Lost horizons

Asheville City Council members passed up a once-in-a-century chance to create a wonderful downtown green space when they gave the nod to McKibbon Corp.’s proposed hotel on a 4-2 vote. Strategically situated across from the U.S. Cellular Center, it’s the rare spot frequented by those attending gun shows, rock and country concerts, high-school graduations and New Age events — in other words, the perfect place for community picnics, political organizing and assorted performances. And with the Civic Center's red-bright-and-blue sign over Interstate 240 perhaps leading strangers to believe Asheville's new name is U.S. Cellularville, we clearly need more community gathering spaces as bastions of resistance to further corporatization.

Apparently, Council chose to overlook the fact that McKibbon is also responsible for the architectural mediocrity of the just-completed Aloft Hotel, whose backside is as starkly blank as a supermax, high-security prison. The vote also undermined the nearby Hotel Indigo, completed just a few short years ago.

In August, the conservation group PARC polled the 8,713 people who cast votes in at least two of the last three city elections. Forty percent of respondents said they wanted a park, 38 percent wanted the city to sell the property to the Catholic Church, and only 13 percent wanted a hotel. And that 40 percent figure for the park is probably low, because a lot of people mistakenly thought the only choice was between McKibbon and the church option.

Mayor Terry Bellamy and Council member Cecil Bothwell both opposed the deal, contending, among other things, that McKibbon’s bid was no longer binding, that it had been accepted during the first terrifying months of the Great Recession — and what's the hurry, anyway?

It’s understandable that Council member Jan Davis, who rarely sees a development he doesn't love, would choose the hotel. Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer recused herself from the vote, as she frequently does, due to conflict of interest: Her employer, The Van Winkle Law Firm, represents McKibbon. Nonetheless, she’ll profit from the project, directly or indirectly.

But why did Marc Hunt, Chris Pelly and Gordon Smith, all of whom boast impressive environmental credentials, vote for the hotel instead of a park?

Replying to my query via email, Pelly said, "Competing demands include balancing our budget at a time when demand for services is continually climbing but options for new revenue are constricted. … The McKibbon plan will generate not only about $2.3 million at closing but also $800,000 a year, every year, in taxes — as well as employ 50 hourly and six salaried workers."

Smith, meanwhile, said, "Leaving the area as surface parking would continue the current dead-space problem without helping with affordable-housing needs or pushing toward creation of a plaza."

Brutal facts vs. glorious visions

If anyone should favor a park, you'd think it’d be Hunt, a former chair of the Asheville Greenway Commission. In a phone interview, he noted that with cooperation from the Diocese of Charlotte, which owns the Basilica of St. Lawrence, we could still end up with an 18,000-square-foot plaza (about half the size of a football field). McKibbon’s immediate plan, however, calls for only a 5,000-square-foot public space.

Hunt also said the city has "a $2.5 million park budget over five years. This is money that many want spent on the Greenways Master Plan or other neighborhood parks. … Nor were there any groups volunteering to mobilize private donors to help pay for a park, unlike the Pack Square revitalization." Asked why City Council couldn't lead the fundraising effort, Hunt replied, "My experience tells me that the greater the visionary and fundraising leadership from community advocates vs. political leaders, the better the effort’s chances of success."

After contemplating these views, I climbed partway down from my high horse. Although I find most of the hotel supporters’ arguments highly ambiguous if not downright dubious, I do think progressives can reasonably differ over the McKibbon decision, and in this Great Recession, the hard truth of the need for money and jobs is undeniable.

So I'm not sure we should throw Hunt, Pelly and Smith under the bus. Unlike the mainly lockstep Republicans, Democrats and progressives are America’s freethinkers, who must tolerate wildly differing viewpoints or risk fracturing into powerless feuding factions.

Still, maybe outraged citizens can help Council find a way to change its decision. Letters, emails, phone calls, petitions? Or perhaps Council could cajole the diocese into agreeing to the 18,000-square-foot plaza? That way, church and state could mate, not separate.

— Asheville resident Bill Branyon is a freelance historian. His most recent book is Liberating Liberals.

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