came out on top.
But the subsequent economic downturn slowed progress, and late last year, the Diocese of Charlotte, which owns the Basilica, offered $2 million for the property, proposing to create a plaza with condos and commercial space instead. City staff said they had to continue the existing process with McKibbon, noting that the property’s estimated fair market value was $2.5 million.
In August, McKibbon unveiled a more detailed plan for a 140-room hotel in classic brick style, to be set back 170 feet from the Basilica. McKibbon said the project would generate 50 permanent jobs averaging $10 an hour and six salaried positions averaging $50,000, while stimulating economic activity in the area. The proposal also tried to address community fears that construction might damage the Basilica.
Many residents have said they either preferred the Basilica's plan or simply wanted something other than a hotel (such as a park). People Advocating Real Conservancy, an activist group that often opposes development it considers inappropriate, threw major resources into blocking the proposal. Outside City Hall, PARC demonstrators shouted “No hotel!” throughout the meeting; in a phone poll the group conducted, a majority of participants opposed a hotel.
A longtime player in city politics, PARC has also campaigned for Council candidates. Council members Cecil Bothwell, Chris Pelly and Marc Hunt all won with PARC's support. On Sept. 11, group members and other McKibbon opponents, many displaying red stickers, packed the Council chamber and two overflow rooms more than a half-hour before the meeting began.
“The imposition of a hotel across the street from a such a treasure as the Basilica is tantamount, in my mind, to hanging a Rembrandt in McDonald’s,” Alice Cilia declared.
PARC activist (and former City Council candidate) Elaine Lite wanted either a community green space or a much smaller project.
“Based on more than 500 petition responses and a valid phone survey, I'm not alone,” she told Council. “Is a massive hotel that creates more crowding, cars and downtown pollution the right choice?”
Other speakers supported the plan.
“We need to keep a vibrant downtown,” noted longtime downtown resident Kim MacQueen. “The McKibbon project is a bird in hand. Is it perfect? Maybe not. But … it's the best, most concrete project we'll see for years.”
Emotions ran high, with project opponents sometimes hissing at supporters’ remarks.
Pulling the trigger
"This process has been going on for nearly a decade," noted Council member Gordon Smith. "It's time to pull the trigger."
And both Smith and Council member Jan Davis emphasized the importance of being able to use all or part of the $2.5 million for affordable housing elsewhere in Asheville.
But Bothwell, who's been active in PARC, felt the city should wait.
“There's no urgency whatsoever to selling this,” he said. “I think we should … dump this RFP and think through what we really want to see there.”
“Public trust has eroded,” asserted Mayor Terry Bellamy, saying popular opinion should have been considered sooner. The mayor said she didn't particularly like PARC's attacks but didn't support the project either.
The proposal was approved 4-2, with Bellamy and Bothwell opposed. Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer was recused because her employer, The Van Winkle Law Firm, represents McKibbon.
Council added several contract requirements: a second appraisal, mitigating shadows falling on the Basilica, seismic monitoring to protect historic structures, a traffic-management study and adherence to Downtown Master Plan design guidelines.
McKibbon still needs approval from the Planning and Zoning Commission and city staff, which could take about a year.
David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.