Of the people, by the people and for the people

The proposed sale of public land adjacent to Pack Square and City/County Plaza to a private company that wants to build a multi-story commercial structure there would have a significant impact on the character, viewscape and future use of Asheville’s central public space. Six months ago, City Council signed an agreement with the Grove Park Inn that now obligates Council to vote on whether to grant the GPI a purchase option on the property. In the interim, there’s been plenty of time to get the facts straight and give citizens a clear explanation of the plans.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened.

Instead, there is considerable confusion about exactly what Council will be voting on at the Sept. 16 formal session. The design guidelines proposed by the Pack Square Conservancy and approved by Council on Aug. 19 have already been rewritten by staff — in consultation with Grove Park Inn representatives — prompting Council member Holly Jones to ask, “Who’s in charge here?” during the Sept. 2 Council meeting.

Jones’ question bears examining. How is it that the rules adopted to regulate development around our city’s central park are being rewritten to suit a developer — with no public input and no direct involvement by Council? And since the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners must also approve the guidelines before they can take effect, which set of rules will the Board be considering on Sept. 16 — the ones Council approved a few weeks ago, or the retooled version (which hasn’t been formally approved by anyone)?

Have we adopted rules, or haven’t we? One principle that seemed pretty firm a few weeks ago was that no new construction on Pack Square could be taller than the historic Jackson Building. Now, however, it appears that even the height of that 1920s-era structure (and, for that matter, the question of what part of it constitutes “the top”) is in dispute. Who’s on first here?

Furthermore, City Attorney Bob Oast told Xpress that a 10- to 15-foot strip along the south boundary of the property in question (bounded by College Street, Patton Avenue and Spruce Street) may actually belong to Buncombe County.

How can the city be preparing to sell land it isn’t even sure it owns?

Asheville acquired some of the property in question via condemnation in 1963 as part of a large-scale urban-renewal effort. At the time, voters authorized a bond issue to pay for those parcels — but only for use as parks and roads, according to attorney Patsy Brison Meldrum (who represents the Biltmore Company). Oast, however, maintains that those restrictions expired in 1987.

That may be technically true, but in the meantime, that property has become part of what Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford has called the city’s premier address. And now, the city is proposing to give a private corporation a chance to cash in on Asheville’s downtown renaissance, sparked in part by significant public investment over more than a decade.

Any sale of public property ought to be transparent. Citizens should be fully informed about the details of such transactions — including who will benefit, whether directly or indirectly. And even the appearance of insider dealing should be scrupulously avoided, regardless of whether it actually occurs.

Yet in the current situation, valuable property is being offered to only one potential buyer, with the price set by city staff (reportedly based on other property values around town). Why wasn’t the valuation process made public? Why has there been no request for proposals from other interested parties? And if the parcel is to be sold, why not use a sealed-bid auction?

Aesthetic concerns also loom large in the present debate: Where public land use will significantly alter the appearance of our city center, the people of Asheville deserve to have input at every step. The Pack Square Conservancy did solicit some public input on its design guidelines. But the endorsement of a small group of individuals (many of them self-appointed) does not necessarily indicate broad popular support.

Furthermore, what is the statutory basis for ceding the power to grant minor design variances to the conservancy — a nonappointed, advisory committee — as the city has apparently done? And how minor might those variances turn out to be?

This complex proposal involves multiple factors that demand public discussion and approval. Yet four Xpress reporters who have been following this story for weeks continue to unearth new contradictions, unsupported assertions and admissions that even city officials don’t have the answers. If a newspaper can’t get the straight facts, how are city residents supposed to evaluate the matter?

A petition drive calling for a referendum on the sale is already under way. And given the failure of both Council and city staff to adequately document and explain the proposed sale, Council should not vote next week to grant the Grove Park Inn a purchase option. But if City Council decides to go ahead and grant the option, Xpress sees no alternative at this juncture but to support a referendum to ensure that the people’s interests are served.

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