Contentious piece of downtown Asheville real estate headed back up for sale

Jason Sandford

Jason Sandford is a reporter, writer, blogger and photographer interested in all things Asheville.

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A piece of city-owned property on Haywood Street in downtown Asheville will soon be back up for sale. The property is roughly shaped like a triangle, with its top point aimed at teal circle in the center/left of this photo. The big white square at center/right is the U.S. Cellular Center.

A piece of city-owned property on Haywood Street in downtown Asheville will soon be back up for sale. The property is roughly shaped like a triangle, with its top point aimed at teal circle in the center/left of this photo. The big white square at center/right is the U.S. Cellular Center.

The city-of-Asheville-owned parcel of property measures just shy of 1 acre. It’s prime real estate along Haywood Street in downtown Asheville across from the U.S. Cellular Center and the Basilica of St. Lawrence. The property is roughly the shape of a triangle, with its top pointing at the historic basilica.

Since 2001, plans to develop the property have been debated, argued, fussed over, voted on and tossed out. Everyone from Asheville city officials (parking deck) to church officials (apartments and green space) to outside developers (boutique hotel) to preservationists (city park) have made a pitch. Nothing has stuck.

Soon, the property will be up for sale. Again.

Sam Powers, economic developer for the city of Asheville, said Friday that the city plans to hire a consultant to firm up a plan for how to proceed. There are previous documents to pore over, there are “stakeholder engagements” to commence and there is an official request for proposals to send out. Asheville City Council could vote to move ahead with the consultant as early as at its Feb. 24 meeting.

Interest in the parcel from developers has remained relatively high since a 2012 deal to sell the property to hotelier John McKibbon of McKibbon Group fell apart the following year (Asheville City Council actually voted to sell the parcel for $2.526 million), Powers said. Powers said his office gets about one call every couple of weeks from a developer who has heard about the property, he said. Most of the calls come from the developers in the hospitality industry, he said.

Once everything gets rolling, it could take 18 months before an dirt is turned on a new development project, Powers said. It’s unclear what, if anything, city officials plan to do with the property in the meantime. A dilapidated building and parking deck on the site has been demolished. The site is now a fenced surface parking lot.

Here’s a quick look at some of the highlights in the wrangling over the years

-2001: City of Asheville acquires parcels and announces plan to build a parking deck. Some residents, noting the presence of the large civic center deck nearby, object, citing traffic concerns. The basilica community objects, noting that ground-shaking construction work and added traffic could damage its treasured dome, which is already in need to structural reinforcement work. Preservationists, meantime, began a grassroots effort to build support for turning the area into a park and pedestrian-friendly zone.

-2007: The city sends out requests for proposals to develop the site. McKibbon responds with a plan to build a 140-room hotel. McKibbon offers $1.7 million. The Basilica offers its plan for apartments/green space and $1 million. In the meantime, the economy tanks.

-2012: Asheville City Council votes 4-2 to sell the property to McKibbon, who plans to develop a hotel and promises to include an ample plaza to space the hotel from the Basilica. Council takes its action despite a forceful plea from the local activist group People Advocating Real Conservancy, which provides a petition as evidence that the public wants a park on the land.

-2013: After years of expressing interest and investing tens of thousands of dollars in proposals, McKibbon walks away. His stated reason is a lawsuit filed by three neighboring hotels seeking to block the deal. In their lawsuit, Renaissance Asheville, Four Points Sheraton and Hotel Indigo contend city officials did not follow state law governing private sales and sold the Haywood Street lot for less than fair market value.

Jason Sandford

Jason Sandford is a reporter, writer, blogger and photographer interested in all things Asheville.

  • 1

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  1. Shannon February 19, 2015

    Something like the Plaza Mayor in Spain would be amazing. If would have to be a smaller scale.

  2. Sarah February 17, 2015

    A beautiful hotel that complements the Basilica built by John McKibbon!!!

  3. Former Reporter at WYPN February 17, 2015

    Far too many people in this city would love to turn every vacant space (and some non-vacant spaces) into a park…then wonder why the city government doesn’t have enough money to maintain the space or fund everything else on their wish list.

    It’s entirely possible to put a private development and a landscaped plaza on this parcel without having to turn it entirely into green space. I love green space as much as anyone else, but this parcel has sat vacant for years while the rest of downtown grows. It’s time to get on with turning it back into productive, tax-producing property.

    1. hauntedheadnc February 17, 2015

      Part of the problem is that since the end of World War II, there has been very little of quality built in the U.S. Before that point, people tended to love and look forward to growth because there was a reasonable assurance that what was getting built would be the equal of or better than what was there before. Since the suburban revolution, however, the exact opposite is true, and it’s been true for so long that people really just can’t conceive of something nice getting built anymore.

      I guarantee you that if for whatever reason, the Renaissance Hotel parking lot were to go up for sale, there would be people in Asheville clamoring for it to be turned into a park… directly across the street from Pack Square Park. If developers would stop inflicting garbage on us, I think they’d find a lot less resistance to new buildings. Personally, I’m in total agreement that Asheville needs more tax-generating ventures, particularly since it is now illegal for the city to expand its borders. If the city is going to pay for what it already does and for anything it wants to do, it needs more taxpayers inside the city limits. I rather hope this parcel is turned into highrise housing.

      1. North Asheville February 18, 2015

        A thoughtful analysis with many good points. If some of the new hotels (or other developments) proposed were architectural gems, equal to the distinctive work of Douglas Ellington or Richard Sharpe Smith, the city might not only embrace them but become excited and proud to have them.

  4. Downtown Worker February 17, 2015

    Transient campground/bathroom/open trash pit. Sorry, “park”.

    1. Foothills Dweller February 17, 2015

      Pritchard Park Phase II.

    2. Sean February 18, 2015

      You win the “Best Comment” award for this thread.

  5. Barry Summers February 17, 2015


    1. Sean February 18, 2015


      1. Barry Summers February 18, 2015


        1. NFB February 19, 2015

          Affordable housing.

          1. Barry Summers February 19, 2015

            I agree in principle, but if it’s kept open for any sort of development, somebody will make sure it’s never going to be for genuinely affordable housing.


  6. Bob February 16, 2015

    I would love to see this as a tranquil park with a water fountain.

    1. orulz February 17, 2015

      I think there is probably some opportunity to incorporate both a park or plaza, and some amount of development.

      1. hauntedheadnc February 17, 2015

        That would be the best compromise. Something to generate some money for the city and provide some living or commercial space (preferably both), plus something to soften and offset the new building. A residential highrise and a fountain plaza would be my ideal vision for this chunk of space.

    2. Harry February 17, 2015

      Oh yeah. Complete with a meditation garden and a statue of Buddha pissing into a Koi pond! Soooo lovely and peaceful.

    3. Vin February 18, 2015

      like Pritchard Park, just down the street?

  7. ashevillain February 16, 2015

    This is a serious question and not a dig at any particular person or party…

    Can the City of Asheville do anything at all without hiring a consultant? Can they make a decision on their own?

    1. Barry Summers February 17, 2015

      My experience is that at least one motivation is to have some sort of cover for an unpopular decision.

    2. Matt February 17, 2015

      Do you mean are they allowed to? Like are they required to have a consultant before making a decision?

      I asked a similar question on the thread regarding the recent ban of exotic animal shows at the civic center. Someone pointed out that there is an open meeting law in NC, and so I googled it and found this link:

      It helps. But it doesn’t totally answer the question.

  8. Gordon February 16, 2015

    Related –

    Feb. 7, 2012: “Many citizens have written me recently regarding the future of the City-owned area across from the Basilica of Saint Lawrence. I appreciate and share the concerns being expressed. The Basilica is a historical and architectural treasure we must protect, and the Catholic Church has always been a strong contributor to our community. I want to assure citizens that as a member of City Council, I will be insistent on very high standards for any development that might occur. I have worked very hard to understand the complex situation and come to a stance that I believe represents the best interests of our citizens. I’m also concerned about significant misunderstanding in the community of the City’s path and its options. Let me explain:

    · The property has in recent years been made up of substandard surface parking and dilapidated unoccupied structures. In 2007, the City set out to see the property returned to the tax rolls and converted to a much better use – one that would complement surrounding buildings and become a strong positive element for the vitality of downtown. In order to assure the best possible outcome, the City began an open and fair process of soliciting preliminary proposals from qualified potential partners. This carefully-designed RFP process gives the City final approval authority of uses, design, and timeline for development.

    · After very active encouragement by the City of a broad range of possible partners (including the Basilica and the Diocese of Charlotte, who chose not to make a proposal then), McKibbon Hotel Group came out in 2008 as being the best-qualified with a design judged to be a reasonable starting point for negotiation. Let me emphasize here that McKibbon’s preliminary suggested design, including its seven-story height (two stories shorter than the Vanderbilt Apts. directly across the street), was to be only a starting point.

    · Next steps under the process with McKibbon would be negotiation of a development agreement and final design. The City, at its own choosing, could reject any proposals made by the developer and abandon the negotiation if an acceptable arrangement were not to materialize. Negotiation with McKibbon did not proceed in 2008 due in-part to the disruption of the economic crash that year and the pending adoption of the Downtown Master Plan which would provide further guidance/regulation for development of the site. The process has been slower than hoped-for, but it has not been terminated.

    · A few weeks ago, the Diocese of Charlotte transmitted a Letter of intent to the City, a copy of which is attached. Note that this letter is the entirety of the proposal the City has received from the Diocese. Key elements of the proposal include:

    o The Diocese would advance $1.0 million to the City for the property upon completion by the City of demolition of the dilapidated buildings and conversion of the property to surface parking, a requirement the City estimates would cost it greater than $500,000. At that stage, the City would have netted less than $500,000 for the sale, and I would assume the Diocese would begin operating the site as surface parking. Because the parking operation on the property might prove financially lucrative for the Diocese, there could be incentive for the Diocese to maintain the site as surface parking for many years to come. I feel very strongly that surface parking is a poor long-term use of the site, and I am not willing to expose the City and downtown to that outcome.

    o The Diocese would only advance an additional $1 million if and when development of buildings on the property would occur. It could be many years before the City would realize that final installment of the purchase price. There are some parishioners of the Basilica advocating for near-term sale and development of the property, but again, timing would be uncertain.

    o Fiscal outcome in the interest of our citizens is only part of the picture here, but note that under a successful McKibbon proposal, the City would receive well over $2 million at the time of purchase and a steady flow of tens of thousands of dollars in property and sales tax revenue annually for years to come. Under the Diocese proposal, the City would net less than $500,000 at purchase, uncertainty as to if/when additional purchase money might arrive, and little or no tax revenues going forward. Again, this is not about just money for me, but I do have a fiduciary responsibility to our citizens and am troubled by such a possible trade-off. The Diocese would completely control the shape and character of any development, subject only to the City’s zoning regulations. While I believe that the Diocese would only allow a use and design that would not harm the Basilica, I prefer an approach where the City can assure its citizens that the use and design serves the interest of the entire community (including the Basilica).

    o The Diocese has not directly proposed that a park, piazza, fountain, or any certain design of development be installed on the property. A parishioner of the Basilica has suggested that the Diocese might consider such things, but the City has not heard that from the Diocese or its designated representative.

    · Importantly, the City does not have the flexibility to abandon the RFP process and negotiate directly with the Diocese. If the City wants to fairly entertain the offer from the Diocese, it would first have to open the process to competitive offers from any and all comers, and it would then have to consider the highest bid regardless of the buyer or the plans for the site. The City could easily lose control of the property’s future in this scenario. Heading down this path of very uncertain outcomes is not one I am willing to support.

    · Another suggestion that I have heard much about since yesterday is that the site be retained by the city and converted to a city park. As former chairman of the City’s Greenway Commission, I am a strong advocate for parks and open space. I do not support this site as a park because our planning indicates many other sites around town as much higher priorities for parks and open space and because conversion of this site to an urban park would require millions.

    If the City wished to negotiate directly with the Diocese, it would declare the existing RFP process dead and start all over with a fairly-administered competitive process to identify a qualified partner. The Diocese would have to participate and prevail in that process in order for the City to negotiate directly.

    As I hope you can see, there is no reasonable scenario where the City could simply abandon the RFP process and either accept the Diocese proposal or begin a direct negotiation with the Diocese. It is also not true that McKibbon would unilaterally control the final design/implementation on the site. There is misinformation about all this in the community, and I hope you will help clear that up by sharing this with others.

    Given the situation as it stands today, I believe the prudent course is for the City to fairly continue the process that we began in 2007 and carefully consider whether we can arrive at an acceptable arrangement for development with McKibbon. I want you to know that I will be insistent on assuring that McKibbon is at least as qualified to perform as they were earlier, that a final design meets the needs of the entire community including the Basilica, and that if the City does move forward with McKibbon, the development would be a very positive outcome for the City and the neighborhood. I would be insistent that any demolition/construction activity not threaten the structural integrity of the Basilica. I would also avidly promote that the design incorporate open park-like space on the north side near the Basilica, and that the architectural design of the entire project complement the Basilica and support the historic character of the Basilica. Some have suggested the Diocese consider negotiating/partnering with McKibbon in the development to assure that such things occur, and I would hope the two parties will meet soon to consider that. Nothing I have heard causes me to think any of this is out of reach and that we cannot end up with a spectacular outcome for all concerned.

    Again, thank you for your interest and concern about the future of this project and our community.

    Truly yours,

    Marc Hunt
    Member, Asheville City Council”


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