Do you believe Asheville needs more downtown parking?
Chances are, you answered "Yes." That’s the widespread perception.
But suppose we asked why you believe Asheville needs more downtown parking?
You probably want more parking near some place you want to visit: a favorite store, restaurant or theater; a downtown bank or government office. Maybe you want greater convenience when attending a big event at Roger McGuire Green, The Orange Peel or the Pritchard Park drum circle. Or perhaps you work downtown and need a regular parking space.
Viewed that way, what most of us actually want is accessibility. The real goal isn’t parking cars but getting where we want to go.
Unfortunately, the city has hired experts to conduct "parking studies" rather than "accessibility studies" and, predictably, we learned that we need more parking. Ask a hammer, you discover you need a nail.
A 1998 study, for example, said we needed 542 new parking spaces around the Grove Arcade; 225 for an expanded Civic Center with a hotel and an 18,000-square-foot ballroom; 50 for BellSouth employees; 49 due to the renovation of the J.C. Penney building on Battery Park; 26 to replace those lost when the Basilica of St. Lawrence expanded its classroom building on Haywood Street; and the rest to support assorted other commercial development. The study also assumed a 92 percent occupancy rate for the Grove Arcade.
In fact, however, the Civic Center expansion never happened and won’t anytime soon; BellSouth not only doesn't need more spaces, it’s considering offering its current lot to the city; the J.C. Penney building was razed and became the 21 Battery Park high-rise, which has its own subterranean parking deck; the Basilica tore down its classrooms instead of adding on; and the Grove Arcade has yet to achieve 92 percent occupancy.
After the city spent well over $1.2 million on planning and $2.7 million on property, plans for a Battery Park deck collapsed beneath the weight of public opinion after community activists pointed out that almost half the new spaces were intended to benefit private developers and that the proposed building would block views of the Basilica, one of Asheville's architectural treasures.
A more recent projection found insufficient parking in the Lexington/Broadway/College/Patton/Biltmore Avenue area, adding that parkers typically don’t want to walk more than half a block to their destination.
Based on that study, Asheville City Council cut a 2008 deal with the McKibbon Hotel Group that would require the city to buy the "pit parking lot" across from the Double Decker Coffee bus and the adjacent Hot Dog King property. The city would build a 500-slot parking deck, and the hotel would front on Biltmore Avenue and Aston Street with street-level retail spaces.
This would cost the city about $14 million and would require diverting all revenues from our other parking decks, all our parking meters and all our parking fines for the first 10 years, and at a declining percentage for 15 years thereafter.
In 2005, Buncombe County appraised the "pit parking lot" at $246,000, yet the city has agreed to pay Public Interest Projects $3.11 million for part of it. The Hot Dog King property was appraised at $284,000; the city has agreed to pay $1.45 million. In addition, McKibbon would pay PIP $1.78 million for "air rights" to build a hotel atop a property the nonprofit no longer owned.
To preserve these sterling deals, Asheville has been paying PIP $10,000 per year and Cascade Mountain Properties $10,000 per month to extend the purchase options. To date, this has cost us $180,000, and because they were secured at the peak of the real estate boom, we’re locked into buying these properties at far higher prices than current conditions warrant.
Note that Public Interest Projects would walk away with $4.89 million, plus the entire Lexington Avenue frontage of both parcels and the Hot Dog King frontage on Biltmore. At the prices we’re paying, those lots are worth another cool million. Is your home worth 24 times its 2005 valuation? Neither is mine.
For good measure, the city has spent $472,000 on appraisals, project management and a design for a proposed deck that’s useless unless McKibbon can secure funding, which hasn’t happened yet. Meanwhile, we’ve paid dearly for speculation on an imaginary project.
According to staff estimates, parking slots in the new deck would cost the city about $22,000 apiece ($28,000 if you factor in the property purchase). Compare this to the $17,000 slots in the recently completed county parking deck on College Street, or the $8,000 slots in the proposed Montford Commons deck on Hill Street. And since the McKibbon hotel would use 50 to 100 of the new deck’s spaces, the actual cost per new public space would be considerably higher. McKibbon would lease the spots it required at a discounted rate.
This brings us back to the initial question: Do we want more cars parked downtown or enhanced accessibility to downtown venues?
For the same cost as the proposed 51 Biltmore parking deck, we could create and maintain a free electric shuttle that would conveniently serve all downtown venues plus the increasingly popular River Arts District — not just those within a half block of the proposed money pit. Other tourist cities have done just that.
Or we could use some of the money to build more sidewalks in neighborhoods. (We currently build about 1.2 miles of sidewalk each year and need, conservatively, 200 miles to make our city safely "walkable.")
We could even choose to keep ourselves open to innovative ideas emerging in cities around the globe instead of chaining ourselves to an overpriced parking facility rooted in 20th-century auto eroticism.
So do you want more downtown parking, or do you want easy access to the places you want to go?
The cards are on the table: It's your deal.
— Cecil Bothwell serves on the Asheville City Council.