Having worked on the 51 Biltmore hotel/parking garage project for four years, I was surprised by Cecil Bothwell’s recent commentary (see “Parking in a Money Pit,” Sept. 1 Xpress). I don’t believe Bothwell’s claims fairly represent it.
As president of Public Interest Projects, I went to bed on Aug. 31 worrying about money, our downtown merchants’ ability to compete with chains, paying staff and how we can continue creating affordable housing downtown. The next day, I read Bothwell’s piece and discovered we were rich. As you can imagine, it was quite a relief — or would have been, had it been true.
It’s good, however, to have a chance to clear the air and share more about 51 Biltmore. Twenty years ago, Julian Price charged us with making reasonable long-term investments that also served the community. We at PIP thought a vibrant, livable downtown could be the smartest, greenest alternative to sprawl.
Here are some facts about the proposed project:
2025 Plan: In 2000-01, a broad range of city residents participated in an extensive process to envision Asheville’s future. The resulting 2025 Plan targets the 51 Biltmore site for a mixed-use, public/private development featuring a parking structure; it would also be a key stop on a proposed downtown shuttle. A hotel group approached us about buying that property, but we knew that subsequent studies have only confirmed the lack of public parking along the corridor, so we went to the city. Four years of work produced a plan for a midpriced hotel, storefronts along Biltmore, a badly needed parking garage, and the potential for affordable live/work units on Lexington. Asheville would benefit from parking fees, room taxes and enhanced property- and sales-tax revenues, both on-site and in the surrounding area.
Parking study: A 2008 parking study found that the Biltmore/Broadway corridor (particularly Biltmore) has the most serious parking shortage downtown, with a deficit of more than 1,000 spaces. The city is constantly criticized for making plans and spending money on studies and then ignoring them. Now it’s being criticized for doing what the plans require and the studies advise. Bothwell advocates ignoring the public process behind the 2025 Plan, “guessing” that the parking study’s all wrong and that a shuttle, by itself, will make up for any lack of parking. On that basis, we throw out all the staff and citizen time that went into the plan, four years of work on the public/private partnership suggested by it, many recent staff recommendations, all the work by this and previous Councils reviewing and approving this project, and the thousands of taxpayer dollars already spent on it based on those approvals. Everyone has a right to disagree, but is there any point at which it becomes disrespectful and irresponsible? If a lengthy public process involving a broad cross section of our community, backed up by professional studies, can be disregarded based solely on one Council member’s guess, what’s the point of having a public process?
We should do a shuttle … and parking: We’ve heard repeatedly that lack of density poses the biggest challenge to improving Asheville’s transit system. A shuttle linked to added parking (which would encourage denser development nearby) is a great idea. A shuttle alone would make it even harder for downtown businesses (whose patrons have to find and then pay for parking) to compete with suburban chains’ vast expanses of dedicated asphalt. Asking people to drive to a remote site, park, wait for a shuttle in whatever weather, and then reverse the process after a one- or two-hour downtown visit is not a realistic recipe for helping businesses survive a tough economy.
Current spaces may be lost: Public Interest Projects’ parking lot on the Biltmore site currently provides more than 200 spaces. But we can’t afford to continue sacrificing that property to surface parking, and once those spaces are gone, things will only get worse. One online commenter on Bothwell’s article, a longtime downtown businessman, inadvertently proved the wisdom of adding parking garages when he said, “We have met our parking needs.” The truth is that with two city garages within two blocks of his store, taxpayers have apparently solved his parking problem. Are the small-business owners on Biltmore less deserving?
Decks add value: Building the deck will help downtown businesses survive while encouraging smart, mixed-use residential development on adjacent, underutilized parcels. Asheville’s last such investment, in the late ’80s, was the two decks north of Patton and west of Lexington. In 1991, properties there and around 51 Biltmore that lacked integral parking were typically valued at less than $2 million per acre. By 2007, the ones near those city decks had increased in value by more than $30 million per acre, while the 51 Biltmore properties, with no city deck, had increased by just over $6 million per acre. The areas within two blocks of those decks have experienced the highest tax-value increase per acre anywhere in our city.
Public Interest Projects won’t be rich: Rather than “walking away with $4.89 million,” we’d actually have about $300,000 less in cash than we did before we spent four years and hundreds of hours putting this deal together. So why would we do it? The same reason we’ve helped, invested in or created, among others, the Fine Arts Theatre, French Broad Co-op, Malaprop’s, Blue Moon Bakery, the Carolina Apartments, Mountain Xpress, the Asheville Hotel Apartments, The Orange Peel, the Laughing Seed, the Vanderbilt Apartments, Zambra, Salsa’s and Skyrunner: We thought they’d be great additions to downtown that made sense as long-term investments. And if Bothwell thinks the property we’d end up owning is worth $1 million, we’d be glad to sell him those out-parcels, two-thirds off and nothing down, if he’ll promise, as we have, to generate work-force housing there.
Where’s the money going? The net cash from this transaction (also not $4.89 million) would retire the debt incurred paying Julian Price’s estate taxes because all his assets were tied up in downtown-redevelopment efforts. Julian’s heirs won’t be getting any cash either.
Funny numbers? Bothwell’s article uses numbers in an odd way. For some reason, he cites 51 Biltmore’s 2005 tax value ($245,700). But the next year, it increased nearly 300 percent (to $931,900).
More importantly, tax valuations can be misleading. They don’t show what we paid for the property after many months spent rounding up the numerous owners, or what we’re paying for the Hot Dog King property to help cut the city’s construction costs. Bothwell also cites the estimated cost of spaces in decks as evidence of waste. But estimates don’t mean a whole lot; actual bids do, and they’re not in yet. We did think it was odd we were never called to verify any of the “facts” used in the piece. Property valuation is complicated, as is this project, and in some ways the article seems designed more to score points and stir controversy than to educate and foster discussion.
Is the city paying too much? It’s taken four years to get here, and the city is, indeed, expecting to pay the price it agreed to when we signed the contract. We had nothing to do with the delay in closing, and we’ve kept our end of the bargain. That’s how contracts work. The good news is that it’s turned into a great deal for Asheville taxpayers.
We’ve been constrained from doing anything else with the property. The city and the hotel developer have had additional time to structure their financing and construction plans. Between savings on construction (which we generated), on financing (due to our agreement to sell rather than lease) and those related to the current state of the economy, Asheville has saved much more than the entire cost of the land and, as planned, is now poised to make its first major contribution to downtown’s parking infrastructure in over 20 years.
— Pat Whalen is president of Public Interest Projects.