Developer Stewart Coleman apparently thinks to use a legal loophole to do an end run around public and City Council opposition to his proposed Parkside condos adjacent to City Hall.
Here’s what’s wrong with this picture: Aside from the litany of serious problems with his plans, citizen scrutiny of Parkside this past year has exposed questionable business dealings that smack of systemic corruption in county and city government.
The sale of public parkland was the poisoned fruit of chummy relationships between officials and developers. Ex-city Planning Director Scott Shuford and County Manager Wanda Greene helped Coleman “game” the system: Coleman paid a meager $322,000 for our priceless public parkland. (He’d previously paid $1.5 million for the adjacent Hayes & Hopson Building, according to Commissioner David Gantt.)
The property Coleman really wanted was the city-owned parking lots on Marjorie Street (currently under consideration as the site for a new performing-arts center). But when he spurned Asheville’s open-bidding process, Council members rightly denied his attempt to blackmail them into a land swap.
Undaunted, Coleman brazenly demanded $4.5 million to sell both his properties to Buncombe County—some $2.7 million above what he paid—to recoup the design costs and other “expenses.” State law prohibits counties from paying more than a property’s appraised value.
Yet bizarrely, on March 11, 2008, County Manager Wanda Greene granted Coleman “staging rights” for Parkside construction.
The Pack Square Conservancy objected that this violated their pre-existing contract to revamp City/County Plaza as part of the new Pack Square Park.
Scandalous internal e-mails ensued, revealing Greene and county staffers Keith Snyder and Michael Frue’s vindictive, retaliatory attack on the conservancy (read all at www.scrutinyhooligans.us).
Five descendants of George W. Pack (the philanthropist who deeded the property to Buncombe County in 1901) are suing Coleman; the deed specifies that the parkland be returned to them if the county should ever sell it.
Meanwhile, the Pack Square Conservancy has publicly warned that Asheville could be sued if a Coleman construction crane injured someone coming to or from the courthouse or City Hall.
Asheville’s Planning and Zoning Commission agreed that the 11-story building the developer originally planned violated three out of seven criteria needed to satisfy the Unified Development Ordinance—specifically, Nos. 2, 3 and 4 found in section 7-16-2(c).
The nine-story structure Coleman now proposes to build would still violate these criteria: incompatibility with significant natural features (it would destroy the historic magnolia tree), injury to the value of adjoining property (it would overshadow and dominate the park, the courthouse and City Hall), and lack of harmony with the surrounding area (no other nearby structure contains private residences).
Parkside’s 35 units would house only a few rich people. The rest of us would be forced to suffer a wealthy elite frowning down on us from above our stolen parkland.
Meanwhile, businesses hoping to benefit from the patronage of Parkside’s rich tenants would be disappointed, since many buy such condos not to occupy them but solely as speculative investments.
Nor will the absentee speculators win in the long run: Condos abound in Asheville, and in a difficult real-estate market, the initial buyers won’t be able to flip their units, leading to the property’s neglect and inevitable dilapidation.
In addition, Parkside would literally turn its back on the Eagle Street community (who’ll be greeted each morning by witnessing wealthy folks’ trash getting picked up).
Few support Coleman’s plan to eliminate even more of our park by cutting a new street through it to front his condos.
Lastly, many citizens (as well as the Asheville Tree Commission) want to save the magnolia tree in front of our iconic City Hall. Coleman plans to essentially torture this beautiful tree—taking 200 clippings from it before cutting it down. He wants to replace it and other trees on the land with cheap, sickly stick-trees that yield minimal shade and snap in the wind.
Coleman has dismissed the unprecedented opposition to Parkside, mounting a PR campaign that preys on people’s fears to divert them from the numerous problems with his plans.
Coleman has claimed that crime exists where it doesn’t, while denying that his plans could cause crime. Example one: He claims there’s a crying need to have eyes on the park to prevent crime (never mind that police headquarters is right next door), but denies that nearby jail inmates could pose any peril to his future wealthy tenants. Example two: Parkside would have a light-colored stone façade; how swank will the condos look if graffiti artists find this a nice blank space to paint on adjacent to City Hall?
After months of skeptical official review and devastating revelations by concerned citizens about a deal he apparently assumed was unassailable, Coleman has now revised his plan so that it just sneaks under the 100,000 square foot threshold requiring City Council approval—effectively eliminating all further citizen input.
The county commissioners should fire Wanda Greene for her consistent corrupt screwups (previous wrongs include her orchestrating a secretive sale of property on the French Broad River to Progress Energy for a coal-burning power plant).
Coleman’s Black Dog Realty should not be rewarded for its back-alley efforts to develop public parkland and finagle a lucrative land swap: Parkside was a speculative venture, so Coleman should not expect to reap profits on expenditures he chose to make. He should sell the parkland back to Buncombe County for the $322,000 that he paid for it, and even sell the H & H Building for its appraised value—thereby enabling citizens to preserve its historic façade.
If he refuses, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners has the ability and duty to invoke eminent domain and reincorporate the erstwhile public parkland into Pack Square Park.
To prevent such debacles in the future and encourage donations of land, the city and county should adopt a new zoning designation—PP for “Permanent Parkland”—never to be sold or developed.
[Lady Passion is high priestess of Coven Oldenwilde in Asheville and co-author of The Goodly Spellbook: Olde Spells For Modern Problems.]